For the better part of five years, local journalist Briana A. Thomas spent her days and weekends interviewing and transcribing the words of historians and African Americans who’ve lived, owned businesses and shaped the politics of U Street.
Her research, originally part of a journalism fellowship program, recently culminated in the completion of a book that not only chronicles the corridor’s rich history, but issues a special call to action to D.C. residents of various races and ethnicities.
“In D.C., we really do push for a lot of national issues, and things that are local can get overlooked. In our backyard, people [who once lived in D.C.] have to travel from Maryland and Virginia to protest in the city,” said Thomas, the author of “Black Broadway in Washington, DC” as she reflected on the displacement of District residents to the suburbs.
Thomas’ nearly 200-page book, which made its way to bookshelves at the beginning of the year, provides an in-depth look into the people, institutions, events, and policy that shaped the economics and culture of the U Street corridor. Her research starts during the period of enslavement and takes readers through the Reconstruction Era, much of the 20th century, and in the 2000s all the way up to the start of the “Don’t Mute DC” movement.
Throughout “Black Broadway in Washington, DC,” Thomas showcases her journalistic flair by balancing her research about significant historical and contemporary figures with the voices of prominent, and not so prominent, Washingtonians who experienced life along U Street during Home Rule, the crack epidemic, periods of revitalization during the Marion Barry and Anthony Williams mayoral administrations and the conspicuous demographic shift that has taken place over the past 20 years.
Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) wrote the foreword and Ben’s Chili Bowl historian Dr. Bernard Demczuk, the epilogue.
Since the book’s debut, Thomas has spoken in front of masked and socially distanced audiences about her intimate journey with the U Street corridor. At a time when the District attempts to recover from the pandemic, she continues to stress the need to protect legacy Black-owned businesses and reverse the gentrification that has pushed out legions of Black people.
“U Street was still booming [but] COVID was the final wave,” Thomas told The Informer. “It’s going to be interesting to see what U Street will look like. I’m hoping for more positivity, more resources so we’re not replacing the places that provide food with coffee shops.”
U Street, Past and Present
Throughout the decades of U Street’s transformation, legacy Black-owned businesses, including Lee’s Flowers and Card Shop and Ben’s Chili Bowl have continued to maintain a presence. Since before the turn of the century, the corridor has even boasted a significant Ethiopian population, a situation celebrated in the designation of 9th and U Street as “Little Ethiopia” last year.
Other Black businesses, however, have struggled. During the pandemic, at least seven popular nightlife spots shuttered. In the months and years before COVID’s ascent, Black-owned venues along the U Street corridor suffered a similar fate, due mostly to increasing property values.
In response to legacy businesses’ increasing financial burdens, the D.C. Council, at the urging of community members has attempted to provide assistance. For instance, D.C. Council member Kenyan McDuffie (D-Ward 5), after Sankofa Video Books & Cafe received decades’ worth of tax relief, introduced legislation in 2019 that would offer grants to small businesses that have culturally affected the District for at least a decade. Bills introduced by Council member Charles Allen (D-Ward 6) around the same time would have created tax credits for local small businesses.
During the pandemic, the District has provided financial assistance to small businesses, many of which have multi-ethnic patronage. Despite the shifting demographics of U Street, and the District at large, this corridor in Northwest still serves as an epicenter of African-American history.
As Demczuk told The Informer, that’s not a coincidence.
“Most people are aware [of U Street’s history] because today you have murals everywhere showing people their history. You have parades and events all up and down U Street,” said Demczuk.
“You have memorials like the African-American Civil War Memorial and Museum, historical plaques and big edifices,” he added. “All of that shows that U Street is an important space. Briana Thomas’ book adds to that.”
Shedding Light on Those Overlooked
Thomas, 27, first received an offer from Arcadia Publishing in the aftermath “The Forgotten History of U Street,” a collection of photos related to U Street that The Washingtonian Magazine published in 2017 while she served as an editorial fellow.
At the time she solidified the deal, Thomas, a former WI Bridge columnist, was a crime reporter for The AFRO Newspapers.
Years later, as she continues to grow in her craft, Thomas said she wants to increase the public’s focus on those who are being pushed on the margins — including those struggling to maintain a presence on U Street.
“The main thing to take away in terms of what we can do is to make sure that the people who built U Street have a voice,” Thomas told The Informer. “We protect it and make sure that people don’t forget what made U Street what it is today. If U Street could talk, it would tell us to tell its full story.”