Hamil R. Harris

Reeves Center Reimaging Elicits Strong Reaction

Community Activists Want Marion Barry's Name Linked to New Building

The NAACP’s strong interest in moving from Baltimore to the District and setting up shop at the Frank D. Reeves Center for Municipal Affairs in Northwest has generated strong reactions from residents because of plans to revamp or tear down and rebuild the facility and possibly omit former D.C. Mayor Marion Barry’s name from the facility.

In 1986, then-Mayor Marion Barry opened the Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets in Northwest, one of the sites of devastation during the 1968 uprising after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Since then, the building has acted as a home for various District government agencies but in recent years Bowser administration officials have been contemplating what to do with the aging building.

With the formal interest of the NAACP in relocating to the building, announced by organization President and CEO Derrick Johnson in concert with D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on June 29, John Falcicchio, the acting deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said on July 1 the present structure will be razed and a new facility will take its place with spaces for retail shops and residential units.

Former D.C. Council member Frank Smith, who served on the District’s legislative body from 1983-1999 representing Ward 1 where the Reeves Center sits, told the Informer “when the Reeves Center was built it was a big deal because it was the first major decision by the city government … to revitalize the neighborhood.”

“The businesses along the … corridor really suffered after the riots and the government building offered many small businesses a home after the riots,” said Smith, founder and executive director of the African American Civil War Museum, which is located on U Street. “The building stands on what used to be a drug store and the offices of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee were located on the second floor.”

Smith said he supports the NAACP moving to the Reeves Center.

“It would be nice to have the NAACP as a bright light in that community but I don’t know why they need to tear the building down,” he said. “The building has been symbolically an inspiration in the neighborhood.”

Smith also expressed another reason he would like to see the present structure remain.

“My name is on a plaque on that building,” he said.

The building’s namesake, Frank D. Reeves, served as an assistant general counsel for the NAACP working with then-general counsel Thurgood Marshall playing a key legal role in the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education decision that declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional. In addition, Reeves taught intermittently at the Howard University School of Law for decades. He served as the legal counsel for the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and for the 1963 March on Washington and the Poor People’s March in 1968.

In 1969, he co-founded the National Conference of Black Lawyers, an organization promoting racial justice through legal defense. Politically, he became the first Black to serve on the Democratic National Committee in 1960 and became an aide on minority affairs for John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign that year and in the ensuing Kennedy administration. In 1970, Reeves became the inaugural executive director of the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank studying African American issues. Reeves died in the District in 1973.

Council member Brianne Nadeau (D-Ward 1), one of Smith’s successors, noted that Reeves lived in Ward 1 and praised his work in civil rights litigation on June 29 on Twitter. She expressed excitement about the NAACP’s move to her ward.

“I am thrilled to have the NAACP in D.C. in such an auspicious location,” Nadeau tweeted. “The Reeves Center Development is still a ways off but I have communicated my early priorities including a large amount of affordable housing and permanent supportive housing, good local jobs, and daytime and cultural uses to ensure the longevity of D.C.’s Black Broadway.”

Dan Winston, the advisory neighborhood commissioner for District 1B12 in which the Reeves Center dwells, told D.C. Office of Planning’s Timothy Maher at a July 9 commission meeting that public input will be crucial to the redevelopment process.

“The Reeves Center is a historic site in my single-member district and in the city,” Winston said. “It is important that your agency and [the Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning and Economic Development] have follow-up meetings with our economic development committee and community organizations on what should happen to the building.”

While community activists applaud the NAACP relocation, the building should still significantly recognize Barry, they stress.

“The Reeves Center has been the backdrop of many iconic moments and it is part of the legacy of Marion Barry,” said Natalie Hopkinson, an assistant professor in the doctoral program at the Howard University Department of Communication, Culture and Media Studies and a member of the D.C. Commission on the Arts. “The Reeves Center is in my book about the history of go-go in the city.”

Former Ward 1 advisory neighborhood commissioner Lenwood Johnson made it clear his thoughts on the present structure’s possible demolition.

“They will go to hell for tearing down the Reeves Center,” Johnson said. “Marion Barry’s name is on that building.”

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