Washington's U Street
Johns Hopkins UP/Woodrow Wilson Center 2010
I used to live in Washington DC, not far from a place I learned to call the “U Street Corridor.” I really had no idea why it was a “corridor” (most places in DC are just “streets”) or why a lot of folks seemed to make a big deal out if it. Don’t get me wrong. It was nice. There are coffee shops, jazz clubs, and the place is full of beautiful late Victorian architecture. But I confess I really didn’t understand what the “U Street Corridor” was.
Having read Blair Ruble‘s terrific Washington’s U Street: A Biography (Johns Hopkins UP/Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2010), I can confidently say that now I get it. U Street was arguably the first urban area in the post-bellum United States in which African Americans formed a vital, sophisticated, wealthy, and identifiably modern “negro” (as they would have said) culture. Today we take it for granted that African Americans make a vital contribution to the cultural life (though not only that) of the United States. At the end of the Civil War, that wasn’t so. The vast majority of Blacks were southern, rural, and poor. If they appeared on the stage of national culture (and they almost never did), it was through the devices of minstrels in black-face. As Ruble points out, all that changed on U Street in the early 20th century, the birthplace of modern African American culture. Now I know, and I’m glad I do. Read the book, and you’ll know to0.