MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome back to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir. And this week, we're exploring stories of race and ethnicity, an appropriate topic given the veritable cornucopia of cultures here in the national capital region. And if you travel around the Washington area, you'll find certain areas possess particularly rich cultural histories, like, for example, Northwest D.C.'s U Street corridor.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Once known as Black Broadway, the corridor used to be home to the largest urban African-American community in the country. Then in the 1960s, the neighborhood became a hub for activism against legal segregation and racism. These days, to see reminders of the areas African-American culture and heritage, all you have to do is look around and up. And that's direction we'll be looking in this week's edition of "The Location."
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Our regular segment where Kim Bender, who writes the blog "The Location," brings us the often surprising stories behind well and lesser known sites around the D.C. region. This time around, we're visiting that famous U Street corridor just three blocks north of U.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
So what location are we visiting today, Kim Bender?
MS. KIM BENDER
So here we are on the corner of 14th and Florida right above U Street and we're looking at "The Black Family Reunion" mural which was painted on the wall above the Latino Auto Sales building in 1994 by G. Bryon Peck.
I'm sure many people have noticed it as they've been walking by or driving by. I know I have and I've always wondered what the story is. But before we get to the story of it, can you describe what it looks like.
The mural is a collage of six photographs all different sizes of different family groups. They're actually all from the same family. The man who painted the mural, G. Bryon Peck, had a friend of the neighborhood and he went through a shoebox that this man had and picked out photographs of generations and generations of his family. And that's what you're seeing, generations of one African-American family from Washington D.C. from this neighborhood.
And G. Bryon Peck, he's done several murals around town and he's got some really, really well-known ones.
Yes, and actually sometime in the '90s he was interviewed as having estimated that he had painted 300,000 square feet of D.C. wall space. There's a Duke Ellington mural on U Street that used to be when you came out of the U Street metro you could see it but when they did changes to the metro entrance it was on removable panels and he -- it moved down the street onto to the truer former building and actually his first large-scale mural in the city was on the wall of Asia-Nora, but it's since closed down and the building was actually knocked down.
Which is interesting because a lot of his murals being in an urban environment on the sides of buildings have been torn down or blocked and that's what we are going to see happen to this mural, too, "The Black Family Reunion." Probably by the end of the year, we're not sure exactly when, Douglas Development is going to be building a six-story apartment building and it will be covering up "The Black Family Reunion" mural.
How does he feel about the fact that this one's going to be more or less obscured?
Well, I've asked him how he feels about all of his murals being obscured and he said, you never get over the feeling of, oh, it's not there anymore. But it's just the fact of urban development. He also pointed out something that I thought was really interesting. The reason why he's been able to do his murals on the sides of these buildings is because the buildings next door, in lots of cases, were burnt out during the riots and came down.
So there were empty lots and now you had brick walls that he could use and create his art but it's those same empty lots now that the neighborhood is changing and maybe more economic development is coming in, that developers want those same lots and that will obscure his artwork. There was a mural of Frederick Douglas on the corner of a building on Massachusetts and 12th and...
In Northwest. And he said he was coming home from the airport one day and he saw there was a hole in the lot, like, they had started digging foundation. He said, I think it's going to go soon. But they didn't put the building flush up against the painting so if you peer through the little tiny gap, like, not even a foot gap in between, you kind of see the edge of Mr. Peck's name is still visible.
Can we talk a little about how this one came to be? Is there actually an event called "The Black Family Reunion"?
There is an event called "The Black Family Reunion." It's celebrated 26 years, it's sponsored by the National Council of Negro Women. They describe it as celebrating the enduring strength and traditional values of the African-American family and they gather down on the mall every year and it's a big celebration.
Something else really noteworthy, I think, about this mural, and kind of weird to be perfectly honest, in the lower right-hand corner, I'm sure some of our listeners have noticed, it says sponsored by McDonald's and there's the McDonald's logo. What's the story behind that?
It was sponsored by McDonald's. Mr. Peck painted this at a time where the arts funding was hard to come by so he had approached companies to fund his different projects. This is funded McDonald's and they came up with the theme and then the only thing that he had to do besides do it based on their theme was put the logo in.
So McDonald's is the sponsor and they came up with the theme, but...
It's actually the National Black McDonald's Operators Association, which is like the franchise organization for African-American owners of McDonald's franchises.
So what is he working now? Is he still doing murals? Has he moved onto some other medium?
A lot of these are mosaics now and he's installing a mosaic near the title base and on Main Street Southwest, which is 1,200 square feet. There's a mosaic going on the Georgia Avenue underpass in Silver Spring. He has a bunch of stuff going on.
It seems like he has a very strong connection to Washington D.C.?
Yes, his artwork is everywhere from Columbia Heights to Silver Spring to this mural. It's interesting, he told me that sometimes developers who obscure his murals end up hiring him to do mural projects on their property.
So one mural disappears, another one pops up somewhere else in town.
Well, Kim Bender, thank you so much for taking us to yet another interesting location and telling us all about it.
And thank you for having me and looking at "The Black Family Reunion" that soon may be no more.
It'll be interesting to see what's next for this corner.
Kim Bender writes the blog "The Location." To read her article about G. Bryon Peck and "The Black Family Reunion" and to see photos of some of Mr. Peck's murals, including that Frederick Douglas mural that's all but obscured today, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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