MS. REBECCA SHEIR
Welcome to "Metro Connection." I'm Rebecca Sheir and today we're going to mix things up a bit and focus not so much on a particular theme, like we usually do, but on a particular neighborhood. A D.C. neighborhood where livestock once roamed freely, where after the Civil War newly freed slaves became some of the first residents, and where, decades later, Duke Ellington and Carter G. Woodson became household names. It's the neighborhood of Shaw.
MS. REBECCA SHEIR
And over the next hour we'll meet some folks who've long been part of the community.
MR. RON DIXON
Oh, well, I've been coming in here for just a whole lot of years. I keep telling them, every time I come in here he puts more gray hair up there. I don't understand that.
And we'll explore the neighborhood's restaurant renaissance.
MR. TOM POWER
We were the first destination restaurant on the street. And people thought we were a little bit crazy, but it's worked out okay.
Plus, we'll hear from residents who worry rising rents will push them out of the neighborhood.
MS. NADIA JOHNSON
I look around and I see that this is becoming an extension of Georgetown.
But first, to understand the Shaw of today -- and tomorrow, for that matter -- you need to take a look back at the Shaw of yesterday or yesteryear, really. And one thing you'll learn when you do is that back then, Shaw wasn’t originally called Shaw.
MS. DENISE JOHNSON
Shaw is really an urban-renewal name. It came up in the '60s.
This is Washington native Denise Johnson.
It is named after Colonel Shaw, who headed up the 54th regiment from Massachusetts, and fought in the Civil War -- African American regiment. And it was actually picked up from the name from the Shaw Junior High School, which is right down the street at Rhode Island Avenue.
Denise and I met up right around 9th and Q Streets Northwest, just north of the historic home of Carter G. Woodson, the founder of Black History Month. The house is one of the key stops along the Shaw Heritage Trail, something Johnson knows like the back of her hand.
I happened to work on the Shaw Heritage Trail as part of my work when I was working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
Can you talk about that? For people who don't know what these Heritage Trails are around town, like the Shaw Heritage Trail, what is it? What are they?
Cultural Tourism D.C. has sponsored, along with the D.C. Department of Transportation, a variety of trails that highlight neighborhood history. So this was one of the earlier trails that came along. Interestingly enough, when we started talking about it, Cultural Tourism didn’t think that the neighborhood was ready for the trail. And so they knew the history was here, but the question was, would people feel comfortable walking this neighborhood? And what I told them was people were already getting off the Metro and stumbling around looking lost and needing something to do. So I felt that by the time that we actually opened the trail that the neighborhood would in fact be ready.
So, Denise, what do you think it is about Shaw that sets it apart from different historic neighborhoods in the city?
I think Shaw is kind of special because it was really the home of African American culture in the city. I think it's also unusual in terms of its placement. We call the trail Midcity At The Crossroads because it really was at the crossroads of many different things happening. So people might not realize that 7th Street was one of the first roads that was constructed out of the District, and it was a connection between the waterfront and the farms in Montgomery County. So, for example, when the O Street Market opened in 1881, it made sense because it was on the route for the farmers to bring their wares in from the suburbs.
So it was really a mixing bowl, especially in the early days. But Shaw, as a whole, kind of became Washington, D.C.’s Harlem Renaissance. There are a lot of notable people that lived here and people that were real movers and shakers in the neighborhood’s heyday, which I would say was in the early 1910s, 1920s.
Who were some of those figures?
Well, for example Blanche K. Bruce was one of the first senators after Reconstruction, from Mississippi. He lived on M Street. His wife was also a notable civil rights activist. People don’t realize that this was also an activist neighborhood. So that the labor unions, for example, got their start here. So the AFL actually got its start here. A. Philip Randolph, right down the street here on Q Street, had a branch of the Pullman Porters Union and actually worked to integrate the AFL. So you have folks like that lived in the neighborhood.
There is a connection to Duke Ellington, who was right up the street. And one of the other things that I would say is that this is only a small part of Shaw. We're in the eastern part of Shaw, but Shaw's really a large territory. It depends on who you talk to, but most of us kind of agree that it was bounded on the south at Massachusetts Avenue, on the east at New Jersey Avenue, on the west at 15th Street and on the north at Florida Avenue. So not only on this east side did you have a lot of activity, but you also had a lot of activity on the west side.
So you had U Street, for example, the Black Broadway. You had landmarks such as the Whitelaw Hotel, which is at 13th and T. That was the first African American hotel and apartment building opened in the city, built by John Whitelaw Lewis. That's how it got its name. And in renovating that building -- actually I was a project manager for that project -- we found old hotel ledgers with Cab Calloway's name and Duke Ellington's name. So you could see Duke Ellington and his band staying there for $1.50 or $2.50 a night. So you had notables on that side of the neighborhood, as well. So it was really a large swath.
So you mentioned that Shaw is an urban renewal name. What has this neighborhood been known by or known as through the years?
It was, interestingly enough, in the beginning it was known as Northern Liberties. And it was called Northern Liberties because north of downtown it was really farmland, so the cows and the pigs roamed. And there was a big market on Mount Vernon Square called Northern Liberties Market, which ultimately burned down and ultimately was replaced by the O Street Market. was sometimes called Midcity. And so you find that people who have lived here historically find a sense of pride in the name Shaw, even though it’s an urban renewal name.
And as you see the neighborhood transform, some folks have wanted to abandon that name, Shaw, because they want to see a shift or they associate it with the bad times or the ‘68 riots or the decline of the neighborhood. I think you find, amongst the African Americans that live in the neighborhood, that it’s a sense of pride. That it really represents all of the things that happened here that were really instrumental in making Washington what it is.
That was D.C. native Denise Johnson, a historic preservation expert who's worked with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Washington Convention Center's Historic Preservation Fund. She also served as chair for the Shaw Heritage Trail. For more information on the trail and to see historic photos of some of those movers and shakers Denise Johnson talked about, visit our website, metroconnection.org.
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