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To understand the Shaw of today — and tomorrow, for that matter — you need to take a look back at the Shaw of yesterday. And if you do, a key thing you’ll learn is that back then, “Shaw” wasn’t originally called “Shaw.”
“‘Shaw’ is really an urban-renewal name,” says Washington native Denise Johnson. “It was named after Colonel [Robert Gould] Shaw, who headed up the 54th regiment from Massachusetts, and fought in the Civil War — an African American regiment. And it was actually picked up from the name [of] Shaw Junior High School.”
Johnson worked on the Shaw Heritage Trail during her time at the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The Heritage Trails are sponsored by Cultural Tourism DC, along with the D.C. Department of Transportation, to highlight the history of various neighborhoods around the District.
“This was one of the earlier trails that came along,” Johnson explains. “Interestingly enough, when we started talking about it, Cultural Tourism didn’t think that the neighborhood was ready for the trail. They knew the history was here, but the question was: would people feel comfortable walking this neighborhood?"
“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,” she says.
Johnson believes Shaw definitely stands out among Washington’s other historic neighborhoods. For one thing, she says, “it was really the home of African American culture in the city.”
It’s also distinctive because of its placement.
“We call the [Heritage] Trail “Midcity at the Crossroads” because it really was at the crossroads of many different things happening,” Johnson says. “Seventh Street was one of the first roads constructed out of the District, and it was a connection between the waterfront and the farms in Montgomery County. So 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.”
Johnson says in Shaw’s early days, “it was really a mixing bowl.” But it wasn’t long before it “kind of became Washington, D.C.’s Harlem Renaissance.”
There were a lot of notable people that lived here and people that were real movers and shakers in the neighborhood’s heyday, which I’d say was in the early 1910s, 1920s,” Johnson says.
Among those movers and shakers was Blanche K. Bruce, one of the first U.S. senators after Reconstruction, from Mississippi. He lived on M Street NW with his wife, Josephine, a notable civil rights activist.
“People don’t realize that this was also an activist neighborhood,” Johnson says. “So the labor unions, for example, got their start here. The AFL actually got its start here. A. Philip Randolph, on Q Street, had a branch of the Pullman Porters Union and actually worked to integrate the AFL.”
Johnson is quick to point out that Shaw covers a vast swath of land in Northwest Washington.
“It depends on who you talk to, but most of us 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,” she says.
And over on the west side of the neighborhood, “you had U Street, the Black Broadway,” she says. “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.”
Johnson was the project manager for the Whitelaw’s renovation. She says during that time, they found old hotel ledgers with such big names as Cab Calloway, and Shaw’s native son, Duke Ellington.
“So you could see Duke Ellington and his band staying there for $1.50 or $2.50 a night!” she says.
As Johnson mentions, the name “Shaw” didn’t come about until the mid-1900s. In the beginning, she says, the neighborhood was known as 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."
“It was sometimes called Midcity,” she continues. “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 because 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."
[Music: "Sophisticated Lady" performed by Art Tatum from Piano Starts Here: Live at the Shrine - a Zenph Labs Re-performance]