“They built barricades on U Street and placed riflemen atop the Howard Theatre.”

The Howard Theatre in 1936. Image via Smithsonian, click for more info.

As part of a challenge to read 100 books in 2K11 (ha, I know. But follow me on Goodreads anyway!) I’m finally, finally getting around to reading Brendan Koerner’s Now The Hell Will Start. The book, which is excellent so far, is about Herman Perry, a black GI who killed a white officer during WWII while in South Asia and fled into the jungle where he married into reclusive Indian tribe of headhunters. Anyway, Perry was from D.C. and Koerner’s description of black-white relations in the city in the early part of the 20th Century is kind of amazing:

African Americans were thus forced to cluster around the neighborhood they called either Shaw or U Street, Washington’s answer to Harlem and home to the “Black Harvard,” Howard University. Also known as “Colored Boulevard,” U Street had been no-go territory for whites since the “Red Summer” of 1919, when race riots swept the country. Washington’s riot was sparked by bogus rumors of a “Negro fiend” raping white women. A mob of unemployed whites, many of them veterans of World War I, gathered to seek revenge, rampaging through D.C. for two straight nights. After several African Americans had been lynched or severely beaten, the black residents of Shaw decided to make a stand. They built barricades on U Street and placed riflemen atop the Howard Theatre. White streetcar passengers were thrashed to bloody pulps, and white pedestrians were picked off by sniper fire.

This is just endlessly fascinating to me, for many reasons, not the least of which being that I was educated, and live, and play at these places. Once I finish this book I’m going to delve into some city history (suggestions welcome). One thing I already knew about was the bourgeois blacks that Koerner talks about later in the chapter, and their resistance to letting country bumpkins and poor Southern blacks join their ranks. But this passage suggests to me that their place was hard-won and forged from violent resistance. I want to know more about that story.



Filed under Books, D.C.

2 responses to ““They built barricades on U Street and placed riflemen atop the Howard Theatre.”

  1. I’d recommend “Beyond Justice & Beauty” by Howard Gillette, Jr., and “Radical Sisters” by Anne Valk. Leafing through the vertical files @ the Washingtoniana Room by subject (e.g. “racism,” “police brutality”) can also be edifying.

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