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If all goes according to plan, Sara Klemm will spend the rest of her life working deep within the U.S. prison system. Not on some highway cleanup crew, mind you, but from home.
Last summer, the University of Maryland senior and five collaborators started the D.C.-area Books to Prisoners project. Their mission: to find a way to distribute books to a growing and largely ignored group of people whose literacy rate stands at around 60 percent. To pull it off, they’ll have to dodge budget cuts and radical reductions in prisoners’ rights, and then persuade an increasingly fed-up society to fund their efforts. Talk about mission impossible.
The D.C. Books to Prisoners project began underground, in member Caleb Downin’s book-filled basement. After a few meetings and a couple of conversations with like-minded prisoners’ rights groups, Klemm, Downin, Chris Tabellario, Peter Cerutti, Pat Cranston, and Colleen Greenwood set out to supplement existing prison libraries. “Unfortunately,” says Klemm, “there aren’t many.”
Undaunted, Klemm & Co. placed ads in prison legal journals, hoping to hear back from the prisoners themselves. A few weeks later, replies flooded their post office box. More than 100 inmates wrote in from across the country asking for books. Pleased but a little overwhelmed, the members of the Books to Prisoners project sent forth their first mass mailing.
But postage isn’t free. Klemm’s organization had thus far been squeaking by on a fistful of dollars raised by a series of benefit rock shows in late summer. With money drying up and orders coming in, rock again came to the rescue. Two Fridays ago, despite the cold, local acts Q and not U and the Most Secret Method helped raise almost $1,000—enough to keep Books to Prisoners running while its principals begin the long process of searching for grants.
Money won’t come easily, but the obstacles are part of providing what the Books to Prisoners project’s members view as a service to the community. “It makes sense to educate prisoners,” says Klemm. “Something like 95 percent are gonna get out someday.”—Mike Kanin
Put Up Your Duke
Long before the Harlem Renaissance, D.C.’s U Street NW corridor was known as the “Black Broadway.” Jazz artists like Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, and Pearl Bailey packed the Howard Theatre when the buzz at the Apollo Theatre was a mere whisper.
Hometown boy Edward Kennedy “Duke” Ellington wandered the streets around Shaw, charming the ladies with his handsome mug and debonair style of dress. Washington was Duke’s town. So intertwined was the city’s black renaissance with Ellington’s life that journalist Hedrick Smith has used the jazz legend’s story to tell the story of black Washington.
Duke Ellington’s Washington, a one-hour documentary chronicling the rise and fall of the U Street corridor, features a series of archival footage, folksy anecdotes, and PBS-style historians. It also celebrates U Street’s revival—at times, perhaps, a bit too optimistically.
Smith, who’s won just about every journalism award available, from the Pulitzer to the du Pont, spent much of his career producing stories about Russia and taking his turn as a talking head on the political roundup Washington Week in Review. Having served the outside world well, he figured it might be time to look at local culture.
“I realized I didn’t know my own community,” he says. “Part of being a reporter is learning. For me, this is about an insight into another society—it’s not where I live, but I still need to know about it.”
Familiar landmarks like Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theatre form the backdrop for Smith’s narrative. Pensioners dispense war stories about Shaw when it was called “Uptown,” and giddy grannies recall the Duke’s sexual energy on stage.
“There was a great African-American community in D.C.,” Hedrick says, “[producing] a flow of talent that really enriched the nation.”
He used Ellington’s life to tell the story because of the musician’s mythical aura. “Duke Ellington epitomizes the style and elegance of the African-American community that many people aren’t familiar with. And he is accessible. People can identify with where he played his first gig, what school he went to, and, of course, his music.”
Duke Ellington’s Washington airs Monday evening on WETA at 9 p.m.