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Welcome to the third installment in our “A Walk With” series, this time with U Street fixture Sandra Butler-Truesdale, whose roles are many and varied.
There are some people in D.C. for whom landscapes have two levels: The current level that they actually inhabit, and a subterranean historical space long covered over.
Sandra Butler-Truesdale, whose family has lived in the District for five generations, is one of those people. She went to elementary school at Garnet Patterson, high school at Cardozo, and college at Howard University. Now, at 70 years old, she curates the Emma Mae Gallery in the Reeves Center, named for her mother and dedicated to the memories and memorabilia of the greats who walked U Street in decades past.
I stopped into the Emma Mae on a Sunday morning. Butler-Truesdale wasn’t there yet, so Greg Gaskins opened the door, and I listened to his jazz rehearsal while poking around in the slightly musty interior. The walls are covered with framed photos, the floors stacked with records, overstuffed furniture, even a birdcage. A picture with a much younger Gaskins standing with Elvis Presley holds pride of place.
When Butler-Truesdale arrives, resplendent in denim and decked in purple jewelry, the tour immediately commences—or at least a preview of the walking tour that will follow. She identifies all the people on the walls, and the venues where they played, and sometimes her memories of going to see them. “It’s so funny how you can remember,” she says, pondering a photo of Lena Horne. “I remember she was this beautiful lady, with these long legs.”
Soon, we step out into the bright sunlight and bustle of 14th Street. One after another, she identifies what the buildings across the street used to be: Busboys and Poets was a place called Zanzibar, which was owned by a Jewish man (like many of the properties on U Street) but served Chinese food, a favorite of the post-church crowd. South of that, where Mila and Jin are now, stood the D.C. Donut Shop. In the Reeves Center, there was the Peoples’ Drug Store, where Butler-Truesdale recalled that black people couldn’t even sit down at the counter to have lunch. “Right in the middle of a black neighborhood!” she exclaims. “It was a trying time.”
Standing on the Reeves Center plaza, Butler-Truesdale gives an overview of the local economy during the neighborhood’s heyday, pre-1968 riots. The nightlife scene was an oasis of integration, as white people would come up from downtown and enjoy the jazz clubs—and, after the clubs closed, the “after hours joints” opened. Jewish merchants supplied the liquor, since black people couldn’t get liquor licenses. Those who wanted to make real money, though, became number backers. Before the lottery, capitalized hustlers would employ runners to collect numbers from players, and then pay out when there were hits. “They were kingpins in the community,” Butler-Truesdale says. They even all celebrated their last rites at the same place, Jarvis Funeral Home, which is now CityFirst Bank.
Butler-Truesdale grew up at 1458 Corcoran Street NW, but for much of her life lived in a house in Petworth, which she has since sold. After a stint in the Campbell Heights Apartments, recently the site of a Jair Lynch-backed tenant purchase, she moved to an apartment complex in Southwest—which is now less diverse (i.e., more African American) than the historically black neighborhood with which she identifies most closely.
Butler-Truesdale has a multifaceted take on gentrification. On the one hand, she mourns the loss of African American cultural dominance on U Street. When developer Chris Donatelli—whom she calls “my good friend”—built the Ellington apartments, she asked him whether anybody who looked like the building’s namesake would be able to live there. At the same time, however, she doesn’t blame white people for black displacement.
“People say a lot of stuff, and half the time they don’t really know what’s happening,” she says. “You have to look at the fact that most of this is about the economy. It’s about the fact that we live in these neighborhoods and did not actually buy property…When you do that, you have no real anchor, and people can do what they want to do to you.”
Crossing back east across 14th Street, we pass more buried landmarks: The Cricket storefront was You and Me Coffeeshop, where kids came to get milk shakes and hot dogs. Peking Express was her aunt’s beauty shop, called Lovely Ladies. The Rite Aid was a black-occupied office building, where her father had his accounting business.
As we squeezed past sidewalk cafes on the crowded 1300 block, Butler-Truesdale expresses annoyance that tables and chairs were crowding the pedestrian right-of-way. But she remarks favorably on Ulah Bistro’s arrangement with Suntrust Bank, which lets the restaurant use its sidewalk space for outdoor service on the weekends. “Can we sit down and do that about race?” she asks.
Further east, the memories keep coming. The current home of the Affinity Lab, at 918 U Street, was a business school. The newish wine bar Dickson’s housed the offices of the Capitol Spotlight, which reported on black communities when the Washington Post saw fit only to write about them when someone got killed. Turning down Florida Avenue, the CVS was North Carolina Market, where transplants from the deep South got their collard greens and fatback. “Those of us who were born here, we thought we were a step above those who went to the North Carolina Market,” Butler-Truesdale says.
South along 7th Street: Dragon Express was a cocktail lounge, where Butler-Truesdale remembers being a waitress when there were a lot of single men around (she gave me a knowing look). Wanda’s Hair Salon was Dean’s barber shop, which trained ex-convicts. Waxie Maxie’s vinyl shop, where you could listen to records before buying them, and where DJs spun in the windows. As we walked, Butler-Truesdale, always attuned to racial interactions, noticed that loitering black men looked at the pair of us—a white reporter and an older black woman—with suspicion. “You know what they’re thinking?” she asked. “First of all, ‘what is she talking about?’ And ‘is she giving away our secrets?’”
Finally, we reached the place she really wanted to get to: The Howard Theater, finally beginning to come back to life after decades of decline. She not only went to shows, but interacted with the performers in her work as a cosmetologist—she’d done James Brown’s comb-outs, she said matter-of-factly. The Howard, for Butler-Truesdale, is the most solid sign of the neighborhood’s rebirth.
Walking back, we passed Ben’s Chili Bowl, which Butler-Truesdale talks about in the video clip below. It’s one of those institutions that she’s lost. But she’s learned to move on. “Listen, it’s progress,” she says. “No matter how much I like or don’t like it, you can’t stop progress.”