The usual suspects took up their shovels this morning to officially begin the restoration of Ledroit Park and Shaw’s Howard Theater, which has been falling apart from the inside after decades of disuse. In the audience were dozens of older residents, half of whom raised their hands when Shaw Main Streets president Alex Padro asked how many remembered going to see performances at the theater, which put on its last show in the early 1980s. Congresswoman Eleanor Holmes Norton recalled the luminaries who had played there, and invoked the civil rights narrative of a Howard as a refuge for artists banned by white-dominated institutions downtown.
“Such talent could not be supressed,” Norton said. “Even in a town like this, it had to find a home.”
But it was Councilmember Jim Graham who got closest to the significance of the Howard Theater renovation. According to Padro, Graham prevailed upon Councilmember Phil Mendelson during the last redistricting to take the Howard from Ward 2 and put it in Ward 1.
“I have always said how privileged I am to represent the black Broadway,” Graham said. “But we have been missing a piece, a very important piece of black Broadway.” And then, Graham—who began his speech by thanking God—sought to reassure the audience that its legacy as an African American mecca wouldn’t fall to gentrification.
“If people are thinking oh my God, what’s happening to the African American heritage on U street, let me say something,” he said, before listing off a recent tenant purchase of the Campbell Heights apartment complex (now called the Paul Laurence Dunbar Apartments), the new African American Civil War Museum at the Grimke building, and the soon-to-come United Negro College Fund in Shaw. In a racially loaded political environment citywide, filled with groundbreakings laced with veiled messaging, it was a relatively pointed statement.
Other news tidbits: The plaza in front of the theater will be graced by a stainless steel rendering of Duke Ellington and his piano, the keys of which will swoosh upwards into a clef standing 20 feet high. And the Turkish Ambassador, who spoke about a son of one of his predecessors who had enjoyed music at the Howard and gone on to found Atlantic Records, announced that the embassy would again be thrown open for jam sessions.
And now for some groundbreaking music.