H Street NE is a vibrant urban area, popular for its restaurants and entertainment, and the tens of thousands of people who come each year to the H Street Festival.
But there’s a long checkered history of discrimination and racial injustice on that street. Up until 1968, it might have looked like a place that was close to the American melting pot, with a mixing of races and ethnicities, and the second-largest retail corridor in D.C. (including the first Sears in the city).
While the movie theaters and other entertainment venues were thriving, it was partially because the street was one of the few options for African-Americans. Most nearby downtown theaters were “whites only.”
And not all of H Street was open to all. Atlas Theater is now the hub of the performing arts renaissance of H Street NE. But when it first opened as a movie theater in 1938, it was “whites only” until the Supreme Court in 1953 forced the integration of public accommodations.
When Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968, it wasn’t surprising that riots broke out, nor was it surprising that the H Street corridor was hit especially hard. While most businesses there had served both whites and African-Americans, the treatment was often discriminatory and most of the business owners were white.
Some whites called it [D.C] “the colored man’s paradise.” For thousands of blacks, there was a darker side to paradise, one where humiliation, poverty, segregation and discrimination had accumulated for a century.The Washington Post
With four days of rioting and fires in D.C., thirteen people were dead (two killed by the police and most others dying in the fires), more than 1,000 injured, almost 12,000 Federal troops were called in, machine guns were mounted on the Capitol steps, over 7,000 were arrested, and businesses were decimated. The hardest-hit areas were H St. NE, the 14th Street corridor, 7th Street, U Street, and Columbia Heights. H St. NE was the last to recover.
There were many reasons why recovery was difficult in that location. People and businesses fled to the suburbs, insurance could not be obtained or rates soared, banks wouldn’t loan to businesses, and the government at times ignored the area’s problems and at other times could not decide on an effective solution.
Finally, almost 40 years after the riots, things started to change. The D.C. government created a strategic plan for the area in 2004 along with an investment plan. There were delays in its execution, but it started to make significant progress by 2011 (see interim report). The plans included a streetcar along H St., retail businesses, office space, apartments, hotels, and entertainment – with the living spaces concentrated on 2nd to 7th St., the stores and restaurants between 7th and 12th St., and the arts and entertainment between 12th and 15th St.
Now the area is a thriving hub of entertainment and restaurants and lots of new apartments and office space, along with retaining some of the character of the original area and its historic architecture. But as with many other urban revitalizations, it’s a mixed bag of success for some and displacement for others – so there is hope but much work to be done to make it a good and safe and equitable and affordable area for all D.C. residents.
Here are some photos showing the vibrancy of the revitalized area:
February is Black History Month. For more information and celebrations about this month, check out the National Museum of African American History and Culture.