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Duke Ellington's Washington DC
Jim Dickerson

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HEDRICK SMITH: Tell me about the Whitelaw hotel and what it means to the community right here in the center of Washington.

JIM DICKERSON: Well this is one of the treasures of the African American community and we should say it's one of the treasures of the whole Washington DC community because it has the first hotel in the African American community that was built 1910, 1920 and I mean 1912 and it was built at a time when of course segregation was at its height and discrimination was rampant and blacks couldn't stay in white hotels. They had no place to stay. They had guest houses in the neighborhood. And so a group of them got together under the leadership of John Whitelaw Lewis, the son of a slave who came up here to work

SMITH: Tell me about the Whitelaw hotel here and what it means to this community in the center of Washington.

DICKERSON: Well it's one of the African American treasures in the Shaw neighborhood and in Washington DC. And it's one of the treasures of Washington DC, in general. It was one of the most elegant hotels that we had in 1910 when they built it. It was built at a time when blacks couldn't get loans in banks, they couldn't stay of course in white institutions in white hotels. So they built their own hotel. And they financed their own hotel. They designed their own place. They managed it, they ran it and it was one of the most elegant and wonderful places to come in Washington, DC anywhere and it represented a lot of ingenuity, a lot of creativity, a lot of entrepreneurship. They sold $25 shares and raised $325,000 in their own communities and built it and designed it themselves and it was one of the best places in Washington DC, black, white whatever that you could come.

SMITH: You're talking about $25 a head and they raised $300,000. So this hotel says community participation.

DICKERSON: Community participation and entrepreneurship and intelligence, creativity. It says everything. And that history is the history of this people which in many ways has been lost and the newer generations especially are disconnected from and so we recover, help to recover that here and reconnect with that proud past. That we don't hear of very often.

SMITH: tell me when did Manna get involved in the Whitelaw hotel and what kind of shape was it in at that point.

DICKERSON: Well, it was sitting here vacant and abandoned and the city had issued orders to tear it down. The community, members of the community at that time had come, it had been burned. It had gone through a series of 3 fires and so nobody lived here. Big trees growing out of the top of the buildings. It was just a shell. The city wanted to tear it down. The community rose up in arms and said no you're not going to tear this treasure down. This belongs to us and we don't care what it costs or whatever, we're going to restore it. And many had tried to put together a plan to restore this. The community came to us, the community members and said would you do this. would you work on this because of us and our track record and our ability to do things creatively and that we were not primarily interested in profit. We were interested in our, our mission is community projects and housing and that type of thing. So we went to work and we put together a package, a financial package, in partnership with the city, with the community with foundations. And, and lo and behold we put together about 3.2 million dollars worth of financing from a dozen sources. We went to 30 banks that wouldn't do it and finally found one that would put up some of the money and we got in here and redid it and we also did an historic renovation as well as renovation for lower income families to live here as rentals. So we have a historic ballroom that's restored and we have a building restored and put on the historic registry as well as it being used for needed, necessary affordable housing.

SMITH: There's a part of the history here we're missing. The Whitelaw was used for what in its heyday and then it went downhill? How did it go downhill?

DICKERSON: Well originally the Whitelaw was the elite came here. I mean you would come for meals, and you people lived here. People you know. It was just a very elite, classy hotel.

SMITH: You're talking black tie.

DICKERSON: Black tie. People came. You had to be somebody. Anybody that was somebody came to the Whitelaw hotel. And they had the meals, they had a big ballroom and dining and there were shops in the basement and that sort of thing. And then of course it began to change hands. It changed hands in the '40s and then it changed hands again and then again. And the, also the character of the inner city began to change. The neighborhood began to change, it began to be lower income. All lower income. And then the riots came in '68. And the hotel and the building went the way of the inner city. It just went down, down, down until finally it turned into a seedy flop house were people came and shot up drugs. It was just a rooming house, turn tricks, et cetera. It was a very dangerous place. the police were always here. It was notorious for that. And in a way it became known for that rather than its glorious past. And finally there were several fires. And finally, the last fire you know the roof caved in and nobody could live here and they closed it up. And, and then so I guess they had several people try to redevelop it, tried to put a financial package and they never could do it until we, working with the city and others, did it.

SMITH: So we were talking about the greatness and you were telling about all the dinner there. So out of this era of greatness then what happened?

DICKERSON: Well, there was a series of owners that began to change hands. And so you could see at each change of ownership there would be a little less of what it was before, and then there was another change of ownership and a little less, and then the community around it began to change. There began to be people who primarily of one income group that was here and so it would go, it went down, down, down. Until then the riots occurred in '68. And that was sort of the bottom of and the, and the building turned into a seedy flop house. People shot drugs, they had turned tricks, prostitutes used it. There were a series of fires and finally the third fire occurred and it was condemned and closed down for good.

SMITH: So it had its heyday and then what happened?

DICKERSON: There began to be a series of owners that took ownership of the place and management of the place and at the exchange. When it changed from one owner to another they would, it would go down just a little bit. It would become a little less than it was before. Until the '50s.

DICKERSON: Then in the 1950s it began to be much more of a rooming house. And much more of just one group of people living here. People who were doing drugs, people who were alcoholics, people who were prostitutes and turning tricks. Owner who was basically interested in just renting rooms and not taking care of the place, et cetera. And it went finally to the bottom in the '60s and then the '68 riots and the, the place just went the way of the neighborhood. It went the way of all inner city neighborhoods. Just sort of hit the bottom. With the disinvestment and people moving out and leaving one group of people, you know lower income people, living here. Poor people. And so it changed. And then there was a series of fires and finally the third fire was the nail on the coffin and it closed it down completely and it just sat here then for over 10 years, vacant and empty and boarded up.

SMITH: So we're talking the ten years it was empty. But so the period it's empty we're talking about what all the ,70s?

DICKERSON: Basically all the '70s early '80s, yeah mid '80s, right.

SMITH: You got involved when and what did it look like when you went in.

DICKERSON: We got involved in the late '80s when a community group came to us and said would you, could you take the Whitelaw hotel and do something with it. We want to see it restored. We want to see the history preserved here and we want to see it used for affordable housing and we had never done a project quite this big. And so, but they were so intent and they were so dedicated and the city was so in favor of it as well, the city government. And so we formed a partnership, and we put together a package and designed it and began to make plans to rebuild it and get the financing for it, et cetera. It took us 3 years to get the whole package together to do it but we did it.

SMITH: What did it look like inside.

DICKERSON: Well, inside it looked like somebody had a bomb had hit it. I mean it just was exploded you know. It was just like a bomb had gone off in a cafˇ somewhere, a big bomb. And you couldn't really tell. The, the roof was gone, there were trees growing out of the roof. All the windows were out. That whole, that door there looked, you couldn't tell that that was there. It had been all covered up with boards and what not, trash littered all over the place. It just, it didn't look anything hardly like what it looks like today. It was just a mess, it was just a shell basically. No roof. And you could come in here and you couldn't tell hardly at all what the place was at one time. You could just see that it was in ruins. And, but you could also see little spots, like there were little decorative castings on the walls that you knew that was the original castings, and so you knew that there was something beautiful here before. And that that beauty could be restored and called out again. If it had the right kind of people working with it and doing it.

SMITH: So what did you do with the building?

DICKERSON: Well, we put together a package. We redesigned it. The community was involved in the process all along, and we put together our team and we rebuilt it and put together a historic team of people as well, who rebuilt that ball room to make it look like it did when it was there originally, and somehow by the grace of god we were able to bring it in and we had 35 housing units, affordable housing units, here. We had over 350 applications.

SMITH: Who lives there now?

DICKERSON: These are all basically lower income, working class people who are, you know, could not afford to live unless it was in this neighborhood now, unless it was the income, the rents were as low as they are here.

SMITH: So it's talking about subsidized rent here?

DICKERSON: It is. It's a subsidized rent, but then most all everybody's houses in the neighborhood is subsidized in one form or another, tax or other. But this is subsidized housing. Yeah, but it is, people were working here who have jobs, who pay their rent, who have families, who send their kids to the schools here, who are great citizens and who are aspiring to a better life for themselves. Our dream here is that at the end of 15 years when the tax credits are over that we will sell these units as condos to the people who live here. and will keep and preserve this historic ballroom that is now a historic ballroom that the community uses. And it also has the history on the walls.

SMITH: Tell me about Kevin Bryant

DICKERSON: Kevin Bryant is one of my very best friends. We met about 15 years ago down at 7th and S or 6th and S where there was a major drug distribution center in the neighborhood. We had just taken a property down there. That is Manna and we were going to renovate it and create the community center and renovate houses for low income people in the neighborhood and we happened to meet down there and we became friends. And through our friendship and our association, Kevin got himself together and got himself off the streets. We had a pilot project with public works department where some of the guys got jobs doing street cleaning and you know picking up trash and whatnot, and he was one of those. And now Kevin is a supervisor at DPW. He also moved in here at the Whitelaw early on when we first were here to help us with management and security and whatnot. And now Kevin lives here with his two boys and helps us and provides leadership. He is the president of the tenant association, et cetera. And he's just an example of a lot of people who have a little bit of opportunity.

SMITH: Now let's get into a little bit of the human side of this thing. I understand you almost lost Kevin a couple of times. Tell me about that.

DICKERSON: Well Kevin almost died a couple of times. And actually gave him his last rite on two occasions, but God was not finished with him yet, and so he came back. He brought him back and obviously what he's doing with his life now in terms of affecting, you know, a lot of the kids in the summer jobs program. His own children, his own family, a lot of the people here in the community. He's become a community leader, and I follow Kevin. He's my spiritual director and so he's, you know, he's really come back to make a tremendous contribution to the community.

SMITH: You said last rites for Kevin. Was this part of his past life.

DICKERSON: Right. This was a dimension of his drug addiction and the consequences of drug addiction a long time ago. The addiction and the effects it had on his heart.

SMITH: So he nearly died from overdoses?

DICKERSON: Yeah. Twice with me.

SMITH: So what are you thinking when he is overdosed and you're giving him the last rites and this guy is one of your closest friends. I mean what's going through your mind.

DICKERSON: Well he's in God's hands and if god wants to keep him here. then he will. And certainly I believe, we believe in the power of prayer and that I'm here to help life happen. And I was working hard for Kevin to hang around here a little bit longer. Because always I could see the potential and the real beauty in Kevin. As I could see in the community and in all the people here. And so there was a gift given and another chance and Kevin took advantage of that and he's more than given back what he's been given.

SMITH: So what does Kevin's story mean to you in terms of the community and the Whitelaw?

DICKERSON: Well Kevin's story is a metaphor, a parable for the community at large as well. And especially where the community was at one time, in terms of on the bottom and with very little hope. There's a lot of promises, a lot of talk but in terms of a lot of action and concrete results it hadn't occurred yet. The '68 riots had devastated this place and it was still burned out. It looked pretty much like it did in 1981 the way it did in 1968. And, or 1985, and so there was always a lot of talk, a lot of planning but nothing really changed concretely. And this building, the Whitelaw hotel, was also an example of a lot of promises that were made but not kept. And that, you know, the hopelessness and the sense of despair and cynicism and whatnot had set in. But there is always hope and you can't ever give up, always hope. As long as there is life there is hope. And the thing is that people here just didn't know how much power that they had, you know, and how much they could do if they just would reach down and discover that. And then to also realize that people in the past had overcome even greater odds than they than this and so people began to discover that. Kevin began to discover that about his own life. Kevin began to discover that he had more, there was more potential in his life, more hope than he had ever thought before and so he began to catch hold of that idea, that, that dream that he could have a different life and that he could live a different life, and so he got hold of that and there were people around him who believed in him as well. Who were there to support him and so he took hold of that and he began to put the pieces together for himself and he began to blossom and flower into a person that he always was, but that he had never developed into quite yet.

SMITH: And today he is?

DICKERSON: He is the supervisor at the department of Public works. He's the resident, one of the resident managers here. And the leader of the tenants group here. He has his family and his children living with him. He's raising them. He's a community leader. You know, he's a pillar of the community. He's an example of, for me he's my leader. I do what he tells me to do, you know, so that's who he was always. It just was buried under a lot of rubble and that's where the community was, was buried under a lot of rubble and stereotyped in a way that it, by the, by outsiders that would say this can never be any different but now that's proven to be false and it isn't true and the building is an example of that. Kevin's life and many others are, my life is an example of that too. We share a common history, Kevin and I do. And so you just began to see that that change can occur and this, there's another reality. And it isn't the reality that everything is bad and nothing can work out and everybody is a problem. It's a reality that there's tremendous potential and opportunity here and there's a great past that's wonderful. That's very proud. Not that there aren't problems. There are problems. But the problems don't define the community. There is something here that is much stronger, much more beautiful that can be called upon, and called for and to see that happening. And to see that happening in individual lives, in communities, in projects like the Whitelaw hotel is one of the most fabulous things that you can possibly be a part, it's transforming. That's really what it is. It's transforming for the whole community. I have older people who drive by the hotel here. And they were here, they saw it in its elegance and they saw it go way down and out and they were so proud that it's come back and they called me and they talk about it and they tell the stories. And we have younger people who never were a part of that history. They only knew the bad stuff. Now they come in, they see the history, they see what it was. And they see the people, that their people are. And then they catch on and they say things like, 'Oh, you mean this is our past, this is our building?' Yes it is. And it's really not just for African Americans only. It's for the whole community as well. It has a transforming effect on the whole community as well. I didn't know this history. And it's helped to transform me. My children didn't know it. And the Washington DC community didn't know it. They think that the only history and a lot of people from outside DC doesn't know. They think the only history in DC is on the mall. Well this is the cradle of African American and American history, right here in this neighborhood and so we bring them up here and we show them this and they are in awe of it and they are changed as a result of it. They see the thing completely different, they see the people different. We bring up the congress people. All they know is what they read in the papers. And they think everybody is a dope dealer or a criminal up here. And that's not true. So they come up here. They see this, they see what people have done. They meet Kevin, they meet me. They meet other people and they say, they come away saying, 'Well how come we haven't ever seen this before?' and they're changed. What can we do then to make, continue this and to build on this. And that's the transforming effect. It's a ripple effect and it's a the essence of, it is the sense of community. And the sense of solidarity here and the sense of hope and the sense of power that people begin to learn from and giftedness, you know.

SMITH: Tell me what was the reaction when the, the day they reopened Whitehall hotel -- had the ribbon cut?

DICKERSON: The day in which the Whitelaw opened, we had the ribbon cutting, it was a magical day. People came from far and near just to walk through this place and to see that this actually got done. And what it looked like, of course. And we had the speeches and everything. But what you could tell most of all was that there was just this, this sense in people that there was hope. You know that there's, there's something new and different can occur and that's sort of the bottom line. They come away saying, 'You know, there is such a thing as hope.' And it just had that effect on them.

SMITH: And, 'We can do it.'?

DICKERSON: And, 'We can do it, together.' Absolutely. It took a whole group of people to do this. I mean we were just one part of it. It wasn't just Manna. And the thing is, too, about the Whitelaw hotel. This is an African American treasure and so for me as a white person to have been a part of this, it's a great honor but it's still essentially an African American historical treasure and it's, you know, I've been honored to be a part of helping bring that back but that's what this represents first and foremost.

SMITH: So tell me, what was this row of houses like a decade ago?

DICKERSON: Well again these are all boarded up. They're dilapidated, they're being used by drug addicts, homeless people. prostitutes. They're a drain on the community, they're like a, a you know dragging the whole community down, attracting all kinds of crime, all kinds of trash and litter, trash dump, et cetera. So it's just a blight and it's just a tremendous drag on the community and on what's going on right here, and you're just always dealing with things like crime that really do prevent you from doing anything else.

SMITH: So what did you try to do here in this row and other rows like it?

DICKERSON: Well, we worked to get this, to convince the city to let us have them first of all. And the city owned these properties as well as the ones next to them. And we convinced the city to let us own them and to fix them up and then to sell them to first generation, really home owners who had never owned anything before in their lives, and to take this and to turn it into something that was a tremendous asset in the community, from being a tremendous deficit to a tremendous asset.

SMITH: What's your vision, what's your goal for this community, not just this block, but this whole area, what's your vision? Tell me what's manna's vision for this community.

DICKERSON: Manna's vision is a part of the larger vision that the community holds for itself and that is that it will become a community, once again, that really takes care and watches out after each other and that one dimension of the community sees its life and its well-being and its future hooked up with another aspect of the community, so that nobody is working at odds. Nobody feels like that what happens to me doesn't have anything to do with what happens to you. It really does. Our futures are tied together and so the vision here is for a community that really works together, that coheres together and that has the resources it needs for the people to realize their potential. Their full potential.

SMITH: You keep talking about the importance of private single family homes. Why is that so important?

DICKERSON: Well, we want to create stake holders, what we call stake holders. People who have a sense of ownership and actually do own the community and they feel this is theirs. This belongs to them and so it just makes all the difference in the world in the way that one views the community, takes care of the community, looks at their neighbors, et cetera. So it's mine and I own it so it belongs to me. And so what, it's a reflection of me. So I want it to look the way I want it to look.

SMITH: How unusual is this for an inner city or a core city community? Was that typical of this community historically?

DICKERSON: Yes. It was. Washington, this neighborhood had a wonderful stock of single family housing and has had, that's one of the real advantages, one of the assets. People drive around and see houses boarded up. They think, 'Oh, isn't that terrible.' Well, really it isn't terrible, it's wonderful in the sense that here we had a stock of housing that could be converted into much needed housing for people whose incomes were lower but, you know, it was there, it was available, it was affordable. And we took advantage of it at the right time and created some new home owners, new stake holders and you begin to then see the community change at large.

SMITH: How important is that to the spirit of the community, to have a lot of single family homes this close together? Both historically and now. What kind of community gets created when you have a lot of those single family homes?

DICKERSON: Well, historically the neighborhood was a community and that's one of the things that you hear over and over and over again. From the old timers. Everybody knew each other. They took care of each other. They looked after each other. They helped each other. They spanked each other's kids. They loaned each other cups of sugar, et cetera. So they lived close together, in these single family homes. And they had a real community going here. And it was wonderful. It was just a network of support here that you wouldn't find in other places. And what happened was that began to be eroded and lost and now with the ownership of the homes we need to look after each other because we have something here. We have a stake in the community. We need to begin to look after each other. We need to begin to make these improvements. We're concerned not just about our home only, but about the streets and about the crimes and about the schools and all of a sudden, you begin to meet together and you come together and you can begin to find that sense of community once again.

SMITH: You say that people are together and you get that sense of community, it's that community spirit, that sense of community right there.

DICKERSON: Right. That we need to look after each other. There's that sense in which we, what belongs, what's my in my best interest, is also in your best interest and so there's that sense in which we are really looking after each other. Then we begin to care about things together, like the streets, the crime, the schools, the lights, the trash.

SMITH: But as you start to rehabilitate all these houses don't you get gentrification, don't you get welfare people moving in and then what happens to the low income people. Talk about what kind of community you want to create.

DICKERSON: Well, the community that we're talking about here is a mixed community, income wise. Racially. Culturally. It'll never be one group again. But what we, where we are now in this neighborhood -- and that's the reason this housing stock that was available here and that is not as available as it once was -- because we've done a lot of renovation and a lot of sales. But this housing stock presented a great opportunity to preserve that mix. Otherwise without this housing stock and without this possibility of moving people in with lower incomes, the neighborhood really would be threatened with one income group. That would be an upper income group that it would be what we call gentrified. And the poor pushed out. But when you own then you have power and so what we're doing is creating as many owners of lower income people, people who are in that lower range as possible. And so that they will insure that there will be an income mix. Our buyers do not move out. They don't sell their homes and move away and that sort of thing. They want to live here. They've been here and now these wonderful changes are occurring. There's a renaissance going on in DC and now they're going to be able to take advantage of some of the benefits now that these changes are occurring.

SMITH: Do you think you can bring back the community that was once here when U street was at its heyday?

DICKERSON: No, it'll never be the same. So we're at a new day. But we can bring back the sense of community that's here that was here at one time. The sense in which people did look after one another, did feel that bond, that sense of solidarity. There's a lot of different groups in the community. A lot of, it's a lot of diversity but what we are working with and what we're working on is that we find a common ground that everybody can stand upon and respect the differences and understand the differences, et cetera. But that we really do find a sense of common ground and that we are all in this thing together and that you know we're all helping the boats to rise. And the one person who is at the bottom of the ladder is connected to the person at the top of the ladder and vice versa. And that our futures and their well being are tied to each other. And there's a lot of people who feel that way, who, who are that way. The live close together. They are working on common problems together. They have a sense of pride. This belongs to them. So they have a sense of ownership and so those are all common themes that then translate into building a sense of community with their neighbors. Et cetera. And that's really what we're working with. That old sense of community where people are not primarily relying on the government and outsiders to take care of them, but that we are primarily relying on ourselves and then we get support when we need it. But we have the power you know to affect positive changes and we want the same things for our children and our families as anybody else does. Anywhere else. And we want the same standards lived out here. And you're seeing that occur. (sound too quiet) who are working to that end and that's really what we're working with.

SMITH: I was going to ask you do you have a sense that, that the revitalization of this area has taken off.

DICKERSON: Oh yes. A market forces are in charge here now. We're no longer talking about the any infused efforts from pe, non profit sector or from the government or whatever. The market forces are taking charge here now.

SMITH: The question is, is this a hot place.

DICKERSON: This is the hottest neighborhood in this city right here. Shaw neighborhood and then the one, Columbia heights. Property values are going up. You know you've got the convention center, the MCI center, the metro subway station is coming through here. U street is booming so it's a, it's a, it's a very, it's revived it's what people have wanted to see happen. You know and to see it come back. The question is are we going to maintain a mix here and that's what we're going to continue to do. And are we going to build a sense of community here and not let ourselves be splintered off and divided and set against each other but working for common, the common good, for everyone and I think that's those are questions that aren't so completely solved or answered here and so we've got more work to do, we have more housing to build. We have jobs to help some of our folks, our young people especially take advantage of here because now the neighborhood is creating jobs, whereas before it wasn't. All the income was walking out of here. Leaving, going to the suburbs. So we have a lot of opportunity.

SMITH: In all the work you're doing here, can you recreate the community that was here back in the first couple of decades of this century.

DICKERSON: No we cannot recreate the exact composition of the community. that day is over. But what we can recreate that was here before. Number one was that there was an economic mix. It was all one racial group of African Americans. But it was integrated economically with the upper income, middle income, lower income, all living side by side, all working together which then also tells me that we can also create a sense of community that was here that was the hallmark of this community. Everybody seeing that we are all for one and one for all and that was something that you just hear over and over again from the past and that's something that can be and is being recreated by a lot of people who live here right now because they see that you know one's future is tied to the other's future. And that we're all have a common ground and a common interest here.

SMITH: Do you think that you can recreate the great community that existed here 60, 70, 80 years ago.

SMITH: What is your vision for this community here.

SMITH: What is Manna's vision for this particular community.

SMITH: Why do you stress that it's so important to build these private family, excuse me. Why is it so important to have single family homes.

SMITH: What does it do to a community to have so many single family homes.

SMITH: What does it do to a community to have so many single family homes.

SMITH: Is this a hot place to be

SMITH: Is this a hot community to be in.

SMITH: If it gets so hot how do you keep it from becoming gentrified from a lot of wealthy people moving in.

SMITH: What kind of community do you want to create here.

SMITH: Are single family homes typical of this kind of a core city community.

SMITH: But is Washington typical of the country or is this community unusual.

SMITH: How important to the spirit of the community are single family homes. How important to the spirit of the community are single family homes.





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