True Reformers Hall
Lincoln Theatre and Colonade
The Howard Theater was the nation's first, full-sized theater built for black audiences and entertainers. About twenty years before the Apollo Theater in New York featured black entertainment, the Howard was a showcase for black musical, theatrical, and comedy talent including Washington natives like Pearl Bailey and Duke Ellington. Designed by J. Edward Stock and constructed in 1910, the baroque theater contained 1,200 seats with a balcony and eight boxes. Backstage there were dressing rooms for 100 performers.
When the theater opened in 1910, the black newspaper The Washington Bee reported, "The Washington Society was out in full force... the private boxes were filled with many ladies of society...(It was) first class in every appointment, a theater for the people." In attendance at the baroque palace, complete with crystal chandeliers, marble staircases and eight proscenium boxes, were Assistant U.S. Attorney J.A. Cobb and the former governor of Louisiana.
After twenty good years of top notch entertainment, including road shows, vaudeville acts, and musicals, the theater closed after the 1929 stock market crash and the space was leased for evangelical revivals. It did not reopen as a theater until 1931, with the triumphant return of hometown hero Duke Ellington, who packed the house for a week to mark the gala reopening. In rigidly segregated Washington, whites would sit next to blacks to see the great entertainment the Howard offered. Acts like Cab Calloway, Ella Fitzgerald, Billy Eckstine, Louis Armstrong, Sarah Vaughan and Lionel Hampton were regulars, sometimes playing as many as eight shows a day. It would be easier to name the black performers who didn't play the Howard - there weren't very many.
For the first half of the 20th century, the Howard was the cultural heart of an entertainment-filled black Washington. Attendance at the Saturday night shows was an important part of growing up in Washington. "You would save your money all week long to get the 25 cents to get into the Saturday supper shows at the Howard," recalls 91 year old Alice Spraggins. Piano great Billy Taylor, who grew up just down the road remembers the Howard as "a magical place... because this is where music and artistry came alive. It was where I saw funny comedians and I saw great tap dancers and people who did kind of ballet dancing and I heard wonderful artists and they were true artists doing whatever they did... I mean when I was a kid, this was a huge, big just gorgeous place with I mean balconies, I mean it just looked big."
The theater continued to thrive through the 50s and 60s, however it closed again for the first half of the 70s, its demise brought on by desegregation, rising crime rates and ticket prices. The Howard Theater Association operated it briefly in 1977 and owned it until 1986. Currently owned by the Washington DC government, the Howard remains locked and abandoned.
On a hot July day in 1903 the Reverend William Lee Taylor rose to speak before a crowd of 100,000 people who had assembled for the dedication of Washington's most powerful symbol of black ingenuity to date. "I was not willing to put any kind of a building in Washington," the Reverend intoned. "This is the capital of the nation. The critics from all over the country center in Washington. The Negro is the bone of contention, and there are many that say he is indolent and only fit for a 'hewer of wood and a drawer of water.' Therefore I made up my mind...to put up a building in Washington that would reflect credit upon the Negro race."
True Reformers Hall, as the building came to be known, is situated on the corner of 12th and U Streets. Five stories tall, constructed of beige and red brick, ringed with pairs of arched, 18-foot windows, and crowned with an ornamental frieze, it was a stately addition to the black neighborhood.
But the nature of the labor that made it possible is one of the most notable attributes of the building. The United Order of the True Reformers was a black self-help organization founded twenty years earlier in Richmond, Virginia by the Reverend William Washington Browne. They had hired a black construction firm and enlisted the talents of 28-year-old black architect John Anderson Lankford to build their institution a $46,000 home in Washington. The building had been financed, designed, and built by entirely by African-Americans and was considered so noteworthy, the Washington Post ran a story headlined "Erected by Negroes, White Race Had No Hand In Any Part of Work."
True Reformers Hall was not only stately, it was also eloquent, saying in effect (to paraphrase Lankford), "Look at what the Negro can do and has done with is brain, skill and money." The existence of the Negro race's skill was something that needed proving in turn-of-the-century Washington, DC-a fact that all African Americans were keenly aware of. For the building's dedication ceremony, President Theodore Roosevelt had actually written a letter, which patronizingly declared, "No one can watch with more interest than I do the progress of the colored race; and with the colored man as with the white man, the first step must be to show his ability to take care of himself and those dependent on him."
The first floor of True Reformers Hall was used as commercial and retail space and the upper floors housed offices that were leased to physicians, lawyers, and newspaper bureaus. The building's basement contained a drill room and armory for the First Separate Battalion, Washington's black national guard unit. The second and third floors held a dance hall where Duke Ellington played his first gig for 75 cents. A monument to black enterprise, True Reformers Hall drew other businesses to U Street.
The United Order of the True Reformers declared bankruptcy in 1910, but their building remained under black ownership. It was deeded to another benevolent organization, the Knights of Pythias. Then, in 1937, the Boys Club of the Metropolitan Police leased the building and hired the original architect to transform it into a recreation center, spending $17,000 to create a gymnasium, locker room, library, music room and game room. First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt cut the ribbon on opening day. It became the largest of the four clubs in the city and the only one to admit black people.
The boys club closed in 1959, and the site became a distribution center for Duron Paint Company, which used only the first floor, closing the other floors and boarding up their windows. True Reformer's hall was named a National Historic Landmark in the 1980s. The Public Welfare Foundation purchased the building in 1999, and it is currently being completely restored.
From the day it opened in 1922, the Lincoln Theater was extremely important to DC's black community because it was managed by African Americans. It stood in direct competition with two other neighborhood movie houses, the Republic and the Booker T, and it is the only one of the three still standing.
Located on U Street between 12th and 13th Streets, the Lincoln boasted a 1,600 seat auditorium. Behind the theater, the Lincoln Colonnade, a dance hall with a tunnel entrance off U St., hosted all the big bands of the day. Everyone had their proms there and fraternities used it for parties. Centrally located, it was the place to meet on U Street.
The Lincoln was frequented by such public figures as Ralph Bunche and poet Sterling Brown. In the 20s, Louis Brown gave an organ concert there. Eleanor Roosevelt and Joe Louis visited the theatre during a much-publicized March of Dimes rally. It was purchased in 1927 by the Lincoln-Howard Corporation and, like all DC movie theatres, the Lincoln was segregated until the 1950s. But by the time the theater's white owner had passed away, the company had reorganized to include black stockholders.