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May 17, 2000: Column on Howard Theater

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May 17, 2000

It was August of 1910. Furniture store owner Benjamin Benedict, frustrated that black residents of Washington, D.C., were barred from the city's segregated theaters, determined to build a cultural palace in the heart of one of the most vibrant black neighborhoods. Upon completion, the 1,500-seat Howard became the first large theater for African Americans in the United States.

The Howard Theater sits in a part of the nation's capital known as Shaw. Once called the "Black Broadway" because of its profusion of theaters, dance halls and artistic energy, the Shaw neighborhood was a major contributor to the Harlem Renaissance.

Washington, D.C., native Duke Ellington, when he wasn't playing the Howard, hung out at Frank Holliday's pool room next door. President Franklin Roosevelt and his wife, Eleanor, were frequent audience members.

In addition to Ellington, the list of artists who performed over the decades included another Washington native, Pearl Bailey, as well as Billie Holiday, Sarah Vaughan, Sammy Davis Jr., Jackie "Moms" Mabley, Bill "Bojangles" Robinson, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Charlie Parker, Ray Charles, B.B. King, Dick Gregory, Sidney Poitier, and the Supremes -- who made their first stage appearance at the Howard. On the roster of other Motown greats were the Platters, Gladys Knight and the Pips, James Brown, the Temptations, and Smoky Robinson and the Miracles. The Howard was not only a grand symbol of black pride and equality, it was also a destination for black audiences, and an important base for black performers.

Ironically, once the civil rights laws of the 1960s were passed, and African Americans were allowed to attend Washington's downtown theaters, the audience began to fall away. The riots that followed the assassination of Dr. King struck the Shaw neighborhood particularly hard, forcing the theater's closing in 1970. In 1973, the building was added to the National Register of Historic Places. But by the 1980s, the neighborhood around the theater had disintegrated into one of the meanest parts of the city. The once-grand Howard stood dark.

If the Howard Theater is left to disintegrate, an important piece of America's history will crumble with it. For although the Howard was an African-American theater first, its history tells the story of a time when Jewish, Latin, Eastern European and other minority groups were also banned from playing in "whites-only" theaters. The Howard stage welcomed all performers -- it was an oasis of diversity and integration, where performers of diverse backgrounds could celebrate and share their talents.

Walking into the lobby of the Howard evokes an era gone by. Schoolchildren can read the history of the period in their schoolbooks. Civil rights leaders can evoke the spirit of the times in lectures and speeches. But nothing conveys the soul of the Shaw neighborhood, and the theater that was its heart, like walking into the Howard itself.

Over the course of the last several years, local preservation groups have undertaken efforts to save the Howard -- with little success. The building stands as a stark reminder of the darkest days of the nation's capital -- windows boarded, and doors sealed.

In 1998, in his State of the Union address, the President announced his intention to create "a public-private partnership to advance our arts and humanities, and to celebrate the millennium by saving America's treasures, great and small." To focus public attention on the need to save threatened national treasures, the White House Millennium Council and the National Trust for Historic Preservation joined forces to designate sites like the Howard and its neighbor, the Dunbar Theater, as Save America's Treasures "official projects."

In addition to the national recognition that "official projects" receive, they are eligible for matching grants to assist in the conservation, rehabilitation and ongoing care of these precious sites. In many cases, preservationists and activists across the country struggled for years to raise the funds to restore beloved local treasures like the Howard, often without success. I am pleased that the heightened profile of the sites that have won official designation, many of which I have visited over the course of the last two years, has helped community groups generate significant new sources of funding.

This week, the Howard and the Dunbar, which was built in 1921 and named after this country's first critically acclaimed African-American poet, Paul Laurence Dunbar, received designation as official Save America's Treasures projects. The Howard won the special distinction of becoming the 500th official site.

When its restoration is complete, the Howard, with its two movie theaters, live entertainment complex, restaurants and production center, will reflect the renaissance that is taking place across the city.

It is one thing to read about the Harlem Renaissance and the great black performers in history books. It is quite another to see it, walk through it, and experience it firsthand. Historic structures, original documents, works of art and authentic artifacts inspire us as nothing else can.

As we continue to celebrate the millennium year, the hundreds of Save America's Treasures projects will stand as gifts to the future, shining jewels that honor our past and preserve our identity as a community and as a nation.

To find out more about Hillary Rodham Clinton and read her past columns, visit the Creators Syndicate web page at www.creators.com.


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