Black business owners on Washington's historic U Street see echoes of 1968

Washington D.C.'s U Street was once known as "Black Broadway" for its theaters and restaurants that welcomed African-American customers in the mid 20th century.

The owners of two black-owned businesses that were opened then and are still open today say they see parallels between current protests against racism and police brutality and those of the past - like the 1968 riots that occurred days after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. when D.C. and other cities, including Baltimore and Chicago, erupted.

Hundreds of buildings in the nation's capital were burned, and some areas in the district were pushed into an economic tailspin that historians say took decades to recover from.

Some businesses didn't know if they would survive.

"And it saddened me to realize that our sons and daughters are fighting today for the same rights that we fought for back then" in 19' - 52 years ago"

86-year-old Virginia Ali is the co-founder of Ben's Chili Bowl, a local institution that has been visited by such notable patrons as activist and performer Harry Belafonte and former U.S. president Barack Obama.

Ali said her restaurant was the only business allowed to stay open during the curfew imposed amid the 1968 riots.

And 52 years later, she is seeing similar protests sparked by the video of George Floyd who died in Minneapolis after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

"It was just inhumane. The video was so inhumane."

A few blocks up on U Street is the Lee Flower and Card shop that has been owned by three generations of the Lee family since 1945.

For a few days in April of 1968, the Lees were not sure whether the neighborhood surrounding the family business would survive the political and economic turmoil.

Several businesses at the time, including Lee's, placed "Soul Brothers" signs on their windows to make clear they were owned by black entrepreneurs.

Historians say those businesses remained largely untouched by violence.

Stacie Lee Banks, the current president and co-owner of the flower shop, says this time she's hopeful for change.

"Well, just that I'm so glad that young people are picking up the mantle and, you know, carrying it on, and having the fortitude to protest./I'm hopeful that people will remember this in November when the election comes about, and that we can make a change with our votes as well."

Fellow businesswoman Ali agrees.

"But what's so different about this one is the way the young people have come out not just in Washington, or Maryland or Virginia, but all over this country and all over the world - and such a diverse group of young people. So I think that that's going to put enough pressure on our leaders. I hope to see that before I die. I hope to see positive change in this country before I leave this earth - and I don't have a long time, because I'm 86 already (laughs)."

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