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

Makini Brice and Kia Johnson
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Black business owners on Washington's historic U Street see echoes of 1968

FILE PHOTO: Ali closes out the register at the end of service at Ben Chili Bowl as the restaurant navigates the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) outbreak in Washington

By Makini Brice and Kia Johnson

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - For the owners of some of the venerable black-owned businesses on U Street in Washington's Northwest section, the protests against racism and police brutality that have flared on the streets of the U.S. capital seem like an echo of the past.

Rioting that erupted in April 1968 in Washington and many other U.S. cities after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King inflicted scars on the neighborhood that lasted decades.

Three black-owned U Street businesses that existed then are still are open today in a corridor of the District of Columbia once known as "Black Broadway" for its flourishing theaters and restaurants that welcomed affluent African-American customers from the 19th century through the mid-20th century.

"It's saddened me to realize that our sons and daughters are fighting today for the same rights that we fought for back then, 52 years ago," said Virginia Ali, 86, the co-founder of Ben's Chili Bowl. "They're fighting for the same basic human rights that we were fighting for."

Ben's Chili Bowl joins Lee's Flower and Card Shop and Industrial Bank as U Street establishments that have managed to stand the test of time.

Three generations of the Lee family have owned Lee Flower and Card Shop since 1945, decorated the White House, and recently advised Washington Mayor Muriel Bowser on the reopening of businesses amid the coronavirus pandemic. But in 1968, the Lee family was not sure whether the neighborhood would survive.

Hundreds of buildings in Washington were burned. Some neighborhoods were pushed into an economic tailspin that took decades to recover from, according to historian Jane Levey of the Historical Society of Washington, D.C.

Rick Lee, son of business co-founder William Lee, recalls huddling in the shop with his mother Winifred, and a shotgun, praying that God would keep them safe.

"It would have been a catastrophe if something had happened to the shop," said Lee, now 77.

The family had finally purchased the building housing the shop on a U Street corner that year after renting a different location for decades.

Several businesses, including Lee's, placed "Soul Brothers" signs on their windows to make clear they were owned by black entrepreneurs. Those businesses were largely untouched in the 1968 unrest, Levey recalled.


'A SAFE PLACE'

Ali recalled that Ben's Chili Bowl, located three blocks away, was the only business allowed to stay open during the curfew imposed to try to quell the 1968 rioting.

"We were able to accommodate city officials, police officers, even activists. This was kind of a safe place to just pop in during those turbulent times," Ali said.

Ben's Chili Bowl - known for a menu that includes burgers, chili dogs and fries as well as the colorful murals adorning the outside of the restaurant - is a local institution. Its customers over the years have included former President Barack Obama, activist and performer Harry Belafonte, civil rights leader Jesse Jackson, comedians Kevin Hart and Dave Chappelle and U2 frontman Bono.

The protests in the past two weeks in Washington and other cities in the United States and abroad were sparked by the death of a black man named George Floyd in Minneapolis after a police officer knelt on his neck for nearly nine minutes.

In 1968 and today, people took to the streets because they were angry about an unjust killing, but also over a range of other issues including lack of economic opportunity and police brutality, Levey said.

Ali and Lee family members said they are looking at the recent protests with a mixture of sadness and hope.

"I'm so glad that the young people are picking up the mantle," said Stacie Lee Banks, Rick Lee's daughter and the current president and co-owner of the flower shop.

The protesters today are more racially diverse than in 1968, which could put pressure on U.S. political leaders, Ali said.

U Street's remaining black businesses have witnessed the end of segregation policies, survived the scourge of drugs like heroin and cocaine in the neighborhood in the 1970s and 1980s, and are holding on through a new wave of gentrification.

Ali is still waiting to see a broader transformation in the United States, observing, "I hope to see positive change in this country before I leave this Earth."


(Reporting by Makini Brice and Kia Johnson; Editing by Heather Timmons and Will Dunham)