For DC Black Business Owners Protests Stir Up Memories Of 1968


For DC Black Business Owners Protests Stir Up Memories Of 1968

For the owners of some of the venerable black-owned businesses on U Street in Washington, DC’s Northwest section, the protests against racism and police brutality that have flared on the streets of the United States capital seem like an echo of the past.

The rioting that erupted in April 1968 in Washington and many other US cities after the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr inflicted scars on the neighbourhood that lasted decades.

Three Black-owned U Street businesses that existed then are still open today in a corridor of the District of Columbia once known as “Black Broadway” for its flourishing theatres 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 neighbourhood would survive.

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

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.

Silence Is Pro-Racist Anti-Racism Protests Continue Worldwide

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.

For DC Black Business Owners Protests Stir Up Memories Of 1968


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