Posts Tagged ‘Howard University’

The Other Ben Ali Mural

Baltimore has crab cakes.  Chicago has Deep Dish Pizza.  And whether you prefer Pat’s or Geno’s, Philadelphia has the Philly Cheesesteak.  Here in D.C. we have the half-smoke – a half beef, half pork coarsely-ground sausage that is smoked before it’s grilled.  But in D.C., when it comes to this city’s signature food, there is no rivalry or controversy.  The best place to get a half-smoke is the original Ben’s Chili Bowl.

All week I have had a craving for a half-smoke, split and grilled, and served on a warm steamed bun with onions and Ben’s spicy homemade chili sauce, and a side of onion rings and a Cherry Coke.  So to end the week, on today’s bike ride I rode to Ben’s Chili Bowl for lunch.

As I was leaving after my delicious and satisfying lunch, I stopped and spent some time taking in the mural in the alley on the east side of the restaurant’s building.  Over the years the various murals that have graced the west side of the building, in the alley officially recognized by the city as “Ben Ali Way,” have gotten considerable attention from the press.  But the other, less-famous mural, is equally intriguing to me.  It is dedicated to the owners and founders of Ben’s Chili Bowl – Ben and Virginia Ali.  So I decided to find out more about the couple who founded the restaurant where I have eaten so many times.

Mahaboob Ali, commonly known Ben here in D.C., was born on June 13, 1927, in British Trinidad and Tobago.  He was the firstborn of seven children in a Muslim family, and was raised in the town of San Juan, which is located east of the capital city of Port of Spain.  Ben moved to the United States in 1945 as a student, where he enrolled at the University of Nebraska.  At that time he was planning on becoming a medical doctor.  But as the result of a fall down an elevator shaft while at the school he suffered a broken back.  He spent months recovering from the accident. Following his recovery, Ben attended four separate schools before earning his bachelor’s degree from Howard University here in D.C.

Virginia Ali grew up on a farm in rural Virginia and moved to D.C. looking for a job and new opportunities in the big city.  She went to work for one of D.C.’s heralded institutions — as a teller at Industrial Bank, the first African-American-owned bank in D.C.  It was at the bank that she met Ben, the man with whom she fell in love, married, and became lifelong business partners with.

In 1958, newlyweds Ben and Virginia began renovating the building at 1213 U Street.  Built in 1910, the building first housed a silent movie house called the Minnehaha Theater.  Later, Harry Beckley, one of D.C.’s first black police detectives, converted it into a pool hall.   The Ali’s simply wanted to own a business that would give them the means to raise their children.  Ben had worked at a restaurant in college, and they decided to open up their own.  They had no idea it would become such a huge success.  Today, Ben’s has spawned locations all over the local area.  It employs approximately 170 people and has about $8 million in revenue.

Ben passed away in October of 2009 at the age of  82.  Virginia, who was only 24 years old when she and her husband started the restaurant, is now 85, and can still be found working at the U Street location most days – greeting customers and keeping tabs on the business that is now run be her family.  Her three sons Kamal, Nizam and Haidar as well as her two daughters-in-law now run the day-to-day operations.

In August Ben’s will celebrate it’s 61st anniversary.  Over those years people have changed.  I certainly have.  The restaurant, however, has not.  The counter, booths and stools are all original.  And the half-smokes are just as delicious as they’ve always been.  Since the first time I ate there decades ago, I’ve known how good the food is.  And now, I know a little more about the people too.

[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

Trivia Fact: Due to Islamic prohibitions against consuming pork, Ben Ali never consumed some of his own restaurant’s popular offerings.

A Mobile Art Museum

As I was riding my bike this afternoon though Downtown D.C., I found myself in an area named City Center (MAP), which is a unique, pedestrian-friendly, 10-acre mixed-use project developed by Hines and Qatari Diar.  The City Center project is home to more than 191,000 square feet of retail stores and restaurants, 520,000 square feet of office space, 458 rental apartment units and 216 condominium units, a 1,550 space parking garage, a public park, a central plaza and pedestrian-oriented streets and alleyways.  Additionally, construction of a 370-room luxury hotel, The Conrad, with 30,000 square feet of additional retail space, is almost complete and expected to open later this year.

But I had been to City Center before, and it was none of these things that captured my attention.  What interested me most during today’s ride was a blue, industrial-looking cargo container set up in the park area of the development.  It was open on one end, and people were going in and out of it.  So naturally I was curious and had to find out what it was and what was going on.  So upon closer inspection I was able to find out that it was a mobile art museum sponsored by CulturalDC, an organization that provides a wide range of programs and services that support artists’ ability to live and work in the city.

The mobile art museum’s sole exhibit is by an artist named Jamea Richmond-Edwards, and is entitled “Stay Fly.”  Richmond-Edwards graduated Magna Cum Laude with a Bachelor of Art degree from Jackson State University in 2004 where she studied painting and drawing. She went on to earn a MFA from Howard University in 2012.  In addition to being an artist, she is also currently an Adjunct Professorial Lecturer in the Art Department of American University here in D.C.

“Stay Fly” is an immersive exhibit that explores black Americana, haute couture and fashion, and status symbols.  Comprised of the some of the artist’s colorful, textured paintings, as well as large and small-scale collages, and some of the artist’s personal designer clothes and items that reflect the personal styles which surrounded the artist as a young woman growing up in Detroit in the 1990’s.  The totality of the exhibit is intended to draw attention to the historical and often complex relationship between Black consumers, capitalism, fashion, luxury goods and personal creativity.

Instead of happening upon it by accident like I did, I recommend you make plans to go experience “Stay Fly.”  The exhibit is open Tuesdays through Saturdays, from 11:00am until 7:00pm, and will be in City Center through April 13th, and admission is free.  And while you’re there, make a day of it and enjoy the rest of City Center’s stores, restaurants, and the uniqueness of the project’s park and open spaces.

 

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City Center’s Japanese Lanterns are an Homage to the Cherry Blossoms

Frelinghuysen University

If someone were to mention a university in northwest D.C. that was founded to serve African Americans, it’s likely that 99 or maybe even 100 out of every 100 people would think of Howard University.  But on this bike ride I visited the site of another, lesser-known university, named Frelinghuysen University, which beginning in 1921 was housed in a two-story residence located at 1800 Vermont Avenue (MAP), formerly known as the Edwin P. Goodwin House.

Frelinghuysen University was founded in 1906 when a group of local African-American educators and leaders met at the home of Jesse Lawson, a Howard University educated African-American attorney, educator, and sociologist, and his wife Rosetta C. Lawson, an advocate for temperance and low-income housing, to organize a branch of the Bible Educational Association, with Kelly Miller as president. They also established the Inter-Denominational Bible College, naming Jesse Lawson, as president.  Eleven years later the two groups were combined and renamed Frelinghuysen University, in honor of New Jersey Senator Frederick Theodore Frelinghuysen, who had worked to promote civil rights during Reconstruction with Senator Charles Sumner, for whom The Sumner School, one of the earliest schools for African Americans in D.C., was named.

Frelinghuysen University provided academic programs, vocational training, social services and religious education for working-class African-American adults.  It was accredited and conferred degrees from 1927 until 1937.  But after losing its accreditation, and with the racially motivated laws increasingly limiting the future of the institution, in 1940 the school became the Frelinghuysen Group of Schools for Colored Working People, and Anna J. Cooper became its registrar.  The institution finally dissolved in the late 1950s.

The historic building eventually fell into disrepair until it was purchased by it’s current owners in 1992 for $90,000, and subsequently renovated back into a private residence.  The Queen Anne-style home follows a triangular plan with an octagonal corner tower, and includes such architectural features as corbelling, a patterned slate roof, and intricate iron finials.  It was designated by D.C. as an historic site, and listed on the National Register of Historic Places, in 1995.

      
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Charles Hamilton Houston House

As I happened to be riding down Swann Street in northwest D.C.’s U Street Corridor neighborhood during this lunchtime bike ride I noticed an historic marker sign on a wrought iron fence in front of an otherwise non-descript brick row house.  So as I am prone to do, I immediately stopped so I could read the sign and find out why it was there.  From the sign I discovered the house, located at 1444 Swann Street (MAP), was the childhood home of Charles Hamilton Houston.  Later as an adult, Houston lived there again along with his wife, Henrietta Williams Houston.  Later after the ride I researched him to find about him.  In addition to information on the sign (below), here is what I learned.

Charles Hamilton Houston was born on September 3, 1895, here in D.C., to William Le Pré Houston, an attorney, and his wife, Mary Hamilton Houston, a teacher.  And as I would find out, his parents’ occupations would greatly influence their son’s life.

Houston attended segregated local schools, graduating from the academic (college preparatory) program at M Street High School (now Dunbar High School) at the age of 15.   He then went on to graduate Phi Beta Kappa from Amherst College in 1915, before returning to D.C., where be began teaching English at Howard University.  The following year, however, Houston joined the Army and served as second lieutenant in France during World War I.  Upon returning from the war in 1919, Houston began attending  Harvard University Law School, where he  was the first black student elected to the editorial board of the Harvard Law Review, and a member of Alpha Phi Alpha, a fraternity which was founded by and for black students.  He would go on to graduate cum laude with a Bachelor of Laws degree in 1922, and receive the Doctor of Juridical Science the following year.  That same year he was awarded a Sheldon Traveling Fellowship to study at the University of Madrid.  In 1924 he again returned to D.C, and joined the faculty at Howard University Law School and his father’s law firm.

From 1929 through 1935, Houston served as Vice-Dean and then Dean of the Howard University School of Law.  During this time he worked hard to develop the school, turning it into a major national center for training black lawyers.  He extended its part-time program to a full-time curriculum and gained accreditation by the Association of American Law Schools and the American Bar Association.  During this time Houston served as a mentor to a generation of young black lawyers and influenced nearly a quarter of all black lawyers in the country, including former student Thurgood Marshall, who became the first black justice on the United States Supreme Court.  Houston believed that the law could be used to fight racial discrimination and encouraged his students to work for such social purpose.

Houston left Howard in 1935 to serve as the first special counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), serving in this role until 1940. In this capacity he created litigation strategies to attack racial housing covenants and segregated schools, arguing several important civil rights cases. Through his work at the NAACP, Houston played a role in nearly every civil rights case that reached the U.S. Supreme Court between 1930 and Brown verses Board of Education.  Houston played a significant role in dismantling Jim Crow laws, especially attacking segregation in schools and racial housing covenants. He earned the title “The Man Who Killed Jim Crow”.

Sadly, Houston died from a heart attack on April 22, 1950, at the young age of 54.  It’s a shame to think had he lived how much more good he might have also been able to do during the civil rights movement.


[Click on the photos to view the full-size versions]

"This is How We Live"

“This is How We Live”

Public art is fairly commonplace in many parts of D.C., and as I have been able to see during my bike rides, it has become even more prevalent over the past few years. One of the contributors to this increase is muralist Garin Baker, who has a number of pieces of public art throughout the city. On this ride my destination was one of his murals, one entitled “This is How We Live.” It is located adjacent to a playground, on the side of a building at 239 Elm Street (MAP), near the corner at 3rd street in northwest D.C. And it is not only located in the LeDroit Park neighborhood, it captures the neighborhood as the subject of the mural.

Mr. Baker currently runs a small public art company called Carriage House Arts Studios, which is responsible for countless public and private large scale mural projects across the country, including in New York and Atlanta, as well as D.C. In fact, Mr. Baker recently completed two murals located at the Turkey Thicket Recreation Center in northeast D.C.’s Brookland neighborhood, which I hope to ride to and see one day soon.

The D.C. Commission on the Arts and Humanities, in collaboration with residents from the LeDroit Park community, commissioned Mr. Baker to design, create and install ”This is How We Live,” a photo-realistic mural, which was done in the tradition of the depression-era muralists hired by the Works Progress Administration as part of the President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal Plan, which employed millions of mostly unskilled, unemployed people to carry out public works projects, including the construction of public buildings and roads.

As one of the city’s first suburbs, LeDroit Park was developed and marketed as a “romantic” neighborhood, with numerous flowerbeds and extensive landscaping to include narrow tree-lined streets. The developers even named the streets after the trees that shaded them, differing from the street names used in the rest of the city. Originally a whites-only neighborhood, it was through the efforts by many, especially actions by students from neighboring Howard University, which led to the integration of the area. By the 1940s LeDroit Park became a major focal point for the African-American elite, with many prominent figures residing there. Today, LeDroit Park residents represent a wide variety of ethnic groups, and it’s that diversity that entices new residents to the community.

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