Posts Tagged ‘U Street’

GeorgiaDouglasJohnson01

Georgia Douglas Johnson Residence

You never know what history you’re going to find when you’re riding a bike around this city.  During this ride, as I was riding in the Cardoza neighborhood near U Street in northwest D.C., I happened upon a historical marker on a cast iron fence that surrounded a grey townhouse at the end of the block at the corner of S and 15th Streets.  In turned out to have been placed there to mark the house, located at 1461 S Street (MAP), where Georgia Douglas Johnson once lived.  So naturally, I later researched her to find about the woman who once lived at that house, and was important enough to be recognized.

Georgia Douglas Johnson was an African American poet and playwright.  She is best known for her collections of poetry: “The Heart of a Woman” (1918) (see below), “Bronze” (1922), “An Autumn Love Cycle” (1928) and later, “Share My World” (1962).  In addition to poetry, Georgia also wrote over two dozen plays, and authored a newspaper column for over a decade.  Throughout her life she wrote 200 poems, 28 plays and 31 short stories. For her works, she was considered an important member of the “New Negro Movement,”  an intellectual, social, and artistic explosion centered in Harlem, New York, spanning the 1920s.  The New Nego Movement would later become known as the “Harlem Renaissance.”

Born in Atlanta, Georgia on September 10, 1877, Georgia Blanche Douglas Camp was born to Laura Douglas and George Camp.  Her mother was of African and Native American descent, and her father was of African-American and English heritage.  She grew up and received her education in Georgia, graduating from Atlanta University’s Normal School in 1896.  She then went on to become a teacher, but resigned to pursue her love of music, attending Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio.  After studying at Oberlin, she returned to Georgia and returned to the educational field.

She married Henry Lincoln Johnson, an Atlanta lawyer and prominent Republican Party member, on September 28, 1903.  Henry’s law career brought them to D.C. in 1910, when Henry received an appointment as the Recorder of Deeds from President William Howard Taft.   It was his career that kept them here as well.  So although she was considered an important member of the Harlem Renaissance, she was never a New York City resident, neither when the movement was in full swing in the 1920s or after.  Instead, she and her family continued to live here in D.C.

Georgia and her husband had two sons, Henry Lincoln Johnson, Jr., and Peter Douglas Johnson.  But by the time they became teenagers, her husband passed away, leaving her alone to raise their boys.  This began a difficult period in her life, as she struggled to raise two boys and provide for her family financially.  As a gesture of appreciation for her late husband’s loyalty and service, President Calvin Coolidge, a devoted member of the Republican Party, appointed Georgia the Commissioner of Conciliation, a position within the Department of Labor.  So throughout the last 50 years of her life, Georgia raised and supported her family alone, while continuing and expanding her writings.

Also after her husband’s death, Johnson began to host weekly “Saturday Salons” for friends and authors, including Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Anne Spencer, Richard Bruce Nugent, Alain Locke, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Angelina Weld Grimké and Eulalie Spence, and many of the other noted women writers of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance. The S Street House, which became known at that time as the “S Street Salon,” became a satellite of sorts for others who were part of the Harlem Renaissance to meet, socialize, discuss their work, and exchange ideas while they were visiting the nation’s segregated capital. Gloria called her home the “Half Way House” for friends traveling, and where those with no money and no place to stay would be welcome.

Gloria died in 1969 at the age of 85.  And as she lay in her deathbed, one of her sister playwrights and a former participant of the S Street Salon, sat by her bedside “stroking her hand and repeating the words, ‘Poet Georgia Douglas Johnson’.”


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

The Heart of a Woman

The heart of a woman goes forth with the dawn,
As a lone bird, soft winging, so restlessly on,
Afar o’er life’s turrets and vales does it roam
In the wake of those echoes the heart calls home.
The heart of a woman falls back with the night,
And enters some alien cage in its plight,
And tries to forget it has dreamed of the stars
While it breaks, breaks, breaks on the sheltering bars.

Note:  The house has undergone numerous renovations over the years, during which previous owners divided it into flats, and later turned it into a group home.  It was recently renovated and restored.  And last year, the six-bedroom, six-bathroom, 4,100-square-foot property was on the market for $2.875 million.

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.

Mamie “Peanut” Johnson Mural

Mamie Johnson got her nickname from a trash-talking third baseman for the Kansas City Monarchs named Hank Bayliss.  Although that was not his intention.  Standing at the plate opposite the 5-foot-3, 115-pound right-handed pitcher, Bayliss took a hard strike, after which he stepped out of the batter’s box and said, “Why, that little girl’s no bigger than a peanut. I ain’t afraid of her.”  But it would take more than trash talking when facing off against her.  She proceeded to strike him out.  After that, Johnson decided to turn the jab into her nickname.  And from then on the first female pitcher to play in the Negro Leagues was affectionately known as “Peanut.”

Peanut was born Mamie Lee Belton in Ridgeway, South Carolina on September 27, 1935, to Della Belton Havelow and Gentry Harrison.  In 1944 her family moved, eventually settling down here in D.C.  In 1952, when she was still just 17 years old, she and another young woman went to a tryout in nearby Alexandria, Virginia, for the All-American Girls Professional Baseball League.  This was the same league portrayed in the film “A League of Their Own.”  But despite Jackie Robinson breaking the color barrier in Major League Baseball (MLB) five years earlier, the women’s league remained segregated, and she was turned away.  Years later she was quoted as saying, “They looked at us like we were crazy.  They wouldn’t even let us try out, and that’s the same discrimination that some of the other black ballplayers had before Mr. Robinson broke the barrier. I never really knew what prejudice was until then.”

She would later recall her rejection by the women’s league, however, was a blessing in disguise.  Because the later that year a scout saw Johnson dominate a lineup of men while playing for a team sponsored by St. Cyprian’s Catholic Church in D.C.  The scout invited her to try out for the Indianapolis Clowns of the Negro Leagues, the same team that launched the career of Hall of Famer Hank Aaron.  She would go on to play three seasons with the Clowns, from 1953 through 1955.

At the plate the right-handed batter had a respectable batting average in the range of .262 to .284.  But with a career 33–8 win-loss record, she was not as good a batter as she was a pitcher.  A right-handed pitcher with a deceptively hard fastball, Peanut also threw a slider, circle changeup, screwball, knuckleball, and curveball, a pitch she received pointers on from Satchel Paige.  Of Paige, she said, “Tell you the truth, I didn’t know of his greatness that much. He was just another ballplayer to me at that particular time.  Later on, I found out exactly who he was.”

Peanut’s brief professional baseball career ended before her 20th birthday, but in that time she amassed a lifetime of interesting stories about a bygone era of playing baseball in a league born of segregation.  After retiring, she earned a nursing degree from North Carolina Agricultural & Technical State University and established a 30-year career in the field, working at Sibley Memorial Hospital back here in D.C.  She later operated a Negro Leagues memorabilia shop in nearby Capitol Heights, Maryland.

Peanut eventually received recognition for her career in the Negro Leagues.  In 1999, she was a guest of The White House.  And in 2008, Peanut and other living players from the Negro Leagues ere were drafted by major league franchises prior to the 2008 MLB First year Draft.  Peanut was selected by the Washington Nationals.  Peanut also spoke at an event entitled Baseball Americana 2009, which was organized by The Library of Congress.  And in 2015, a Little League named for her was formed in D.C.

Among these and many other accolades is a mural featuring Peanut, along with Josh Gibson, another prominent Negro League player from D.C. who was also known as the “black Babe Ruth”, and played for the Homestead Grays, who played home games at D.C.’s Griffith Stadium.  The mural was created last year here in D.C.  It is located in the alley off of U Street (MAP) between Ben’s Chili Bowl and the Lincoln Theater in northwest D.C.’s Shaw neighborhood, and was the destination of this lunchtime bike ride.  Today is opening day for MLB and the Washington Nationals.  And normally I would ride by Nationals Park on Opening Day.  But since I couldn’t go to the game this afternoon, I decided to go see this baseball-themed mural during today’s lunchtime bike ride.

The colorful mural was painted by D.C. artist Aniekan Udofia, and is directly across the alley from his mural featuring the likes of Barack and Michelle Obama, Prince and Muhammad Ali on the side of Ben’s Chili Bowl.  The mural was conceived and orchestrated by MLB to kick off the weeklong festivities leading up to last fall’s MLB All-Star Game at Nationals Park.  At the unveiling ceremony, a speaker stated that one of the goals of the mural was to “inspire others to learn about Johnson, Gibson and the Negro Leagues.”  And today I did just that.

 

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