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D.C. walking tour traces Duke Ellington, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes

Harlem comes to Washington on May 24, in a free walking tour celebrating Harlem Renaissance renowned writers like Langston Hughes, who had been a hotel busboy here in the 1920s, and Zora Neale Hurston, a student at D.C.'s Howard University.

'Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance' May 24 explores D.C. connections of writers like Zora Neale Hurston, who studied at Washington's Howard University.
Zora Neale Hurston by Carl Van Vechten, 1938. Carl Van Vechten Photographs. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division.
Washington's free "Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance" May 24 honors D.C.-related writers and musical greats
Courtesy of The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C. and the D.C. Public Library

The "Literary Walking Tour: U Street and the Harlem Renaissance" explores the historic U Street neighborhood, center of D.C.'s African American vibrant cultural life that predated the Harlem Renaissance.

The tour honors musical greats as well, D.C. native Duke Ellington and Pearl Bailey, who were stars on U Street -- which she dubbed "Washington's Black Broadway" -- before and after they were stars in New York.

The meeting place is across from the historic 1922 Lincoln Theatre, where Ellington, Bailey, Billie Holliday, Louis Armstrong, and others often performed. It served the city's African American community when segregation barred them from other venues. It closed after the 1968 riots that were sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. A quarter-century later, it was restored to its magnificence and reopened in 1994.

The 90-minute tour that begins at 10 A.M. at the U Street Metro stop's 13th Street entrance, is led by Kim Roberts, a historian of D.C.'s literary culture, and an award-winning poet.

Registration is free (click here) for the tour whose stops include:

  • Two houses where Duke Ellington lived when he was a teenager.
  • Garnet-Patterson Junior High School, where Pearl Bailey had been a student. Later students included jazz musician Billy Taylor, and Marvin Gaye.
  • The Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage, formerly the 12th Street Y, where Langston Hughes rented a single-occupancy room.

The very popular Busboys and Poets restaurants and literary venues, that originated at V and 14th Street, N.W. are named in Hughes' honor. In the 1920s, he worked as a busboy at the Wardman Park Hotel, now the Washington Marriott Wardman Park.

D.C. was one of numerous places Hughes lived. He had only 25 cents when he arrived in D.C. from New York to move in with his mother, younger brother, and cousins. His first job was in a laundry. "I never dreamed human beings sent such dirty clothes to a laundry," he wrote in his autobiography, "The Big Sea".

"I didn't like my job, and I didn't know what was going to happen to me, and I was cold and half-hungry, so I wrote a great many poems," he said. "I began to write poems in the manner of the Negro blues and the spirituals."

He noted, "Negro life in Washington is definitely a ghetto life" and within the ghetto, there were "rigid class and color lines...the upper class colored people...were on the whole as unbearable and snobbish a group as I have ever come in contact with anywhere."

Hughes left Washington after about 14 unhappy months, and eventually became one of the leading writers of the Harlem Renaissance, along with Zora Neale Hurston.

Other tour stops relate to Hurston, who attended Howard University and supported herself as a waitress in the exclusive, all-white Cosmos Club way across town on Embassy Row.

Howard was "the capstone of Negro education in the world," Hurston wrote in her autobiography "Dust Tracks on the Road". "It is to the Negro what Harvard is to the whites."

She said to "the spirit of Howard, '...I am a tiny bit of your greatness. I swear to you that I shall never make you ashamed of me." She received an associate degree in 1920, but dropped out because she couldn't afford tuition.

Howard's literary magazine, "The Stylus", published her first story, "John Redding Goes to Sea", in 1921. That led to her publishing stories in the journal "Opportunity" in New York. Encouraged, she departed for New York in January 1925 "with $1.50, no job, no friends, and a lot of hope." She realized most of her hopes, including graduating from Barnard in 1928.

Another Howard-Harlem Renaissance writer featured in the tour is Rudolph Fisher, a D.C. native who attended Howard University Medical School. He wrote the first African American detective novel, "The Conjure-Man Dies", published in 1932.

Others included in the tour are:

  • Victor R. Daly, whose "Not Only War" is believed to be the only World War One novel written by an African American veteran. After serving in France, he completed his college degree at Cornell University, then moved to D.C. and became managing editor of the "Journal of Negro History".
  • E. C. (Edward Christopher) Williams' "When Washington Was in Vogue", written as a series of letters from a Word War One veteran to his old army buddy in New York, is considered the first African American epistolary novel (one written as a series of letters or journal entries.) The first African American professional librarian in the nation, he was fluent in five languages. He had almost completed a doctorate at Columbia University, when he died at age 58.
  • Additional writers are Jean Toomer, Jessie Redmon Fauset, Richard Bruce Nugent, Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Alain Locke, Rudolph Fisher, and James Weldon Johnson, better known for his work with the NAACP.

The tour is co-sponsored by The Humanities Council of Washington, D.C., and the D.C. Public Library.

The walk launches the DC By The Book app for iPhones and Androids. The app guides users on tours of DC By the Book sites across the city. Several stops on the May 24 special tour are featured in the new app. Download it at

As Zora Neale Hurston wrote, "Sometimes I feel discriminated against, but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me."

Do not deny yourself the pleasure of this tour on May 24, or on you own any time, accompanied by DC By the Book.

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