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Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Artful Collaborations at the Howard Theatre

This October, the Smithsonian Collections Blog is celebrating American Archives Month with a month-long blogathon! We will be posting new content almost every weekday with the theme Discover and Connect. See additional posts from our other participating blogs, as well as related events and resources, on the Smithsonian’s Archives Month website.

For decades the Howard Theatre, located at 620 T St NW, Washington, DC has collaborated with notable African American artists. Throughout its influential history, since 1910, almost every African American musician and singer has performed at the Howard Theatre. Some of the most notable appearances at the iconic theatre include Billie Holiday, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Charlie Parker. Add to the roster the talent of Louis Armstrong, Sara Vaughn, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald and Count Basie. Clearly the Howard has a significant contribution to the history of African American theatre.

In 1968, segregation and the ensuing riots presented the venue with many challenges. As a result of the societal and cultural climate, the Howard closed in 1970. The Howard Theatre Foundation was organized in 1973 by a group of local citizens in effort to preserve the cultural legacy of the Howard Theatre. The purpose of the foundation was to preserve the Howard Theatre as a viable cultural institution through fostering recognition and appreciation of the African American contribution to the performing arts. Due to the efforts of the Howard Theatre Foundation, the theatre was placed on the national register of historic places and reopened on February 15, 1975.  The Theatre Foundation also collaborated with other local cultural and historic organizations including Operation Heritage, Market 5 gallery, Museum of Temporary Art, and the African Heritage.

Harold Curtis Brown illustration, 1924. Henry P. Whitehead Collection, Anacostia Community Museum Archives, Smithsonian Institution, gift of Michael A. Watkins.
Through recognizing outstanding local talent and providing suitable facilities for the presentation of theater, music and dance, the Howard Theatre has had a direct and dynamic impact on the history of African American culture. A local talented artists illustrations can be seen in two 1924 programs recently found within the collection. Harold Curtis Brown, today an unknown figure in American Art illustrated three known Howard Theatre programs. Brown was an artist, designer, illustrator, and decorator. Brown spent a year in Washington, DC where he ran an art shop “Blakra” on U Street a few blocks from the Howard Theatre. At the time these programs and one known other were distributed Brown was currently living and working in New York City beautifying the homes of the elite. Harold Curtis Brown worked primarily in interior decorating a field which was vastly unexplored by African Americans at the time.          

Henry P. Whitehead was a local Washington, DC historian who led efforts to restore Washington's U Street cultural corridor and achieved recognition as an authority on and collector of black theatrical memorabilia. Mr. Whitehead worked to promote and preserve Washington, DC’s rich African American cultural heritage. His collection was donated to the Anacostia Community Museum in 2005 and is currently being processed and will soon be available for research.

Claire Norman
Project Archivist
Anacostia Community Museum Archives

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