The goal of the True Reformers was clear. Founded by William Washington Browne as a black temperance organization in the late 19th century, it later grew into an insurance, banking, and newspaper business that catered to black people in need of business loans, help and services they could not get from White. businesses, according to the Virginia Encyclopedia. At one time, it was the largest black-owned business in the United States.
The building was also a symbol of Black Washington’s growing political, economic, and educational strength.
John Anderson Lankford, Washington’s first recorded black architect, designed the building. He “stands out in the civilized world as a specimen or an example of what the Negro can and has done with his brains and skill and money,” he said at the time. according to Cultural Tourism DC.
Today, the Public Welfare Foundation, which has owned the building since 1999, works to educate both new Washingtonians and longtime residents of its significance.
In the process, the foundation wants to continue the building’s legacy as a resource for black Americans.
“This is literally hallowed ground,” Candice C. Jones, executive director of the Public Welfare Foundation, said last week as she led a tour through the 119-year-old building, which was updated in 2001 and remodeled again in 2019 just before the pandemic.
“Why is this landmark important? asked Jones. “Because a few blocks from Vermont there was once a tent city where black people fleeing racial terror in the South came to settle. The True Reformer company…would pool its resources and provide people with services they couldn’t get in the marketplace.
This week, the foundation will celebrate its 75th anniversary as a nonprofit that has distributed more than $700 million to grantees doing social justice work, including pushing for criminal justice reform for young people and adults. There will be parties, music (including a performance by the Howard University Marching Band), panel discussions, and a keynote address by Bryan Stevenson, Executive Director of the Equal Justice Initiative.
The anniversary, Jones said, is a chance for the organization to celebrate its ongoing work: seeking “transformative justice.” That doesn’t just mean calling for “less policing, less jail, less sentencing,” she said, but also funding approaches that will meet early-stage needs.
“It can’t just be dismantling. It’s about what you build,” Jones said. “And the one thing we’re going to be able to build on is really more investment in communities of color.”
The True Reformer Building is a symbol of what investment can do for a neighborhood. And what happens when that investment disappears.
Today, the most distinctive feature on the building’s exterior is Ellington’s massive mural, a replica of the one that once stood above the U Street tube station. Coming from the west, the mural, by Washington artist G. Byron Peck, is almost impossible to miss, a reminder in the heavily gentrified hallway of its black beginnings.
In the early 20th century, Howard University, a few blocks away, was a vibrant young college whose graduates saw opportunities blossom for them in the new U Street corridor and other parts of the district. U Street grew and became the district’s version of “Wall Street and 125th Street in Harlem at the same time,” said Maurice Jackson, assistant professor of African American history at Georgetown University.
“All the big clubs were there,” Jackson said. “And all the great performers were playing there. Duke Ellington, Mrs Lena Horne.
Jackson said Ellington occasionally played shows in the building’s auditorium and gymnasium between basketball games.
However, as U Street began to prosper, the fortunes of the True Reformers organization faded due to financial scandals and mismanagement. A fraternal organization and secret society purchased the building in 1917, and by mid-century it served as the only Boys Club in the district to admit blacks. Other businesses and organizations would rent the building over the years, but the 1968 riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. devastated much of U Street. The building survived intact, but the hallway’s fortunes fell.
In 1989 the building was listed on the National Register of Historic Places, and 10 years later it was purchased by the Public Welfare Foundation, which completely renovated and remodeled the building before opening it in 2001.
Today, the building’s other tenants also deal with criminal justice issues. The Washington Legal Clinic for the Homeless and the National Reentry Network for Returning Citizens have their offices in the building. And Public Welfare, the building’s owner, said it would make office space available free of charge to other nonprofits working to address critical social concerns. It also offered its meeting rooms to organizations that needed space and installed large windows on the first floor to make it more attractive to passers-by and give them a better idea of the work taking place there.
Like the building’s original owners, Jones says investing in communities is key. Especially when it comes to issues of justice and judicial reform. In thriving communities, Jones said, there is a continuum of care available to people, including mental health services, counsellors, education and a focus on wellness.
“We need to start investing in the things we want to see, and we don’t want all the tactics to be repression and incarceration,” she said. “We need to have alternative models for real harm reduction, because that’s what will allow us to have healthy communities.”
Public Welfare’s work, Jones said, follows the building’s original owners’ original purpose of serving black Americans who face systemic discrimination. “You have this whole history bubbling through this place,” she said. “And it now exists to support exactly the kind of work that’s being done here.”