Doctor Eclectic

Doctor Eclectic
Doctor Eclectic

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Oliver O. Howard

The original Howard Theater
A recent show on National Public Radio featured a Theater in Washington DC that has been recently renovated.  What made the event noteworthy was that it has a history of being a place where black entertainers performed for black audiences.  What made it noteworthy for me is that the name of the theater is The Howard Theater.

As a dentist I am familiar with Howard University Dental School in Washington DC, which for years was the school from which most black dentists graduated.  In recent times, going back at least thirty years, this has not been the case.  In fact, I have a white nephew who graduated from Howard.  This in spite of the fact that his father was on the dental faculty of Tufts.

So, I was familiar with the name, but I became interested in who was this man named “Howard” and what had he done to make him associated with at least two institutions that were identified with Black Americans?

General Oliver O. Howard
Turns out he was a lesser known Union General during the Civil War.  Not as famous as Sherman or Grant and in fact may have been one of those generals Lincoln referred to when he was told that Grant drank a case of whiskey a week.  He reportedly answered, “Find out what kind of whiskey and send a case to all my other generals.”

After the war, Howard was posted to the Western theater and distinguished himself quite well, specifically quelling uprisings of the Apaches and Nez Perce tribes in the 1870s.

Prior to that time however, he was given the job of relocating the freed slaves.  No small task.  For instance, in the city of Atlanta, fifty-five percent of the population was slaves.  Howard set up a system that required the freed slaves to continue to work on the plantations where they were domiciled, for wages that were set by the Freedmen’s Bureau, which he headed.

Although the Reconstruction Era was chaotic, to say the least, his efforts provided a framework for what would eventually be the integration of the slaves into the economy.

The Howard Theater - 1910
The Howard Theater was interesting to me in its own right.  While in Dental school in Milwaukee, I used to travel to Chicago on a fairly regular basis and made a particular point to visit a black jazz club in Southside Chicago, named, as I remember it, for one of the “L” transit stations, Cottage Grove.  As I remember, there was no cover charge and drinks were affordable, even to a student.  My now-wife, Mary and I were in the club one night when we saw a very young, and not yet famous, Nancy Wilson. For much less than we would later pay to see her at the Blue Note.

Mary and I felt naively safe walking the streets in the area and found ourselves once in a while wandering in to clubs just to see what was going on.  On one such occasion we found ourselves in a club where we were the only white faces in a crowd of jazz enthusiasts and dancers.  The manager suggested that we might want to have a quick drink and then find a safer place to visit.

Renovated Howard Theater
NPR said that one of the things that made The Howard unique was its policy of allowing children to attend for the price of fifty cents.  Not a bad deal to see the likes of Charley Parker, James Brown, Brooks Benton and Jackie Wilson.  The newly renovated Theater will hardly be able to match that, but will continue the policy of featuring big-name headliners from the Black community.

We’ll be going to DC this summer.  I hope we can squeeze in a visit to the Howard.

Keeping on a theme of music and Black culture, my next post will share with you a musical experience we had when we were in Atlanta, and why I was surprised at the choice a college group made in their repertoire.

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