Arthur Ashe, who wrote this passage, was among the many luminaries who headed to this area—a center for black business, activism and entertainment since the turn of the 20th century—when he came to town for tennis tournaments in the early 1960s.
U Street had begun gaining its reputation as a mecca for black culture decades earlier; many of the street’s businesses and institutions were black-owned and run, and the surrounding residential streets were home to a majority African American population. Still, many white businesses in the neighborhood readily took money from black customers, while refusing to employ them. In the 1930s, a Peoples Drug store near this intersection was the target of protests waged by the New Negro Alliance when it refused to hire African Americans. Mary McLeod Bethune, the outspoken founder of the National Council of Negro Women, was among those who picketed.
In 1943, the Howard University Chapter of the NAACP held a sit-in and pickets at Little Palace Cafeteria. Pauli Murray, then the only woman and the top student in her class at Howard University Law School, later wrote that Little Palace was "a source of mortification for countless unsuspecting Negroes who entered it assuming that they would be served in the heart of the Negro section of the city." Five days after students began picketing, the restaurant dropped its whites-only policy.
By the mid-1960s, the area was becoming a hub for civil rights organizations, including Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.'s Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC). SCLC organized the 1963 March on Washington, the 1968 Poor People's Campaign, and advocated for D.C. home rule. The Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee's D.C. branch and Marion Barry's Pride, Inc. were also headquartered here.
On April 4, 1968, black Washingtonians gathered around this intersection after learning of Dr. King’s assassination in Memphis. Black United Front leader Stokely Carmichael demanded that nearby businesses close in King's honor, unleashing pent-up anger and frustration and sparking civil unrest city-wide. Later that year, the murder by a white police officer of a black citizen near this intersection during a dispute over jaywalking sparked renewed demands for fair treatment of black citizens and for hiring more black officers.