Colson Whitehead’s ‘Underground Railroad’ led him to Jim Crow Florida His new novel, ‘The Nickel Boys,’ is based on a real reform school notorious for its brutality

Elwood and Turner, the adolescent protagonists of Colson Whitehead’s new novel, The Nickel Boys, become fast friends at a brutal, segregated reform school in Jim Crow-era Florida, but they are opposites. Elwood is bookish, optimistic and gullible. While working in a hotel kitchen before being sent to the Nickel Academy, Elwood gets duped into dishwashing “competitions,” ending up doing the work of his older, wised-up peers. At home, he listens again and again to a Martin Luther King Jr. oration — “containing all that the Negro had been and all that he would be” — and after the Brown v. Board of Education decision he waits expectantly, and in vain, for a black man to enter the hotel’s whites-only dining room and sit down for a meal.

Turner is already at Nickel when Elwood arrives, so he knows how the world works. Turner, Whitehead writes, “was always simultaneously at home in whatever scene he found himself and also seemed like he shouldn’t have been there; inside and above at the same time; a part and apart. Like a tree trunk that falls upon a creek — it doesn’t belong and then it’s never not been there, generating its own ripples in the larger current.”

Colson Whitehead says he sees himself in the two protagonists, Elwood and Turner, in his book “The Nickel Boys.”

Penguin Random House

Whitehead, who is 49, says he sees himself in both boys. We were having lunch at a diner on New York’s Upper West Side, where the author spent his high school years. He recently moved back to the neighborhood after 18 years in Brooklyn. “It’s really boring and the food’s terrible, but we don’t go out much and my wife’s parents live here,” he said.

The idea for the novel came in 2014, after Whitehead came across news reports about the discovery of numerous unmarked graves at Florida’s Arthur G. Dozier School for Boys, which serves as the model for the Nickel Academy. Throughout its 111-year history, Dozier, which shut down in 2011, was known for brutality: beatings, rapes and, yes, murder. Dozier was segregated, but there was one building, “The White House,” where both black boys and white boys would be taken for beatings and worse.

When he first read these accounts, Whitehead was writing The Underground Railroad, which was published in 2016 to wide acclaim. It has since won both the Pulitzer Prize and a National Book Award, and it is being adapted into an Amazon series by Barry Jenkins. The novel follows an enslaved woman’s escape from antebellum Georgia. It’s a haunting, brutal, hallucinatory journey set against the backdrop of several fantastical conceits, including the central one: What if the Underground Railroad were, in fact, a real subterranean railroad?

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book,” Whitehead told me. “The Nickel Boys was a departure because I had just finished Underground.” He was planning to write a detective novel, but current events intervened.

“It was the spring of 2017 and Trump was trying to get his Muslim ban, and I was angry and discouraged by the rhetoric you’d see at his rallies,” Whitehead said. “I hadn’t written anything for a year and a half, and it was time to get back to work. I could do the detective novel or The Nickel Boys. I thought that with the optimistic figure of Elwood and the more cynical character of Turner I could draw on my own confusion about where we were going as a country.”

Unlike with The Underground Railroad, for which Whitehead drew upon stories from former slaves collected by the New Deal-funded Federal Writers’ Project and other historical accounts, there are living survivors of Dozier.

“It was a horrible place,” said Jerry Cooper, president of The Official White House Boys Association, an alumni group of sorts for the abused. Cooper, who is white, said, “We didn’t have interaction with the black boys, aside from maybe when we saw them bringing produce to the cafeteria. They were in one area of the campus, and the whites were another. And if the guards caught you interacting, you’d be sent to the White House — no matter your color.”

Cooper, who was at Dozer in 1961, told me African Americans may have had it worse overall because their work detail involved toiling in fields under the burning Florida sun. “But there wasn’t any difference in the beatings,” he said.

Cooper recalled a 2 a.m. trip to the White House, where he was placed facedown on a mattress and given 135 lashes with a 3-foot leather strap. “I passed out at around 70, but a boy waiting outside for his punishment kept count,” he said. “I still have the scars. That night I realized what it must have been like to have been a slave.”


But neither Cooper nor his ancestors were slaves. Many of Whitehead’s ancestors were.

His mother’s side of the family hailed from Virginia. Her father was named Colson, as was another enslaved forebear, “who bought himself out of slavery,” Whitehead said. His father’s side of the family was rooted in Georgia and Florida — “there’s an ancestor on that side from whom I got the name Turner” — while his paternal grandmother emigrated from Barbados through Ellis Island in the 1920s.

“Usually I do a serious book and a more jokey book. ‘The Nickel Boys’ was a departure because I had just finished ‘Underground.’” — Colson Whitehead

“A lot of my family history is lost to slavery,” Whitehead said. “And some that’s out there, I didn’t know at the time of writing Underground.” After it was published, some of his cousins reached out to chide him. “They’d say, ‘Didn’t you know about this, and this and this, about our history?’ ”

Whitehead grew up in Manhattan to upper-middle-class parents and spent his summers at the family vacation home in an African American enclave of Sag Harbor, New York. “The first generation came from Harlem, Brownstone Brooklyn, inland Jersey islands of the black community,” writes Whitehead in his fourth book, Sag Harbor (2009), a semiautobiographical novel that captures a nerdy, carefree adolescence. “They were doctors, lawyers, city workers, teachers by the dozen. Undertakers. Respectable professions of need, after Jim Crow’s logic: White doctors won’t lay a hand on us, we have to heal ourselves; white people won’t throw dirt in our graves, we must bury ourselves.”

Whitehead’s mother’s family owned three funeral homes in New Jersey, and his parents owned an executive recruiting firm. His mother and father became the parents of two daughters, then Colson and a younger brother. On paper, it was a Cosby Show existence. But as Whitehead recently told Time: “My dad was a bit of a drinker, had a temper. His personality was sort of the weather in the house.” (There are two sad examples of such temper in Sag Harbor, including one in which the father repeatedly punches young Benji, the protagonist, in the face as an ill-conceived demonstration of standing up to racial taunting.)

Colson (right) grew up in Manhattan in the 1970s with his brother Clarke Whitehead (left) and their two sisters.

Courtesy Colson Whitehead

After attending private schools in New York City, Whitehead went to Harvard. Growing up, he had immersed himself in comic books and horror films. “I wanted to write horror, science fiction and comic books,” he said. “A lot of writers my age had similar influences,” he added, citing Michael Chabon, Junot Diaz and Jonathan Lethem. “Then, in late high school and college, I started to think, Maybe I don’t have to write about werewolves.”

He was approached by another young African American writer at Harvard, Kevin Young, who is now an accomplished poet, the poetry editor at The New Yorker and director of the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. “I was working with a friend on reviving a black magazine from the 1970s, Diaspora, and she had met Cole and said he could be our new fiction editor,” Young said. “We hit it off instantly, and I published his first story.”

After college, Whitehead worked for five years at The Village Voice, eventually becoming the television critic. It was there he met writer-photographer Natasha Stovall, whom he married in 2000. (They later divorced.) He wrote a novel, but it was turned down by publishers and his agent dropped him.

“I was depressed,” Whitehead said. “But I wasn’t going to get a real job, and no one was going to write my books for me, so I understood I needed to get going. That’s really when I became a writer.”

His second effort, The Intuitionist, was published in 1999 and is set in a simulacrum of fedora-era New York, where there’s a war brewing within the city’s powerful Department of Elevator Inspectors. The protagonist, Lila Mae Watson, the first black female inspector in the department, is tasked with investigating a mysterious elevator crash. The book was well-received, including comparisons to debut efforts by Joseph Heller and Toni Morrison.

In 2001, Whitehead published John Henry Days, a multilayered, encyclopedic narrative thematically tied to the legend of John Henry, the railroad laborer who is said to have bested a steam-powered drilling machine. The following year he won the MacArthur Foundation “genius” award. Other novels (Apex Hides the Hurt, Sag Harbor, Zone One), a historical exploration of his city (The Colossus of New York) and even a poker memoir (The Noble Hustle, spun off from a Grantland article), followed. But it was The Underground Railroad (with a boost from Oprah’s Book Club) that launched Whitehead into literary stardom.

“It’s been remarkable to see Cole’s journey both in terms of his writing and as a person,” said writer and publisher Richard Nash, whom Whitehead met at Harvard and to whom The Nickel Boys is dedicated. “I remember going to one of his readings for his first book, The Intuitionist, at a bookstore in Soho. His hands were shaking, he was so nervous. And now I fully expect in a few years you’ll see his name crop up on the betting lists for the Nobel Prize.

“Especially with the last two books, it’s clear that’s where he’s headed.”

Whitehead has his critics. In a stinging review of John Henry Days, The New Republic’s James Wood (now at The New Yorker) pointed out instances of sloppy writing, such as using “deviant” for “divergent” and “discreet” when the intended meaning was “discrete.” Wood went on to note that Whitehead “tends to excessively anthropomorphize his inanimate objects” to “squeeze as much metaphor from them as he can.” Whitehead returned the favor a few years later when he satirized Wood in a Harper’s Magazine essay.

But Whitehead’s style has evolved, and his writing has become more precise. In The Nickel Boys, the anthropomorphization is sparing and powerful, as when he describes the shackles employed on defenseless boys who were beaten to death: “Most of those who know the stories of the rings in the trees are dead by now. The iron is still there. Rusty. Deep in the heartwood. Testifying to anyone who cares to listen.”


After our lunch, Whitehead said he was considering making chili for his family — his wife, literary agent Julie Barer, 13-year-old daughter, Madeline, and 5-year-old son, Beckett. “It’s hot, but there’s something about chili, it’s so hearty and satisfying,” he said. Cooking is a passion, and he’s been perfecting his meat smoking skills at his new vacation home in East Hampton.

Colson Whitehead’s book, “The Underground Railroad,” launched him into literary stardom when it was published in 2016.

Timothy Smith for The Undefeated

When he was writing The Nickel Boys, Whitehead said, he was struck by the parallels between the 1960s and today in terms of race relations. As a father myself, I was curious about how he broached the subject of race with his own children.

“It comes up more when we talk about police,” he said. “[My son is] really into cops and robbers. So when we’re walking around and he sees a police car with its sirens blaring, he’ll say, ‘They’re going to catch a robber.’ And I’ll say, ‘Maybe it’s an innocent man. Maybe it’s just a dark-skinned guy driving a nice car.’ ”

Whitehead couldn’t remember when his daughter first became aware of race — when she discovered that, to borrow a phrase from one Nobel Prize-winning writer, the world is what it is.

“That was a long time ago, and I can’t recall a particular moment,” Whitehead said. “But the thing is, everyone figures it out sometime.”

Tony-nominated playwright Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people She’s nominated for her work on the hit Broadway musical ‘Ain’t Too Proud’

Dominique Morisseau wants to make American theater better for black people, and she’s doing it by paying homage to her hometown of Detroit.

The 41-year-old playwright has been having a banner year. In October, she was one of 25 fellows to win grants from the MacArthur Foundation. Morisseau wrote the book for one of Broadway’s hottest shows this season, Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations. Now, it’s nominated for 12 Tonys, including best musical. There’s a possibility Morisseau could be taking home a statue for herself on Sunday night, as the show is nominated for best book (for spoken dialogue and storyline).

Oprah Winfrey (standing, center) poses with the cast and creative team backstage at the hit musical Ain’t Too Proud: The Life and Times of The Temptations on May 17 at the Imperial Theatre in New York City.

Photo by Bruce Glikas/WireImage

The jukebox musical tells the story of one of Motown’s most beloved groups as it soars to worldwide fame while balancing the needs and egos of a rotating array of singers. Founding member Otis Williams, played by Derrick Baskin, narrates the timeline from his beginnings as a teenage singer straight up to the modern day. At 77, the real Williams is still very much alive, and Ain’t Too Proud is based on his memoir. The musical briefly touches on issues that affected the group’s many singers, including being an absentee father, drug abuse and the pressure to avoid commenting on the Vietnam War, segregation or anything else that might pierce the melodic escapism they came to represent. But those issues are never allowed to overtake the tone of the show.

A big Broadway musical is a departure for Morisseau, and as her profile continues to grow, it’s something she’ll likely have to navigate more in the future.

“There are some things about writing a musical that are different than writing a play,” Morisseau told me. “The scarcity of language, how fast I have to convey an idea because we don’t have a lot of time between songs. The songs are really the story.”

Morisseau is married to musician James Keys, and music factors heavily in her plays. She figures they’ll likely write a musical together.

Before Ain’t Too Proud, Morisseau was a queen of off-Broadway, which is typically less commercial, racking up plaudits including a 2015 Steinberg Playwright Award and an Obie for her play Pipeline in 2018. Her work challenges audiences with complicated, interweaving social issues, especially when it comes to race. Pipeline, for instance, is about a black mother and public schoolteacher confronting her feelings of powerlessness in trying to prevent her son from getting sucked into the school-to-prison pipeline.

Morisseau is a passionate advocate for her fellow black playwrights and actors, and for ways to improve the faults she sees in contemporary American theater, whether or not there’s a proscenium involved.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people.” — Dominique Morisseau

“I will say no to very shiny productions of my play if it does not feel like everything around it has the kind of artistic integrity that I want,” Morisseau said. “I’ve had to stand up to theaters several times around the curation of my work or my relationship with them. … I have a really great relationship with a lot of theaters in the city, but it comes from push and pull and us developing mutual respect, because I’m just not going to be the kind of artist that you can tell what to do.

“When it comes to making decisions about who’s going to be in my plays, who’s going to direct my plays, I take a strong stance. I collaborate with a theater. Sometimes they want to push a director on me. I have worked with directors that the theater has brought to the table, but those directors that they brought to the table have been African American women directors or African American directors. Then I’ll go, ‘Oh, OK, well let me meet that person.’ ”

She’s also vocal about calling for more black artistic directors, the people in charge of programming theater seasons who are responsible for maintaining an existing donor base of largely white patrons while courting new, younger and browner audiences. When Hana Sharif was named artistic director of St. Louis Repertory, Morisseau shared her huzzahs on Facebook.

“You don’t see artistic directors of color, period,” Morisseau explained. “And you don’t see women artistic directors very often. There’s a few white women artistic directors of a few regional theaters, significant regional theaters, but not enough. St. Louis Rep, that is a huge regional theater, so for Hana to run that regional theater, it’s a big seismic shift in our industry.”

Actress Simone Missick, who is best known for playing Misty Knight in Luke Cage, told me she considers Morisseau “one of the pre-eminent writers of our time in the theater world and in television.” Although Morisseau’s chief focus is theater, she was also a co-producer on the Showtime series Shameless, and she is currently developing projects for FX and HBO.

Missick starred in Paradise Blue, the middle play of Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy. Set in 1949, Paradise Blue follows a talented trumpeter named Blue, who is trying to decide what to do about the jazz club he owns in Detroit’s Black Bottom neighborhood. It’s not bringing in much money, and Blue wants to move on. At the same time, white speculators are buying up property in the neighborhood intending to gentrify it and pushing out the black residents. Oh — Blue also has a serious mental illness, and he’s troubled by the fact that his girlfriend, Pumpkin, wants to stay in Detroit even though he wants to leave. A mysterious woman from out of town, a literal black widow known as Silver, raises everyone’s hackles. Morisseau, who played Silver in the play’s original staging, describes the character as “Spicy. Gritty and raw in a way that men find irresistible. Has a meeeeeaaaannnn walk.”

“Dominique has a mastery which I wish more writers had,” Missick said. “When you read it, it reads the way that people talk.

“You could drop a microphone in Detroit or in Alabama, where some of these characters are from, or Louisiana, where my character was from. You could drop a microphone and those people would sound exactly the way that Dominique has written. And that is a beautiful thing because so often when I read work as an actor, you read things and you think, people don’t talk like that. … But she also gives her writing a musicality, and if the rhythm of it does not sync with her spirit, then she changes it.”

Within Morisseau’s story of gentrification and the upheaval it brings is another story about Pumpkin and the fights black women face battling racism and sexism. Morisseau chuckled when I referred to her in conversation as a feminist August Wilson. It turned out that I’d tripped over one of the things she hopes will change about theater, which is that the press compares every black playwright to Wilson, no matter how incongruous their styles may be.

“I laugh when people liken me to August Wilson in any way or shape or form,” she said. “They do that for so many of us young black playwrights. It’s like any of us that have poetry in our language and kind of capture this unapologetic rhythm of black dialect, we all are writing in the fashion of August.

“Some of us actually really are, and would own that. And I don’t think others are doing that at all or intending to do that. I think that they’re getting called that because that’s the easiest go-to reference for a lot of people.

“I can’t ever deny August’s influence on my work,” Morisseau said. “I started writing the Detroit [Project] because I was reading August Wilson’s work. I read his work back to back, and I read Pearl Cleage, who was from Detroit, I read her writing back to back. I was just so inspired by their canon of work. … I just thought, Wow, what his work is doing for the people of Pittsburgh, how they must feel so loved, so immortalized in his writing, I want to do that for Detroit.”

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters, gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect.” — actress Simone Missick

Like Wilson, Morisseau focuses on working-class black people, and her Detroit trilogy (Paradise Blue, Detroit ’67 and Skeleton Crew) shares some broad ideas with Wilson’s famous Pittsburgh Cycle.

Furthermore, Morisseau writes fully realized black characters who exist in a racist society without being polemical. The contours of white supremacy are very much part of the worlds she creates, but her plays are about people, not arguments. Detroit ’67 is set during the infamous riot that took place in 1967, and Skeleton Crew, set in 2008, examines the difficult decisions autoworkers face as their industry weathers storm after storm. All of them seek to portray a Detroit that’s more than a collection of pathologies, as evidenced in Morisseau’s dedication for Skeleton Crew, which is pointed and personal:

“This is for my Auntie Francine, my grandfather Pike, my cousins Michael Abney and Patti Poindexter, my Uncle Sandy, my friend David Livingston, my relative Willie Felder, and all of the UAW members and autoworkers whose passion for their work inspires me. And this is for the working-class warriors who keep this country driving forward.

“This is also for the politicians, financial analysts, and everyday citizens who echoed the negating sentiments, ‘Let Detroit Go Bankrupt.’ Yep, this is for you, too, dammit.”

In some ways, Morisseau plays a role in theater similar to the one Ava DuVernay occupies in film. Both women are vocal about inequities in their fields and the way they affect whose stories get told and the budgets allotted to tell them. Just as DuVernay has been committed to creating a pipeline of female directors with her OWN drama Queen Sugar, Morisseau has pushed to work with black directors in theater.

Like DuVernay, Morisseau’s writing is ambitious, deeply researched work that focuses on characters surmounting challenges large and small stemming from racial inequality.

“All of these layers, details that Dominique weaves into her characters gives every single person a motivation that is not perfect,” Missick said. “It’s not trivial. It’s not trite. There is no character that is used to push the story along. I very rarely see that onstage or on screen, that every single person has something that they’re fighting for. … It’s something that I think makes her writing something that actors for generations will want to perform.”

Morisseau wants to keep challenging audiences. And she wants artistic directors to internalize that approach. She told me that artistic directors too often underestimate how much white audiences are willing to be pushed. And their conception of potential audience members remains blinkered.

“Across the theater board, they seem to think that money only exists in old white communities, which means that they don’t understand the buying power of any other people,” Morisseau said.

Will Smith, a pioneering black nerd, helped raise and change rap music Smith’s music career reveals an artist who believed in an Afrocentric American dream based on ambition, hustle and black pride

It was 2017, and Will Smith’s career seemed to have come full circle.

That’s when a sneak peek video surfaced featuring the world-famous entertainer performing a hip-hop version of the theme from Aladdin, a Disney musical, which opens in movie theaters Friday, featuring Smith in the role of the genie. For fans, the tune conjured memories of Smith’s career-launching hit “Girls Ain’t Nothing But Trouble,” which sampled the theme from I Dream of Jeannie, a 1960s sitcom about a genie.

The coincidence was eerily appropriate. With four Grammys, six American Music Awards, four NAACP Image Awards and two Oscar nominations, Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers. But while his big-screen achievements have been exhaustively examined, Smith’s musical accomplishments have received shorter critical shrift. From PTA-approved hits such as “Parents Just Don’t Understand” and “A Nightmare on My Street” to party-starting jams such as “Summertime” and “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” Smith’s songs are so cursedly simple that some might argue they’re undeserving of serious critical scrutiny. We’re here to argue otherwise.

Smith’s career has seemed like a magic carpet ride, almost as if a wizard granted his wish of becoming one of history’s most successful entertainers.

Take, for example, the aforementioned Aladdin rap. Like most songs from Smith’s canon, the tune is a bouncy urban jam with lyrics of nursery rhyme simplicity.

“One fine day the bazaar was at peace, when the guards started running through the Agrabah streets

They were lookin’ for a lad and a beast, ’cause they was nabbin’ some yeast

The thickest of thieves in the Wild, Wild East …”

Notice how Smith sets up a story, stoking your desire to learn more. From his very first 1980s hits, he has repeatedly woven fablelike narratives into his songs, a creative device that makes listeners hang onto his every word. In this regard, he has just as much in common with legendary country and western songwriters such as Hank Williams, Johnny Cash and Dolly Parton as with his rapping peers.

Next, note how the line “a lad and” is a subliminal reference to the title Aladdin, while the phrase “Wild, Wild East” alludes to Smith’s 1999 hit “Wild Wild West.” Rap music is a narcissistic genre in which artists’ skills are largely judged by the ingenuity of their boasts. In the Aladdin song, Smith triumphantly toots his own horn while never once name-checking himself, which makes him appear both humble and confident. That’s the kind of skill that helped the Philadelphia native nab the first best rap song Grammy Award in 1989.

The Aladdin promo music video harks back to Smith’s 1990s heyday, when he triumphantly sampled old rhythm and blues and TV theme song tunes packed with sentimental value (Aladdin samples Alan Menken’s theme from the 1992 animated version of the Middle Eastern folk tale). Smith’s rap also marks a return to the days when his songs were movie promotions, and it’s tempting to view his lucrative music career as a byproduct of his movie fame: safe-as-milk family entertainment concealed beneath a fashionable urban disguise. Indeed, Smith’s gentlemanly, glad-handing public image contrasts sharply with prevailing rap iconography, which has become so hard-nosed that most rappers wouldn’t be caught dead smiling in their promotional photos.

But a closer inspection of Smith’s music career reveals an artist who gambled on a personal belief in an Afrocentric American dream, one based on ambition, hustle, black pride and monogamy. His decidedly nerdy worldview has drawn its share of hilarious ridicule and attacks from peers, but in hindsight his ’90s hits now seem almost heroic in their contrarian niceness. What follows is an examination of Smith’s music career, an exploration that reveals how he remained true to his principles at the risk of being labeled a corporate sellout … and in the process became one of the best-selling hip-hop artists of all time.

The Plain Brown Rapper

It was 1988, and Smith was bombing.

Better known by his alias “The Fresh Prince,” Smith and musical partner DJ Jazzy Jeff were onstage at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood, California, opening for the Beastie Boys and Public Enemy. At the time, Smith and DJ Jazzy Jeff (real name Jeff Townes) were savoring the success of “Parents Just Don’t Understand,” the breakthrough single from their multimillion-selling album He’s the DJ, I’m the Rapper. They were 19-year-old millionaires, the darlings of radio and MTV. So why were they being jeered on a Los Angeles stage?

Despite their critics, DJ Jazzy Jeff (left) and The Fresh Prince (right) were the darlings of radio and MTV in 1988, savoring the success of their hit song “Parents Just Don’t Understand.”

Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

The reason was simple — Smith and Townes’ set was a disaster. This writer attended that night, and I recall being agog at Smith’s attempts to transform his performance into an interactive experience, appealing for audience participation as he emulated childhood games. Had smartphone cameras and YouTube existed back then, Smith and Townes might have become instant laughingstocks. Compared with the Beastie Boys’ beer-swilling rowdyism and Public Enemy’s fist-thrusting black militancy, Smith and Townes’ slapstick performance was embarrassingly naive and out of touch.

Other rappers might have taken the hostile crowd response as a cue to change course toward an edgier sound. But not Smith and Townes. They seemed creatively beholden to the early days of hip-hop, when the scene was dominated by boogie-down jams such as “I Can’t Live Without My Radio” and “Big Mouth.” As hip-hop legend William “Flavor Flav” Drayton told MTV in 1999: “I remember rap music. We used to party and dance off of it.”

But the dancing came to an abrupt halt in 1988. It was the final year of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, an eight-year term that saw black communities devastated by a federal escalation of the war on drugs. Nationwide, African American neighborhoods had watched in dismay as a blighting influx of crack cocaine gripped the areas where they lived. In mostly black South Central Los Angeles, police were using military-grade weaponry to confront young black suspects, while East Coast neighborhoods such as Roosevelt, New York, went from middle-class prosperity to abject desolation. “Mostly every household had somebody that was strung out,” said Public Enemy producer Hank Shocklee. “Even my brother had a brief moment being addicted, so it resonated very close to me.”

As if in response to Reagan’s hard-line conservatism, hip-hop got deadly serious. Hard-core rap subgenres that had been gestating underground suddenly began garnering widespread radio and consumer attention. Whether it was the political hip-hop of Public Enemy, the desperado “gangsta rap” of N.W.A. and Ice-T or the Afrocentric “conscious rap” of Gang Starr and the Jungle Brothers, 1988 marked a paradigm shift. Just as the Beatles proved rock music could make broader sociopolitical statements, rap’s Class of ’88 seized on hip-hop’s thematic potential, sowing the seeds of a musical revolution.

Into this chaotic musical fray entered Smith. His initial recordings helped transform rap into a lucrative crossover genre, yet he was already at risk of becoming a has-been. In 1989, he and Townes issued yet another collection of teen-targeted novelty tunes entitled And in This Corner …. The album and its spinoff singles flopped. “It was a tragedy,” Smith recalled in 2018. “[The album] went, like, double-plastic.”

The LP’s failure sent Smith into a downward spiral. Like many nouveau riche overnight successes, he had blown through his fortune while neglecting to pay his taxes, and now the IRS was knocking. “Being famous and broke is a s—– combination,” he would later say, “because you’re still famous and people recognize you, but they recognize you while you’re sitting next to them on the bus.”

Then, fate intervened. Hoping to keep his career afloat, Smith began appearing on The Arsenio Hall Show, a new late-night talk show that was an instant hit with the MTV generation. Backstage during one of his appearances, Smith was introduced to Benny Medina, who along with entertainment legend Quincy Jones was developing a sitcom about his childhood experience growing up with a wealthy Hollywood family. Smith aced his audition, and within months of its 1990 premiere, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air was the top-rated sitcom of the year.

In one fell swoop, Smith was rescued from near irrelevance, and he would make the best of his second chance. Cautiously embarking on a movie career, he earned all-important Hollywood cred by starring in acclaimed, low-budget art house films such as Six Degrees of Separation and Where the Day Takes You. He was craftily starting with modest projects, methodically inching his way up the Hollywood ladder, demonstrating the shrewdness that would make him a megastar.

Triumph of the Will

It had been years since the sales disappointment of And in This Corner…, but now it was 1991 and Smith was appearing on a talk show touting the imminent release of his first single of the new decade. “May 20, we’ll be premiering our video,” he earnestly told Byron Allen. “We’ve been away for a while, and we’re coming at you spankin’ new.”

Will Smith (left) and Benny Medina (right) attend the premiere of Disney’s Aladdin at El Capitan Theatre on May 21 in Los Angeles. A chance meeting with Medina helped launch The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air, which changed the trajectory of Smith’s career.

Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images

The music video Smith alluded to was “Summertime,” a mellow head-bobber that deviated from the madcap mold of previous Fresh Prince/Jazzy Jeff tunes. Featuring a “slightly transformed” sample of Kool & The Gang’s seductive ’70s jam “Summer Madness,” Smith’s retooled version perfectly captured the soulful essence of a midsummer day in the ’hood.

“The temperature’s about 88
Hop in the water plug just for old time’s sake
Break to ya’ crib, change your clothes once more
Cause you’re invited to a barbecue that’s starting at 4
Sitting with your friends cause y’all reminisce
About the days growing up and the first person you kiss
And as I think back makes me wonder how
The smell from a grill could spark up nostalgia …”

Call it a comeback. “Summertime” dramatically reversed Smith’s flagging musical fortunes, selling more than 1 million copies and nabbing the Grammy for best rap performance by a duo or group. But for Smith, the single’s importance went beyond accolades and peer honors. “Summertime” seemed to establish a template for the rapper’s subsequent singles. He would eventually part ways with Townes, embarking on a solo career in which he would apply his rhymes to samples of R&B radio favorites from the post-Motown era, including tracks by Luther Vandross, Stevie Wonder, Sister Sledge, Roy Ayers Ubiquity and others.

His music evinced a sense of elegance and upward social mobility. While he wasn’t above sampling the occasional gutbucket stomp, his biggest singles were assembled mostly from R&B songs produced north of the Mason-Dixon Line, lavish funk hits that lent his music the upscale appeal of a Versace collection. Perhaps the best example of this was “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It,” the gold-certified hit from Smith’s high-stakes 1997 solo debut album, Big Willie Style. The tune sampled “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” the disco classic that name-checks elite clothing brands such as Halston, Gucci and Fiorucci.

Smith’s musical choices couldn’t have been more perfectly timed. He was launching his solo career in the late ’90s, a period of tremendous economic growth and conspicuous consumption. To underscore the notion that he was a musical status symbol, he crammed Big Willie Style with broadly appealing, expensive-sounding samples. “Men in Black” appropriated Patrice Rushen’s luxurious ’80s shuffle “Forget Me Nots,” while subsequent singles “Miami” and “Just the Two of Us” borrowed from The Whispers’ “And The Beat Goes On” and Bill Withers’ satiny 1981 ballad “Just the Two of Us.” Yet, while his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

His music may have conveyed sophistication, but his lyrics were pure, old-fashioned hip-hop egomania. Big Willie Style found Smith boasting constantly about his boffo film career while flipping off his detractors (“Player haters been hatin’ all my playin’ for years / Now they seein’ they worst fears as I bathe in cheers”). Yet despite all his Tarzanlike chest-thumping, Smith was careful to promote himself as hip-hop’s resident straight arrow. Where his gangsta rap rivals were dismissing women as “b—-es” and worse, the females in Smith’s songs were “ladies” and “hot mamis.” He trumpeted the joys of fatherhood and celebrated his romance with soon-to-be wife Jada Pinkett (“Finally found a person, worthy of all / Instead of pushin’ me down, you want to cushion my fall / Your eyes could make the sun rise, all the birds sing / Seal it with a kiss, bind it with a ring”).

While his tony, aspirational music matched your Cartier ensemble, Smith’s songs were still down-home enough to be played at the neighborhood block party.

This reconciliation of bravado and gee-whiz humility is classic Smith, and he would be rewarded handsomely for his bluster. Boosted by its status as the theme song from the Smith movie of the same name, “Men in Black” topped singles charts throughout Europe and Australia, capturing the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance. By the time its initial sales run was through, Big Willie Style had moved 9 million copies, making it one of the best-selling hip-hop albums of all time. In the midst of gangsta rap’s blood-splattered heyday, Smith was topping the charts with obscenity-free songs about clubbing, chivalry … and himself.

Seizing on the momentum of his blockbuster performances in movies such as Independence Day and Bad Boys, Smith released his second solo album in 1999. Willennium spawned the debut single “Wild Wild West,” another movie tie-in featuring a sample of Stevie Wonder’s percolating single “I Wish.” The follow-up single “Will 2K” was built from The Clash’s 1983 funky post-punk classic “Rock the Casbah,” while “Freakin’ It” bummed its beat from Diana Ross’ ritzy disco classic “Love Hangover.” Though not quite the sales bulldozer its predecessor was, Willennium nonetheless penetrated Billboard‘s Top 5 and sold more than 5 million copies.

It doesn’t take an Einstein to see that Smith was trading on musical nostalgia to make his songs broadly appealing, but was that so bad? He had already proved with his movie career that he was a shameless, crowd-pleasing capitalist, so why would his music goals be any different? Black songwriters such as Rushen, Nile Rodgers and Kool & The Gang certainly weren’t complaining about Smith’s sentimental hip-hop — his samples were plumping their bank accounts. He was so good at tapping prime funk hits that an associate of mine described him as an “archivist,” a man who heedfully selects stylish baby boomer jams, then gently contemporizes them for posterity (and lucrative Gen X consumption). Asked about Smith and others sampling his songs, Kool & The Gang’s Robert Bell said, “We feel honored! People are listening to our music.”

Will Smith (left) and Tommy Lee Jones (right) in a scene from the film Men in Black in 1997. Smith’s single “Men in Black” captured the 1998 Grammy Award for best rap solo performance.

Photo by Columbia Pictures/Getty Images

But while millions were buying into Smith’s retrograde rap, others were calling him out. It was rumored that he didn’t write his own songs, although Smith’s collaborators attested to his lyric writing/composing skills. Others attributed his musical fame to his soaring movie career, while others criticized him for trafficking in “nonstop pop-rap clichés.” Worst of all, hip-hop purists viewed him as the grievous poster child for corporate rap, exhuming crossover R&B classics to stroke MTV and Top 40 radio programmers. “Just because a song was fun when I was a kid doesn’t mean the guy who made it isn’t a bit of a crossover clown and has made some of the most embarrassing singles of all time,” wrote one contributor on an online forum.

Comments like these would dog Smith throughout his heyday, making him one of rap’s most controversial artists, and you’d still be hard-pressed to find a hip-hop artist who drives purists crazier. Rap music had always prided itself on salting wounds, whether through its automated, minimalist sound, its uncompromising political stances or its embrace of outlaw stereotypes. But then along came Smith with his “nice, clean rap,” and some folks became unglued.

He was resented for not buying into the myth that black hooliganism is somehow authentic (or “real,” to use the parlance of the ’hood). Smith had chosen to become a symbol of the black middle class, a millions-strong group of gainfully employed, law-abiding African Americans who paid their taxes, maybe attended church on given Sundays, and preferred Calvin Klein and FUBU to gangbanger bandannas. His sampling of opulent funk was a subtle shout-out to a black bourgeoisie the media largely ignored. “It’s real important to have balance of the imagery,” Smith told Billboard magazine in 2005. “Yes, there are people who fire guns in the street, but there’s also doctors who go to work in those areas to feed their children.”

But Smith’s critics were raising even broader questions about crossover and hip-hop’s plagiaristic roots. Why was it a crime for Smith to tap the sentimental value of old funk and pop tunes? After all, The Sugarhill Gang established the cannibalistic rules for hip-hop in 1979 when they executed a verbatim lift of Chic’s “Good Times” for their tune “Rapper’s Delight,” the first rap tune of any consequence. Moreover, amid current debates about cultural appropriation, were rap acts such as Smith, Run-D.M.C. and Public Enemy conducting artistic larceny when they sampled white rock bands such as The Clash, Aerosmith and Slayer? Or were these and other rappers simply flipping the bird at segregationist radio programmers who persisted in compartmentalizing white and black music? Whatever the case, it seemed Smith was being held to a harder standard than many of his peers.

His detractors didn’t seem to take into account that sampling is a statement. During hip-hop’s hypercompetitive golden age, the best rap acts used samples partly as a way to align themselves with certain musicians, philosophies and movements. When Dr. Dre heavily sampled Parliament-Funkadelic on his 1991 magnum opus The Chronic, he was establishing an attitudinal connection between his own laid-back jams and George Clinton’s weed-scented stoner funk. Similarly, Smith’s appropriation of post-Motown R&B seemed like a rational choice, an honest reflection of his middle-class upbringing.

The son of a refrigeration engineer and a school administrator, Willard Carroll Smith II was a Baptist who attended a West Philly Catholic middle school. By all accounts, his was a grassroots upbringing that had little, if anything, to do with hoodlums and black militancy. He was 12 years old when his devoutly Christian grandmother discovered a book of his rhymes, many of them peppered with vulgarities. “Dear Will,” she wrote inside the notebook, “truly intelligent people don’t have to use words like this to express themselves. Please show the world that you’re as smart as we think you are.”

That scribbled rebuke changed Smith. “She made me realize that I wasn’t creating only for me,” he said in 2016. “The things I created were going to have an effect on her and were going to have an effect on everyone who came into contact with my artistry.”

Smith took his grandmom’s advice, and if one examines his music, one will discover a positivist philosophy encapsulated by the title track of his 2002 album Born to Reign:

“I believe in God, I believe in destiny

Not destiny in the sense of all of our actions being predetermined

But destiny in the sense of … our ability to choose who we are, and who we are supposed to be …”

He had molded himself into a massively popular polymath entertainer, a man so sure of his rapping dominance that he flamboyantly christened the 2000s the “Willennium.” His hip-hop future seemed bright and unstoppable.

Then he faded from the music scene.

The smartest dude

In 2005, after a three-year absence, Smith returned to the recording fold with an album entitled Lost and Found. Its cover featured Smith at the make-believe intersection of “West Philly” and “Hollywood” streets, an image that suggested he was at a musical crossroads. That notion was underscored by new songs in which he ditched his vintage funk samples for original beats. Although it spawned the Top 10 single “Switch,” the album ultimately sold 500,000 units, not even close to the performance of his multimillion-selling 1990s CDs.

Though he hasn’t released an album in nearly 15 years, Smith hasn’t vanished into obscurity. To the contrary, he’s leveraging his fame to become a digital influencer. He recently used his Instagram account (30 million followers and counting) to hawk branded merchandise, including a sold-out limited run of Fresh Prince of Bel-Air accessories. More than 5 million subscribers visit his YouTube channel to keep up with him and his family. Smith’s songs are still played across the broad spectrum of African American life: at the club, at parties, at backyard barbecues and family get-togethers. Get a real gangsta liquored up enough and he might confess that Smith jams like “Gettin’ Jiggy Wit It” and “Miami” are on his personal mixtape.

Smith is 50 now, and as he enters the elder statesman period of his career, his legacy seems more wide-ranging than many would imagine. He exists as a genre unto himself, a rapper whose austere lyrics and uncomplicated samples are unique in hip-hop. Although he’s never confessed to such, he was a pioneering black nerd well before the empowering phrase “blerd” was even coined. He played a role in unseating rock ’n’ roll as the favored music of youth worldwide, then helped raise rap music’s international stature by becoming a multimedia megastar.

He recently made a surprise guest appearance at Coachella, arguably the world’s most popular and lucrative music and arts festival. Popping onstage during his son Jaden’s performance, the old man reportedly stole the show, lending credence to his lifelong theory that nice guys finish first. “I’m trying to present … a more sound approach to survival,” he said in 2005. “It’s a more long-term approach based on intellect and skills that can’t be taken away from you.

“The smartest dude survives the best.”

A black neighborhood’s complicated relationship with the home of Preakness Baltimore’s storied horse race faces an uncertain future in the city

In Northwest Baltimore’s Park Heights neighborhood, more than 100,000 people are expected to gather Saturday to watch the 144th Preakness Stakes at the rundown Pimlico Race Course.

However, few residents of this depressed, low-income and largely black community will be attending the second leg of thoroughbred racing’s Triple Crown. But for generations, they have made extra cash allowing race fans to park on their front lawns and selling cooked food or trinkets from their stoops. Corner stores and carryout spots have charged fans anywhere from $5 to $20 just to use the bathroom. Even the drug dealers clean up on Preakness Day.

“The white folks come up here once a year to gamble and get drunk. Some of them come across the street and buy a little weed or some crack. The police just sit there and don’t do nothin’ because they get paid off by the corner boys to look the other way,” said 51-year-old Ray Johnson, who grew up in the neighborhood. “When the race is over, they get outta here before it gets dark. They don’t give a f— about this neighborhood until the next year.”

Park Heights is one of several Baltimore neighborhoods where gun violence is endemic. But residents here also have concerns about whether the city will continue with its revitalization plan demolishing unsightly and deteriorating buildings – or even the racetrack. And they are not alone in pondering the possibility of this home to horse racing being torn down, and its signature event – the Preakness – being moved to Laurel Park racetrack midway between Baltimore and Washington, D.C.

Eight miles away from Baltimore’s Inner Harbor, where businesses have struggled to attract tourists since the city’s Freddie Gray uprising in 2015, bright yellow hydraulic excavators rest their arms and dirt-caked bucket lips on vacant lots along Park Heights Avenue. They’ve ripped through arched windows, gnawed out rotted beams, and scooped up brick foundations from boarded vintage row homes and dilapidated businesses built many decades ago.

Melvin Ward, the 58-year-old owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food restaurant, came to Park Heights with his family when he was 5. “I saw this neighborhood when there were no black people here. My family was one of two black families in this neighborhood. It’s gone far down since then. I don’t think the neighborhood will get worse if they move the Preakness to Laurel,” Ward said.

Until the Martin Luther King Jr. riots of 1968 combined with a mass exodus of whites and professional blacks to the suburbs, this was a largely close-knit Jewish neighborhood with thriving specialty shops, synagogues and Hebrew schools, and homeowners who swept the alleys. The entire stretch of Park Heights, from Park Circle to Pimlico, quickly transformed racially from almost entirely white to largely African American.

In 1947, Life magazine declared that horse racing was “the most gigantic racket since Prohibition.” An estimated 26 million people went to the tracks at that time. Big races attracted all kinds, from nuns to black numbers runners to then-FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, who traveled from Washington, D.C., to Pimlico on Saturdays in a bulletproof limousine.

Along Park Heights Avenue, decades of divestment and a grim litany of urban problems are evident. But the sites won’t be captured for television audiences on Preakness Day. Viewers won’t see the dumped mattresses, tires and garbage on desolate blocks, the high concentration of liquor stores and convenience shops. Nor will they see the hollowed-eyed, gaunt drug addicts lurking along the sidewalks or nodding off at bus stops.

The 5100 block of Park Heights Ave is the closest thoroughfare to the race track. The area is in need of investment and redevelopment, and many shops are vacant or boarded up. The Preakness has not brought any significant opportunity to the area over the years.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Residents here joke that most viewers outside Baltimore probably have no clue that the Preakness happens “in the middle of the ‘hood” instead of beautiful horse country.

If you stand at the corner of Park Heights and West Belvedere avenues, you can see there’s a commercial district neighboring the track where the Preakness has been held since 1873. There’s detritus and despair, thick veils of cigarette smoke, the smell of liquor and urine heavy in the air.

Over the past few months, the Canadian-based Stronach Group, which owns and operates Pimlico, has been locked in a feud with city officials over Pimlico’s future. It has become increasingly clear that Stronach wants to move the Preakness from Baltimore and tap $80 million in state funds to build an upscale “supertrack” in Laurel Park, where it has invested a significant amount of money.

City officials want to revitalize Pimlico and keep the Preakness, but a study conducted by the Maryland Stadium Authority estimated that it would cost more than $400 million to rebuild the racetrack.

Tim Ritvo, Stronach’s COO, indicated that Pimlico is “at the end of its useful life” and is no longer a safe and viable site for the Preakness. Baltimore filed a lawsuit alleging that Stronach “systematically under-invested in Pimlico” while pouring most of the state funds it receives into improving the Laurel Park facility. Former Mayor Catherine Pugh, who recently resigned over financial improprieties, argued a rotting, unsafe race complex helps the company justify moving the Preakness from Baltimore.

Track workers prepare the track for the two weeks of racing to come as Preakness nears on the calendar. Pimlico race track is falling apart and the owners would rather take the historic race out of Baltimore than repair it. But who is left behind? The black community that surrounds Pimlico.

André Chung for The Undefeated

In mid-April, proposals to finance improvements at Laurel Park were debated and failed in the Maryland General Assembly. Stuck in an unfortunate status quo with no real agreement on how to move forward, Baltimore’s new mayor, Bernard C. “Jack” Young, is expected to continue Pugh’s efforts to fix Pimlico and build a new hotel and grocery store for the community.

Local media coverage has indicated that popular bars and restaurants in areas such as Federal Hill, Towson and Fells Point would feel the pain if the Preakness leaves. They’ve raised bigger questions: Does the wider racing world care if the race is moved out of Baltimore? Does the Preakness have to stay in the city for it to retain its cachet? In all this debate, missing from the conversation are black voices, which reveal a deeper story about the social costs of sports as America’s inner cities are struggling to reimagine themselves by using sports stadiums to spur economic growth and demographic change.

The fate of Pimlico as home to the Preakness and as a racetrack is also balanced against the views of its African American neighbors, who have seen their communities deteriorate even more over the past half-century from absentee owners, intentional neglect, the war on drugs, and other failed local and national American policies.

Do the people of Park Heights really care about keeping the track — perhaps the area’s only surviving historic landmark and focal point? Would Pimlico’s Canadian owners be so willing to leave if the surrounding neighborhood were white and middle class? Stronach Group did not respond to requests for an interview for this story.

Melvin Ward, who grew up in the Park Heights neighborhood near Pimlico, is the owner of Kaylah’s Soul Food near the race track.

André Chung for The Undefeated

A number of residents like to put on their conspiratorial hat when they talk about what’s happened to the racetrack. Many residents believe that the owners let the track rot to justify a move to Laurel Park. The conditions at Pimlico symbolize how the city has neglected black communities for decades, and they see letting Pimlico and the rest of the neighborhood die as the start of gentrification.

Most people here halfway accept that the Preakness might leave Park Heights. “They’re moving it to Laurel. Period!” declared Roderick Barnette, a 56-year-old resident of Park Heights.

The question is: What then? How will the site be used? Would Sinai Hospital on one side of Pimlico obtain some of the land if it becomes available? If any of the land is redeveloped for housing, would it be affordable, market rate or a combination?

“Pimlico is not a sign of life for this neighborhood,” Ward said. “Horse racing is dead. The Preakness does nothing for the community. If it leaves, things will be the same as they always are here.”

Andrae Scott, 37, whose father owns Judy’s Caribbean Restaurant, on Park Heights Avenue across from the track, said white people come through not to buy food but to use the bathroom, which they are charged for, since many come in drunk and vomit. “They’re already pushing black folks out of the area. You can already see them knocking down houses and tearing up streets,” Scott said.

Fears of gentrification and displacement are legitimate. Baltimore ranks fifth among cities such as New York, Los Angeles, Washington, San Diego and Chicago for the highest rate of gentrification and displacement of people from 2000 to 2013, according to a recent study by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition.

Some residents want the Preakness to stay. Prince Jeffrey, 28, is a Nigerian immigrant working at the EZ Shop directly across from the racetrack. On Preakness Day, his store can make upward of $2,000, versus his daily average of $600, with sales of junk food, chips, water and crates of juices. “I think they should leave it. Development would make the whole area better. If they move the track, this place will go down,” Jeffrey said.

LaDonna Jones, 53, believes that Pimlico’s owners have sabotaged it to have an excuse to leave. “Some other tracks across the country have live racing from now until late fall. This track runs races for two weeks for the Preakness. They don’t try to get any additional business.”

Jones noted that there have been efforts to arrange concerts there, but the number of outside events has declined — Pimlico is not seen as a welcoming place.

LaDonna Jones owns property near the track. Her cousin, Roderick Barnette helps her take care of it. Their views differ on whether or not the track should close. Jones wants it to stay but wants to see reinvestment into the community and Barnette would rather see it go because it’s never benefitted the community.

André Chung for The Undefeated

Her friend Roderick Barnette, who is convinced that the track will be closed, said, “There’s no money here. This is a drug haven. White people come here once a year, they gamble, make their money and get the hell out. In Laurel, they can make more money because there’s more white people. I’m just keeping it real.”

When Jones suggests that “they can revitalize here,” Barnett interrupts. “This is Park Heights! This is a black neighborhood! They’re gonna get rid of all these black people around here just like Johns Hopkins did downtown.”

Jones concedes while noting that “this racetrack matters to black folks here. It’s part of their life and the way they’ve always lived. They look forward to the races. They make a little quick money. If it shuts down, Pimlico will be just another vacant building and another eyesore for Baltimore City.”

Overall, Park Heights residents seem less concerned about losing the Preakness than addressing more immediate problems of crime, poverty, broken schools, lack of retail and jobs, food deserts, poor housing, shabby services, disinvestment and endless failed urban renewal plans over the past 30 years.

Beyond the once-yearly activity and attention that come with the Preakness, Park Heights still creates a sense of possibility in the face of its challenges. Some Caribbean groceries sell fresh foods. The recent election of Baltimore City Council president Brandon Scott, who grew up in Park Heights, is seen as a sign of hope. While Park Heights is generally a hard place to live, it is a community where some decent people find joy in the face of uncertainty and believe in the spirit of the place they call home. The fate of the Preakness will have an impact, but it will not define them.

Meanwhile, the latest news is that the Preakness will stay in Baltimore another year. But beyond 2020, the future of the race remains unclear.

Gentrification encroaches on Howard and Texas Southern campuses It’s a clash of cultures, aspirations, history and money

Washington, D.C., apparently is the capital of the Gentrification Nation too.

Want to see the effects? Just take a stroll through the environs near Howard University’s main campus these days and you reflexively say, “My, how times have changed.”

Gone are many of the decaying structures and dilapidated blotches of disrepair. And gone are some of the small black businesses and shops that were the lifeblood of a once-vibrant community.

Look up and you will see high-rise thickets of fancy apartment complexes dotting the landscape around Howard, which in recent years has sold some of its properties near campus to raise funds. Look down and you will see the new cafes and coffee shops.

Those are signs of gentrification, not only in Washington but also in cities such as Houston, home of Texas Southern University, another historically black institution.

To understand the change of scenery around Howard, you must study the metamorphosis of Washington as a whole.

Gentrification sweeps through D.C.

Check the city’s gentrification numbers. According to the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which advocates economic support for economically distressed locales, Washington had the highest intensity of gentrifying neighborhoods in the United States between 2000 and 2013.

Furthermore, Washington’s population was 71.1% black in 1970; in 2015, that number had plummeted to 48.3% during this new age of gentrification and black displacement. Also, the white population in areas surrounding Howard’s main campus was about 4% in 2000; by 2015, it had increased more than sixfold.

Of the eligible tracts for gentrification, Washington leads the nation with a 40% intensity rate; second is San Diego, double digits behind at 29%; third is New York at 24%.

Gentrification can mean new residents. With different cultural likes, dislikes, habits. And behavior.

Such as dog walking.

Howard students know this firsthand. And they don’t like it.

Because their campus has been a dog park for some area residents — white pet owners.

Students say it’s their grass and their walkways, regardless of the gentrification projects that have altered the landscape surrounding the university.

“Seeing dogs on campus isn’t an uncommon thing. I have seen them relieve themselves and the owners don’t pick it up,” Kenneth Fling, a freshman psychology major from Buffalo, New York, told The Undefeated outside on a breezy, blue-sky day at the main campus. “Here, we take the culture of our campus and our community very seriously.”

The first part of Fling’s comment is a key point of contention among many Howard students: non-student pet owners allowing their dogs to defecate and urinate on campus apparently without taking any responsibility.

The Yard on Howard University is located at the center of main campus, surrounded by public spaces where fraternities and sororities emblazon trees with their insignia.

John X.Miller

On “The Yard” — that priceless, grassy commons — which students consider hallowed territory, the pulse of their universe.

Call this situation Howard’s get-off-my-lawn moment.

It would be foolhardy to believe that Howard was the nation’s only historically black college or university in a dense urban spot feeling the effects of a culture clash that’s exacerbated by gentrification. Travel about 1,500 miles southwest of Washington to Houston, the nation’s fourth-largest city.

There, Texas Southern University is in the throes of its own challenges that, in some respects, are more problematic than the dog issue at Howard.

Houston’s Third Ward, where Texas Southern is located, is in the midst of a multimillion-dollar renovation plan.

While the hot topic at Howard is about the pets, the concern at Texas Southern is about the pocketbooks.

According to the Houston Defender, a black-owned newspaper in the city, the number of black residents in the Third Ward, as of 2017, had decreased by at least 10% while the white population had doubled, as education and income levels have risen. Other effects of gentrification can include an increase in home and property values, an improvement in safety matters and a rise in credit ratings for residents.

However, on the other side of the ledger … well, let Sherridan Schwartz, a visiting professor in the Barbara Jordan-Mickey Leland School of Public Affairs at Texas Southern, tell it:

“In recent years,” Schwartz told The Undefeated, “luxury development and gentrification have made the Third Ward mostly unaffordable to the faculty and staff of TSU [except for a few executive-level administrators with higher incomes]. Now those employed by TSU have to find more affordable housing farther away, primarily in Houston’s suburbs like Pearland and Missouri City.”

To compound the gentrified problems, public transportation, especially bus service, can be affected in a negative way. Food and utility prices can skyrocket.

Also, in some neighborhoods around Texas Southern, similar to incidents in Washington, new residents have vehemently complained about publicly played music, lingering crowds, noise and block parties — often staples of many predominantly black communities.

Darnell Latney knows all about those staples.

For 48 years, Latney has been a part of Georgia Avenue, a street that directly borders Howard’s main campus. He’s seen the full scope of changes on this thoroughfare, which stimulate much-heated debate in the neighborhood, Latney said. A barber for 22 years, he works at Joseph’s Barber Shop, mere steps away from the university. And he is adamant about what he calls a disservice to a longtime predominantly black community encompassing Howard.

Darnell Latney stands in front of a building on the 2800 block of Georgia Avenue across from Howard University where he and other barbers cut hair for years. The shop closed last year, according to Latney, at the same time the condos (on the right) were being built.

John X. Miller

“It’s all about economics and raising the tax base,” Latney passionately told The Undefeated. “They are just using gentrification to get rid of black people in this area. We are not being displaced but replaced.

“At one time, D.C. wasn’t like this at all, from about the 1990s on back. Now everything is so expensive that the average black person can’t afford it. Georgia Avenue is a long street. It used to be an 80% black neighborhood that catered to 80% black businesses. Not anymore. I’ve seen a lot of black businesses close down in the past six years on Georgia Avenue — all because of gentrification. And this dog stuff is another sign of what’s going on around here.”

The tension regarding Howard’s dog controversy ratcheted up even more when dog owner Sean Grubbs-Robishaw, a white man who lives nearby in the Bloomingdale neighborhood, announced it was time to relocate.

No, not him — the 152-year-old Howard campus should depart, he proclaimed.

In an interview with television station Fox 5 DC, Grubbs-Robishaw, who admitted to traversing Howard’s various open patches of grass with his dog to reach a nearby reservoir that’s a popular spot for pet owners, barked, “So, they’re in part of D.C., so they have to work within D.C. If they don’t want to be within D.C., then they can move the campus. I think we just need to work together, and I don’t think it should be a he or there or here . . . it’s our community, and that’s how it should be.”

Yes, he jolted us when he said “move the campus,” the higher-education domain of such illustrious Howard alumni as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, singer Roberta Flack, former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Mike Espy and California Sen. Kamala Harris. And note that Grubbs-Robishaw has since been derisively referred to by a hashtag on social media: #GentrifyingGeorge.

“They [dog owners] just don’t realize that this is sacred ground,” Hidaya, a Howard student who didn’t want her last name used, told The Undefeated.

The temperature of these dog days had gotten so hot that several media outlets, from Essence magazine to MTV News to The Guardian newspaper in England, have carved out space for coverage. And a petition has even been started to effect change regarding the dog debate.

Ironically, while students and dog owners on Howard’s main campus have been in the midst of a seemingly adversarial relationship, on the university’s so-called West Campus, located in a traditionally wealthier community that houses Howard’s law and divinity schools about 3 miles away, students and dog owners have maintained a symbiotic association.

“We do events each year when, during final exams, area dog owners bring their dogs over so we can pet them,” second-year law student James Walker III of Atlanta told The Undefeated.

For stress relief.

Does it work?

“I don’t partake in it myself, but I’m sure it helps, as the data has shown it works,” said Walker, whose parents both graduated from Howard’s School of Law.

Final exams are scheduled this week and next.

West campus students, neighbors get along better

Walker said it isn’t unusual to see dogs on the grounds of Howard’s West Campus, a predominantly white area off Connecticut Avenue, and added there’s a communal environment with the neighbors.

There doesn’t appear to be an antagonistic relationship with the surrounding West Campus community, he said.

There could be three reasons, besides the communal engagement:

  • The much smaller West Campus is a bit more isolated than the more open and sprawling main campus, which, of course, draws more foot traffic.
  • The dog owners on the west side appear to be very responsible in picking up waste material from their dogs.
  • The West Campus isn’t in the crosshairs of gentrification projects, unlike the main Howard campus.

The dog conundrum on the main campus became so polarizing that university president Wayne A.I. Frederick publicly announced that pet owners are prohibited from bringing their animals on the grounds.

He said: “We recognize that service animals are a necessary aspect of modern-day life and we will accommodate them as needed. We appreciate pet owners respecting our campus by not bringing pets on to the private areas. Howard is a private institution nestled in the heart of an urban city and we’ve shared a long-standing positive relationship with our evolving community for more than 150 years, which we look forward to continuing in the future.”

However, a few students indicated that they still have seen some non-student pet owners and dogs on the main site after the release of the president’s message, although freshman Fling observed, “I have seen a decline in dogs on campus.”

The animal regulations imposed by city’s Department of Health, in association with the mayor’s office, appear to be on Frederick’s side.

Alison Reeves, interim director and public information officer in the office of communications and community relations for DC Health, told The Undefeated, after consultation with the agency’s general counsel, that “the leash law applies to dogs off of their own fenced property. The pet waste laws apply to anyone off of their own property. Whether anyone is or is not allowed on Howard’s campus is a function of whatever rules Howard would have in place and provide notice of to the public. Any person on private property could be considered to be trespassing if not allowed on the property, but that would be up to Howard to enforce.”

Much of this issue between dog owners and students revolves around respect and reverence in the nation’s capital, which now doubles as the Gentrification Capital.

Howard freshman Ahzaria Garris, a criminology major from Norfolk, Virginia, told The Undefeated:

“It’s the principle behind the situation with the dog owners. They don’t interact with us; they don’t even look our way. They seem to keep tunnel vision, minding their business and just hurrying along. If they interacted with us and actually cared about the school, it would be different.”

Simply put, Howard students don’t want their main campus to go to the dogs.