Team standing in front of Jefferson Memorial.

Jan. 9, 2013

WASHINGTON, D.C. --Once home to some of the most influential African Americans of its day, U Street in Washington, D.C. met the next generation of potentially influential student-athletes Friday for a tour around historic D.C. The University of Maryland Eastern Shore men's basketball team was guided by Dr. Kathryn Barrett-Gaines, UMES director of African and African-American History.

"This was a great opportunity to expose our kids to history," said Head Coach Frankie Allen.

"It is a good feeling when as a coach you can expose your players to more than the sport, to give them something educational," said Allen. That exposure began with seeing a generations old building transform into a neighborhood beacon.

If you were to see an image of the original building, which housed a 1930s black and white movie theater, you would never guess that it would later become the heart of U Street. It is at Ben's Chili Bowl that Barrett-Gaines met the Hawks basketball team, and explains the significance of the tiny hot dog stand that opened in 1958.

The student-athletes and coaches listened intently to Barrett-Gaines tell of how Ben's survived during segregation, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., construction, rampant drug use on the corner and violence, and after 53 years of existence would continue to serve at its tables the common and famous alike.

"Dr. Barrett-Gaines has such a vast knowledge of black history, and a personality that our guys were open to learning something from her," Coach Allen remarked.

From Ben's, Barrett-Gaines took the team down U Street and told of how the famous acts like Ella Fitzgerald, Cab Calloway and Duke Ellington were regular performers at Lincoln Theater. "We appreciated Dr. Barrett-Gaines taking the time out of her day to be our guide," said Ishaq Pitt.

The team walked the sidewalks that heard the footsteps of Thurgood Marshall, who lived in an apartment around the corner, which would later share his name as a local YMCA.



Continuing to tell the countless stories of D.C.'s black history, and the influential neighborhood that was home to esteemed African Americans, the student-athletes asked questions and listened for answers.

As they walked and Barrett-Gaines guided the team, the thought of eating at the famous Ben's was the only answer to where the team would eat lunch. Coordinated ahead of time, the team sat in the largest room in the small eatery.

Unknown to Barrett-Gaines, the team and even the Ben's Chili Bowl staff, co-owner and wife of Ben, Virginia Ali, would join the team for lunch. While the team set and heard of all that Ben's offered, the menu had already been selected and the team just had to eat, which it did. And while the food was prepared, Mr. Brown, the historian, told of how U Street came to be home for Ben's.

While at lunch, Mrs. Ali spoke with the coaches and team prior to taking a picture with everyone and asking that the image be sent back to be posted on the walls that have overheard the voices of Bill Cosby and President Barack Obama.

Following time well-spent at Ben's, the team and Barrett-Gaines boarded the bus to tour the National Mall. Although the team did not visit the Washington Monument, Barrett-Gaines did tell of its history and why the stones change from one color to another.

Did you know that the father of the United States did not himself have any children; a bit of information for you.

UMES would stop to visit the Lincoln Memorial, and see where Dr. King made his "I Have a Dream" speech; the team stood envisioning the scene as he delivered his speech to 250,000 people standing in front of him. Lastly, a few players would gather to mark the moment with a picture before heading to the next landmark.

From the Lincoln Memorial, the team would visit the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, Jefferson Memorial and have a brief stop at the Capitol Building. The day was eye-opening for many of the players that had never been to Washington, D.C., and an impactful one for those that were unaware of the significance that many have made on this countries progress.

"She [Barrett-Gaines] helped to open my eyes to black history that I did not know," said Pitt. "This is an experience that more student-athletes need to have, especially at HBCUs."

Coach Allen mentioned plans to do more tours and educational programs for the team when the travel schedule permits. The Hawks return to the court January 12 to face Norfolk State University.

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