Thursday, April 30, 2020

The African-American Mo-So-Lit Club in Washington, DC

Continuing the fascinating history of 1327 R Street that we posted yesterday, in 1925 the house was sold to an organization called the Mu-So-Lit Club, who used it as a meeting house until 1961.  A steward of the Club named Charles Elzey resided in the house that year, according to the City Directory.  
The Mu-So-Lit Club was organized by representatives of the educated class of blacks in Washington, D.C. in 1905.  Some of its members were Kelly Miller, George William Cook, F. Morris Murray, G. Smith Wormley, Thomas H. R. Clarke, Robert H. Terrell, James A. Cobb and A. Mercer Daniel. The club's first president was Francis F. Cardoza, of which Cardoza High School is named.

Very little remains of the history and operations of the club and its activities.  The archives at UMass Amherst contains a letter the Mu-So-Lit Club to W. E. B. Du Bois (William Edward Burghardt), written in 1930 from 1327 R Street signed by Carrie W. Clifford (1862-1934) informing him that he will soon receive a formal invitation to attend the next meeting of the Mu-So-Lit Club.

A 1945 rooster of the 12th Special Boxcar Battalion published on January 7, 1945 documenting the World War II activities of the military unit on Peary, Hueneme, and Banika in the South Pacific listed Isaac Sherman Taylor as an occupant of the house, likely a steward of the Mo-So-Lit Club.    

The club was mentioned in the October 3, 1932 Washington Star, above left, in the February 5, 1940 Washington Star, above center, and the February 18, 1950 Washington Post, above right.   

Several images of activities of the club were captured by noted local photographer Adison Scurlock, and are housed at the National Museum of American History.  Seen below are images of the Mu So Lit Club Lincoln-Douglas Dinner held in 1940. 

On September 25, 1961, the Mo-So-Lit Club sold the house to the trustees of the Alpha Sigma Chapter of Phi Beta Sigma Fraternity, who would continue to own it until 2019. 

Copyright Paul K. Williams

Wednesday, April 29, 2020

Hidden History: The Famous Photographer who Built 1327 R Street NW

The house at 1327 R Street, NW has an interesting history that we recently uncovered: it was built by and home to a notable photographer George Prince and was later the location of the African American Mo-So-Lit Club.  This post will focus on Prince (get it?), and one tomorrow will develop the the latter (get it?).  

It was built immediately after the issuance of building permit number 2249 which was issued by the city on June 14, 1888.  Photographer George Prince hired well known architect Thomas Franklin Schneider to design the residence, which was built at a cost of $12,000, a substantial sum for the time.  

George Prince and his family moved into 1327 R Street after it was completed, likely in the late fall of 1888.  He had been born in Washington, DC in March of 1846, according to the 1900 census (above).  He married Mary Ann McCormick on January 20, 1871 in this city.  Together, they had six children that included John A. (b. 1872), George Loren (b. 1876), Arthur Clare (1879-1950), Maria (b. 1880), Ethel Veronica (1881-1953), and Leslie Edgar Francis (b. 1886).

George Prince was one several prominent photographers in Washington, DC, and according to the 1891 City Directory, maintained a studio at 403 11th Street, NW.  More than twenty of his photographs are archived at the Library of Congress, including his images of the McKinley inauguration in 1899, and the 1912 inauguration of President Roosevelt.  He signed his portrait photographs as “George Prince, fotographer.”  His portrait of President Roosevelt taken in 1900 appears at right. 
One of Prince’s competitor’s in the portrait photography business in Washington, DC was none other than noted Civil War photographer Mathew Brady.  While his thousands of images from the conflict are famous today, in the 1880s and 1890s, they were virtually worthless and not yet part of the federal government’s collection.

Meanwhile, Brady had more menial photographic duties such as taking a group portrait of the members of the Patent Convention on the steps of the Patent Office in April of 1891.  The April 12, 1891 Washington Post reported that George Prince appeared on the scene at the same time, and began to set up his own photographic equipment – Brady promptly positioned himself in front of Prince’s camera (left).  A skirmish ensued, and Prince pushed Brady.  Brady complained and eventually a $25 fine was incurred by Prince.  Just four years later, Brady, blind from his exposure to developing chemicals, died and was interred in Congressional Cemetery on Capitol Hill.        

Carl Steiger posted the only known photograph of George Prince on the website Find-A-Grave, seen at right.

George and Mary Prince divorced on October 5, 1899, an unusual event for the time.  Mary was awarded a monthly alimony of $100, also an unusually high figure for the time when a modest brick house could have been built in the city for $2,000.  On May 18, 1909, the Washington Post reported that Mary had George arrested when she learned that he was removing furniture from his own house and planned a move to Seattle.  The courts awarded her with a $3,000 bond to ensure future alimony payments. 

Beginning in 1908, other married couples began to be listed as occupants at 1327 R Street along with Mary Prince; the 1910 census confirmed that Mary and two of her children (Leslie and Maria) were listed as tenants.  George Prince later married a woman named Clara.

 Mary Prince died on November 14, 1927, and her ex-husband George Prince died on November 13, 1929; both are interred in Rock Creek Cemetery. 

Copyright Paul K. Williams 

Wednesday, April 01, 2020

Drinking Away in the 1930s at the Washington Canoe Club

The Washington Canoe Club, built in single style architecture in 1905 along the shores of the Potomac River just north of the Key Bridge is one of the oldest operating sports clubs in the city.  It also pioneered the flat water racing as an Olympic sport, and continues to play an important role in Olympic sport.  In the late 1930s, however, it also had a drinking problem – more on that later.   The majestic building has survived flooding and several heavy ice jams that once moved the entire structure five feet down river.   It was included in the National Register of Historic Places in 1991.  

Canoeing became popular in Europe in the 1860s and 70s, and the New York Canoe Club was founded in 1871.  The Washington Canoe Club was founded on August 1, 1905 with a gathering of its first 100 members at 1427 New York Avenue, NW.  Its first President was Willard Fracker.  Although it was originally planned to be on the Maryland side of the Potomac River, property was quickly secured at the end of M Street in Georgetown. 

 Architect George P. Hales provided the plans for the clubhouse, an illustration which appeared in the September 3, 1905 Washington Post seen here.  Hales was a recent arrival among canoeists on the Potomac, but he had been competing in the sport on the Charles River outside Boston for many years.  He designed the ‘house’ as it was called to be entered from M Street (then Canal) on the second floor via a bridge.   The second floor would contain a ballroom, lounge, smoking room, fireplace, locker rooms, bathrooms, a balcony and a corner turret for a flag pole flying the club pennant.   The entire first floor was designed with racks to store 125 canoes.   Construction commenced quickly, and a house warming party was held in the ballroom in December of 1905.  Ray Garrett was listed as its first Commodore.  

Canoeists, We Have a Drinking Problem

Notes from the club’s October 20, 1938 meeting reveal that the gathering was the result of a “petition for a special meeting to discuss drinking in the clubhouse.”  Several motions were offered from the floor in an attempt to limit drinking during dances in the ballroom only, banning drinking from the ballroom, and allowing drinking everywhere else on the property.  A member named Mr. Havens revealed that the upper balcony “was never used by anyone, including the ‘better element’ who did not drink.”  Ouch!

Member Fowler stated that the club needed new members and significant renovations, and suggested that allowing drinking throughout the winter would attract new members, going so far as to recommend tearing down the kitchen walls, removing lockers, installing a stove and use the new found space for drinking year round.  The previous summer regatta was objected to by Fowler because “there was too much drinking and his friends did not like the appearance of everyone drinking beer all over the Clubhouse.”  He suggested a new club membership application be composed “to show the applicant was the type of man needed at the Club, but one who would object to drinking in all places.” 
“Obnoxious drinkers” were brought up, although other members claimed to use the fireplace as a cozy and nice place for winter drinking without any such type present.  Suggested rules on where and when members could drink came from the floor until member McCalley wanted to know if the purpose of any new rule was to “prevent members from being seen drinking, or to prevent them from drinking.”   

Member Havens took the time to point out that McCalley “was an exception, as he did not make highballs, but drank his drinks straight and in the locker room.”  He countered and said “the locker room is cold, and after drinking there the fireplace would bring out the liquor with bad effects.”  Member Snell remarked “that if we were all good members, we wouldn’t throw our cigarettes on the floor.” 

Member Moffatt “reminded the meeting that we have a rule that states we must be gentlemen at all times.”  Member Dilger “stated that in his opinion the last dance he attended was one of low caliber, with drinking all over the clubhouse and that he did not bring a girl over to the dance…and that there was a need for dignity at the Club.”  The meeting was adjourned without a vote.
Years earlier, the club had similar meeting concerning the appropriate dress of members and guests, or the lack thereof.   That will be saved for a future blog post! 

Copyright Paul K. Williams