The Lincoln Theatre began as a vaudeville and silent film house on U Street in 1922, in the midst of a period of change and new hopes. The historical U Street became known as “Black Broadway” during this time as it flourished into a hub of African American businesses and homes, with the Lincoln Theater at the center of it all. From its modest beginning in 1922 to its transformation into a grand movie house in 1927, the Lincoln Theatre has hosted performances by many music greats throughout the decades such as Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Billie Holiday.

Until the early 1950s, the Lincoln Theatre had enjoyed a golden time as the central nightlife in the community. By the later part of the decade going into the early 1960s, more theaters had desegregated, creating loss of visitors and increased competition; the theater began to fall into financial difficulty and the Lincoln Colonnade, the once-enjoyed ballroom added to the theater, was torn down. Following Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination in 1968, violent riots pushed the wealthy residents out into the suburbs, leaving the U Street area to deteriorate and crime and drug dealing to increase; Lincoln Theatre, like many of the other businesses there, was forced to shut down in 1981.

After years being boarded up, the Lincoln Theatre underwent a restoration in 1989 through $9 million of aid from the D.C. government; by 1993 it was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Newly renovated with over 1,000 seats and a Victorian-charm interior, the theater—which sits next to Ben’s Chili Bowl—has regained its place as a venue for a variety of theatrical and musical performances as well as a space for special events. The Duke Ellington Jazz Festival was also established in 2005 as an annual celebration.