When president-elect Barack Obama stopped at the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl diner in Washington, D.C. over the weekend, he was dining across the street from the historic black basketball venue once known as True Reformer’s Hall.

True Reformers Hall

Across the street from Ben's: The building's important history was once nearly forgotten.

Ben’s is on U Street near Howard University and the infamous intersection of Florida and Georgia Avenues, in a section of the city known as the Shaw District, that was — even in its earliest days — and still is predominantly black.

The diner is a favorite lunchtime stop for local business people and a favorite after dark hang out spot for Howard U. undergrads (it’s open ’til 4 a.m.). Just next door to Ben’s is the historic Lincoln Theater.

True Reformer’s Hall was 105 years old last summer.

The building’s gymnasium was the site of many early games between African American basketball teams, including the Washington 12 Streeters led by Edwin B. Henderson.

True Reformer’s Hall was the first building in the post-Reconstruction period to be designed, financed, and built entirely by African Americans.

Within a year of its dedication, the building became the center of the region’s black basketball scene for more than a decade.

Today, the renovated structure houses the Public Welfare Foundation.

Speaking of presidents, True Reformer’s Hall was dedicated by Theodore Roosevelt, the larger-than-life bully-pulpit commander-in-chief who had the White House tennis courts built.  In a letter, Roosevelt wrote:

No one can watch with more interest than I do the progress of the colored race; and with the colored man as with the white man, the first step must be to show his ability to take care of himself and those dependent on him.

So, we’ve just about come full circle then, haven’t we?  As patronizing as his letter was back then, Roosevelt was right.

I’m sure that Obama showed “his ability to take care of himself and those dependent on him” by providing the staff at Ben’s Chili Bowl with a larger than life tip!