Accession No.: 2011.22
Donor: Frank H. Rich, Sr.
Description: In 1974, Frank H. Rich (1921–2015) ran for D.C. City Council. His involvement in politics began after the 1968 riots following Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.
A Washington Institution
Frank Rich’s family had deep roots in Washington. His maternal great grandfather, Abraham Hart, was a volunteer in the Union Army in the Civil War and was on the Board of Education in Washington, D.C. Frank’s paternal ancestors belonged to Washington Hebrew Congregation in the 19th century, and his great-grandfather Bernard Rich, was a founder of Adas Israel Congregation in 1869. That same year, Bernard founded a men's clothing store, B. Rich & Sons, at 7th and O Streets, NW. Bernard’s sons, Max and Louis, later took over the store and decided to specialize in shoes. In 1919, they moved the business into a four-story building at 10th and F Streets, NW.
Max had three sons, Edwin, Herbert, and Melvin, and two daughters, Ernestine and Fanny. Herbert took over the family business and married Rosa Hart Frank, the granddaughter of Abraham Hart. (A scrapbook in JHSGW’s collection chronicles the Hart and Rich families from the 1860s-1960s).
Frank Hart Rich
Herbert and Rosa’s son, Frank, grew up on Buchanan Street, off 16th Street, NW. In 1942, after earning a degree in business administration at Lehigh University, he enlisted in the army and worked in administration for the Army Air Corps (precursor to the Air Force) in Assam, India. He supported flights over “The Hump,” the dangerous air crossing over the Himalayas to resupply U.S. air bases and aid the Chinese war effort against Japan. He distinguished himself and quickly rose to become a major.
Frank returned to the U.S. in 1946. In a 2011 interview, he told the Society that he was desperate for a new pair of shoes: “My shoes were in such terrible shape from the monsoons and everything. They were terrible.” But he could not simply pick up a new pair from his family’s business. Because of wartime rationing of materials like rubber and leather, Frank had to first go to Wilmington, Delaware, to get a document from the army allowing him to obtain the shoes.
After his return to Washington, Frank found a job as an assistant buyer at the Hecht Company’s shoe department. Soon thereafter, Frank’s father Herbert invited him to work for Rich’s Shoes. Frank agreed.
Frank set to work expanding the business to serve postwar Washington’s growing population in the 1940s and 1950s. He renovated Rich’s Shoes’ iconic 10th and F Street, NW, location. He also focused on cutting-edge trends that appealed to young shoppers and opened a new store at 1516 Wisconsin Avenue, NW, in Georgetown in 1953, followed more than a decade later by the Gaminerie, a boutique modeled after a shop with the same name he had visited in Paris. In 1955, he opened a spacious location in a new shopping center in Chevy Chase, Maryland. The business continued to expand. In 1961, Frank sold the family’s building on 10th and F and moved the business to 1319-21 F Street, NW. Every new location was a hit.
Frank translated his business success into a variety of civic activities. As president of the National Shoe Retailers Association, he testified and wrote op-eds for The Washington Post against low-cost and low-quality shoe imports from abroad. He was a board member of several local organizations, including the Washington Performing Arts Society and a founding board member of Temple Sinai.
Perhaps his greatest civic activism came in the aftermath of the riots following the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. in April 1968. Looting caused $50,000 (in 1960s dollars) in damage to Rich’s Shoes downtown location. In his interview with the Society, Frank recalled, “I came downtown and, of course, all of the windows were out. The store was full of tear-gas [canisters]. Everything was upside down.” Within a few days, the business was up and running, but Frank felt the need to help the greater downtown business community. He started Project Progress, an employment organization focused on helping unemployed African-American residents of D.C.
He soon joined the Metropolitan Washington Urban Coalition, a group of business owners and city officials who sought to rebuild D.C.’s decimated downtown. He was the organization’s president from 1969-1971. John W. Hechinger, a former City Council Chairman and owner of a regional chain of hardware stores, said that Frank used his relationship with business leaders across the city “to get to know the leaders of the black community, as well as the frustrations of the rank and file of the black community. His earnestness advanced interracial harmony.”
Frank saw home rule as the key to improving the city, particularly for African Americans, which represented the majority of D.C.’s residents. In 1970, he testified before the Senate District Committee in favor of home rule for the nation’s capital. He later noted that the committee was hostile and “generally [was] against what I was there for.” In 1974, Frank ran as an at-large candidate for the D.C. City Council. He ran, he said at the time, because “this is the first city government and, if home rule is to survive, we need responsible people [who can manage].” He narrowly lost the election.
Frank Rich’s dedication to revitalizing D.C. led to his involvement in a range of civic activities. He was an outspoken advocate for redevelopment of F Street, NW (where his store was located), preservation of the Willard Hotel, and expansion of the Metro system – the construction of which paradoxically hurt his business, turning F Street into a perennial construction site that deterred most shoppers.
Rich’s Shoes was the longest-operating family business in D.C. when Frank and his youngest son Ned closed it in 1987. The course toward the 1990s revitalization of downtown Washington came too late to save Rich’s Shoes.
Frank remained a steadfast and outspoken advocate for his hometown, and especially for home rule. In 2012, a D.C. City Council proclamation recognizing Frank’s contributions as a business and civic leader quoted him: “I always tried, wherever I was or whatever I was doing, to give my empathy to people who deserve more out of life than what they are getting – whether voting rights or job opportunities.” When he passed away earlier this year, DC Vote, an organization for which Frank volunteered weekly for more than a decade, described him as “a symbol of what D.C. had contributed to the nation.”
 Melvin Rich was a civil engineer who worked on numerous D.C.-area structures, including the British Embassy, the Kennedy-Warren apartments, and the refurbishment of the Washington Monument in 1934.