National Museum of African American History and Culture | Photo by Alan Karchmer
National Museum of African American History and Culture | Photo by Alan Karchmer
It is virtually impossible to discuss a period in Washington, DC history without reference to the contributions of black Americans. Since the city’s inception, Black American culture has been integrally tied to our nation’s capital, making it the perfect place to learn about black history, whether you’re a longtime local or just in town for a weekend.
“You can’t really separate DC history from black history,” says Kelly Navis, oral historian and museum scholar at Smithsonian’s. National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Starting with the story of the slaves who helped build things like the National Mall with Benjamin Banneker. Banneker surveyed the city and had to resume the plans when [Charles] The child left work. So, from the beginning, the city was steeped in black history.
Today, DC remains a cornerstone of black history across the country as the site of Howard University, one of the best-known historically black colleges and universities; historic black-owned restaurants that once served as hangouts for leaders of the civil rights movement; and more.
Navis, who moved to the city more than 20 years ago, says you don’t even have to walk into a museum or gallery to learn about DC’s black history, just to look around. So here’s a roundup of his picks for the best neighborhoods, landmarks, and other places around DC you should visit to learn more about the city’s black history during Black History Month and at -of the.
“When you think of places to learn in Washington, DC, it’s almost like, ‘well, where can’t you go?’ because there’s a black history all over this town,” Navis says. “There are obvious spaces, like all along U Street, for example, and I don’t know if so many people still know that .”
Although U Street is now a prime example of DC’s ongoing gentrification, it was once widely known as Black Broadway. Navis says there are still many historic nuggets in the neighborhood today that remind Washingtonians of its rich history.
“U Street was the heart of the black community during segregation,” she says. “Not just entertainment, but business. There were all types of black-owned businesses, and today you still have the Howard Theater which has existed since 1910, the Lincoln Theater which has been there since 1922.
Duke Ellington, an internationally acclaimed composer and musician, was originally from DC and played an important role in Washington’s black community in the 20th century. The city pays homage to the artist in several ways, one of them being a mural that was first installed on the side of a vintage store in 1997 and was later taken down, to be reinstalled on the side of the True Reformer Hall on U Street. in 2019.
Some long-time black-owned businesses also continue to thrive on U Street, like the beloved Bowl of Ben’s Chilia historic venue that opened in 1958 and is still operated by Ben’s wife, Virginia Ali. Lee’s Flower and Card Shop opened in 1945 and remains a top local destination for purchasing bouquets and more.
Another perhaps unexpected neighborhood that Navis recommends visiting to learn more about black history is Georgetown, which she says was once a predominantly black community until around the 1960s. Black Georgetowners took an active role in shaping the culture of the neighborhood, forming the Rock Creek Citizens Association in 1916 to speak out on important issues such as local safety, cleanliness, playgrounds, and to address street conduct issues. the police. Social groups such as black fraternal clubs and church groups have also played central roles in local service projects.
“You can learn more about Georgetown’s black history at the DC Public Library in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Library. You’ll find the history of almost every address in Georgetown there, and you can uncover much of the history of the people who originally owned these homes,” says Navis.
The historian also wants to let you know a little-known fact: in the People’s Archives, you can find not only a large collection of books of black studies, but also historical documents of the city that include maps fires, censuses, dozens of regional newspapers, as well as some of his own oral histories which are also accessible online.
Since every neighborhood in the city has its own dark history, you can follow any part of Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail. It meanders through the city with over 200 significant sites to observe and learn along the way.
Learn about the history as you stroll through the park
Even a stroll through city parks will reveal important nuggets of DC’s black history. Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill is a prime example, where you’ll find the now controversial Freedmen’s Memorial, or Emancipation Memorial, first unveiled in 1867. The statue depicts President Lincoln symbolically freeing a black man who kneels before him.
“Even though people have mixed feelings about the statue itself because of the kneeling slave, the newly freed black community did a lot to raise funds, and Frederick Douglass even spoke at the groundbreaking ceremony,” says Navis.
Another statue dedicated to civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune is also located in the park, so “there’s a lot right there,” Navis says.
Most Washingtonians have spent an afternoon picnicking or walking their dogs in what is known as Meridian Hill Park, but some may not be aware that the popular park is also known as Malcolm’s. X Park, named by the community after the activist’s assassination. Navis recommends visiting the park during the warmer months, when African drummers regularly gather in a circle in the afternoons to play cheerful music.
For those looking to get active, try following the bike path through Marvin Gaye Park, named after the music legend. On the side of the park, you’ll find the Riverside Healthy Living Center, DC’s first comprehensive community food center aimed at supporting the local community. The space was once home to the Crystal Room nightclub, where Gaye got his musical debut.
Galleries, museums and monuments
If there wasn’t already enough to see and do on U Street, there’s also the African American Civil War Museum, which Navis suggests visiting in addition to the nearby African-American Civil War Memorial. The memorial features a bronze statue and semicircular wall that lists the names of 209,145 United States Colored Soldiers who fought for freedom in the American Civil War.
Navis said that when she visited, she was able to locate several names of her own ancestors on this wall. For those wishing to delve deeper into the ancestry, the historian recommends a trip to National Archives when it reopens to the public.
“What’s great about being in DC is having access to the National Archives, which houses all of this source material – all of these resources where people can find out about their ancestors who, for example, may have fought for civil war,” she said. . “They have pension records right there which, in my case, had my great-great-grandmother’s actual handwriting. So that kind of thing is here in Washington, DC.
Another perk of living in (or visiting) DC is the wealth of museums to explore, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum. There, a collection of over 6,000 artefacts dating back to the early days of the city is housed. The Anacostia neighborhood is also the former home of Frederick Douglass, and today you can visit his residence, Cedar Hilland tour the 21-bedroom Victorian mansion while learning about its life as an activist.
Another iconic activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., has a dedicated memorial sitting on four acres near the National Mall that is a must-see. The city’s first memorial to honor a man of color – it features a 30ft statue of the visionary as well as a wall of inscription with some of Dr. King’s most iconic quotes.
Navis also recommends, of course, a trip to National Museum of African American History and Culture. Part of the Smithsonian Institute, the museum was established by an act of Congress in 2003 and is the only national museum exclusively dedicated to understanding and honoring the black American experience.
“The museum’s presence is historic because it’s a place where people from across the country, and around the world, can come and access all of this important information in one place,” says Navis. “Wherever you look, at the museum or elsewhere, there will be a story tied to African American history and culture.”