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’s virtually impossible to discuss any time period in the history of Washington, DC without referencing the contributions of Black Americans. Since the inception of the city, the culture of Black Americans has been entirely intertwined with our nation’s capital, making it the ideal 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, an oral historian and museum specialist at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Starting with the history of the enslaved people who helped to build things such as the National Mall with Benjamin Banneker. Banneker surveyed the city and had to pick up the plans when [Charles] L’enfant quit the job. So, from the very beginning, the city was infused with Black history.”
Today, DC remains a cornerstone of Black history across the country as the site of Howard University, one of the most well-known Historically Black Colleges and Universities; historic Black-owned restaurants that once served as meeting sites for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; and so much more.
Navis, who moved to the city more than 20 years ago, says you needn’t even step foot into a museum or gallery to learn about Black history in DC—you just have to look around you. So here’s a roundup of her picks for the best neighborhoods, monuments, and other locations around DC that you should visit to learn about the city’s Black history during Black History Month and beyond.
“When you think about places to learn in Washington, DC, it’s almost like, ‘well, where can you not go?’ because there’s Black history all over this city,” Navis says. “There are obvious spaces, like all up and down U Street, for example, and I’m not sure if so many people even know about that anymore.”
Though U Street is now a prime example of DC’s ongoing gentrification, it was once known widely as Black Broadway. Navis explains that there are still plenty of historical 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 Theatre that’s been there since 1910, the Lincoln Theatre which has been there since 1922.”
Duke Ellington, an internationally acclaimed composer and musician, was a DC native and played a big role in Washington’s Black community in the 20th century. The city pays tribute to the artist in many ways—one of them being a mural that was first installed on the side of a vintage store in 1997 and was subsequently taken down, only to be reinstalled on the side of True Reformer Hall on U Street in 2019.
Some long-standing Black-owned businesses continue to thrive on U Street as well, like the beloved Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic spot that first opened in 1958 and is still operated by Ben’s wife, Virginia Ali. Lee’s Flower and Card Shop opened back in 1945 and remains a premier local destination for purchasing bouquets and more.
Another perhaps unexpected neighborhood that Navis recommends visiting to learn about Black history is Georgetown, which she says was once a predominantly Black community up until around the 1960s. In the early 1900s, Black Georgetowners played an active role in forming the culture of the neighborhood, creating the Rock Creek Citizens Association in 1916 to speak on important issues like local safety, cleanliness, playgrounds and to deal with issues of police conduct. Social groups such as Black fraternal clubs and church groups also played a pivotal role in local service projects.
“You can learn about a lot of Georgetown’s Black history at the DC Public Library—in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Library. There you can find a history of almost every single address in Georgetown, and you can find out about a lot of the history of the people who originally owned those houses,” says Navis.
The historian also wants to let you in on a little-known fact: In the People’s Archive you can find not only a great Black Studies book collection, but historical records of the city that includes fire maps, census records, dozens of regional newspapers, as well as some of her own oral histories which are also accessible online.
Since each neighborhood in the city has its own Black history, you can follow any part of Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail. It winds through the city with more than 200 significant sites to witness and learn from along the way.
Learn about history while strolling the park
Even taking a walk through the city’s 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 back 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 enslaved person, the newly freed Black community was very instrumental in raising money for it, and Frederick Douglass even spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony,” says Navis.
Another statue dedicated to civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune is also located in the park, so “there’s a lot of right there,” Navis says.
Most Washingtonians have spent an afternoon picnicking or walking their dog around what is known as Meridian Hill Park, but some may be unaware that the popular park is also known as Malcolm X Park—named by the community after the activist was assassinated. Navis recommends visiting the park during warmer months, when African drummers regularly assemble a circle in the afternoons to play joyous music.
For those looking to get active, try following the bike trail through Marvin Gaye Park, which was 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 hub aimed at supporting the local community. The space was once home to the Crystal Room nightclub, where Gaye made 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 includes a bronze statue and half circle wall that lists the names of 209,145 United States Colored Troops who fought for freedom during the American Civil War.
Navis said that when she visited herself, she was able to locate several names of her own ancestors on that wall. For those interested in digging more into the ancestry, the historian recommends a trip to the National Archives once 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 these resources where people can find out about their ancestors who, for example, may have fought in the Civil War,” she says. “They have pension records sitting right there that, in my case, happened to have the actual handwriting of my great, great grandmother. 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 more 6,000 objects dating back to the early days of the city is housed. The neighborhood of Anacostia is also the former home of Frederick Douglass, and today you’re able to visit his residence, Cedar Hill, and tour the 21-room Victorian mansion while learning about his lifetime of activism.
Another iconic activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., has a dedicated memorial sitting on four acres by the National Mall that is a must-see. The first memorial in the city to honor a man of color—it includes a 30-foot statue of the visionary as well as an inscription wall with some of Dr. King’s most iconic quotes.
Navis also, of course, recommends a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A part of the Smithsonian Institute, the museum was actually 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 throughout the nation, and the world really, can come and access all of this important information in one place,” Navis says. “Wherever you look, at the museum or otherwise, there’s going to be a story related to African American history and culture.”
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