The story of African Americans in Washington, D.C., actually predates the founding of the capital, for African Americans were here from the get-go. Records show that blacks were living and working in Alexandria, Virginia, in its early days as a tobacco port. (And worshipping: Georgetown’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church, which celebrates its 205th year in 2021, making its worshippers the city’s oldest black congregation.) In 1800, African Americans made up 29% of the District’s roughly 14,000 residents, but 80% of them were enslaved. The capital’s very design was plotted by self-taught mathematician/surveyor Benjamin Banneker, who in 1791 assisted Andrew Ellicott in mapping out Pierre L’Enfant’s 10-square-mile territorial vision. Slaves built many of the capital’s historic buildings, the White House and the U.S. Capitol among them. The population of African Americans in the capital, always significant, now stands at about 46%. This tour aims to shed some light on the local and national history of African Americans, from pre-Revolutionary War times to the present. Start: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Anacostia.

1. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (Cedar Hill)

Douglass is best known for being an abolitionist, but his story doesn’t stop there. After the Civil War, Douglass held a number of government positions, including U.S. Marshal, appointed by President Rutherford Hayes in 1877. His office was in the U.S. Capitol. He was 60. Douglass walked the 5 miles daily to and fro. You could make the same trek as Douglass, but actually, it’s quite easy to get there: From Union Station, take the DC Circulator bus headed in the direction of Congress Heights and travel 7 stops farther to the corner of W Street SE and Martin Luther King, Jr. Avenue SE, hop off and walk 4 blocks east to 14th and W streets SE. Easy-peasy. 

From the house, simply reverse the steps listed above, picking up the DC Circulator at Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE and W St. SE, headed toward Congress Heights, and travel 1 stop to the Anacostia Metro station, where you catch the Green Line train to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. From here you can either exit and walk to your next stop, or switch to the Blue Line, travel to the Smithsonian station, exit to 12th St. SW, and walk along Independence Ave. until you reach the:

2. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial

In his 39 years, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. helped found the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, wrote and delivered 2,500 speeches, organized massive protests and drives to register Black voters, won the Nobel Peace Prize, and led the August 28, 1963, historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that helped convince Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The memorial at the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin has 15 quotes inscribed into the walls that attempt to define the man, including one that inspired the memorial’s design: out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope. 

Cross Independence Ave. and walk northeast across the Washington Monument grounds until you reach a lane leading to the:

3. National Museum of African American History and Culture 

You can’t explore Washington’s African American history without a visit to this moving museum dedicated to the topic. It can be hard to get tickets, so you’ll need to plan ahead and reserve online before you arrive. You could spend an entire day here, following the story of the African American experience, from the slave trade up until present day culture. Even if you can’t get in, take some time to marvel at the striking bronze facade, which was designed with shapes and features derived from African and African Diaspora influences. 

From the museum, walk up 15th St. and take a left on H St. NW. Turn right at 16th St. to find yourself at:

4. Black Lives Matter Plaza

Born from the tragedy of the George Floyd murder and the subsequent civil justice protests, this massive street mural spells BLACK LIVES MATTER in large yellow letters that take up 2 city blocks outside of the White House. The Plaza is now a popular gathering place, as well as a place of reflection. 

From the plaza, either catch a taxi or walk east along I St. NW until you reach 14th St. From here, get on the northbound Woodley Park–Adams Morgan DC Circulator Bus and ride it all the way to U St. NW. At U St., walk east about 5 blocks and take a right on Vermont Ave. to find:

5. African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

When you exit the Metro station at 10th Street, you’ll exit to the plaza that holds the African American Civil War Memorial: The Spirit of Freedom sculpture portraying uniformed soldiers and a sailor on one side of the rounded pedestal, a family on the other side. The sculpture sits within a semicircular Wall of Honor, a series of stainless-steel plaques on which are engraved the names of 209,145 United States Colored Troops mustered into military service during the Civil War. Now cross Vermont Street to visit the African American Civil War Museum to view exhibits that tell the story of the slaves and freed blacks who fought in the Civil War. 

When you leave the museum, walk 3 blocks westward on U St. until you reach 1213 U St.:

6. Ben’s Chili Bowl

In the 1950s and 60s, the capital was a violent hotbed of civil rights activism. Ben’s, around since 1958, was one establishment that somehow remained open during the tumultuous days of race riots and heartbreak following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968. And it’s still going strong. Famous for its half-smokes and chili fries, Ben’s also serves decent vegetarian fare. 

From here you need go no farther than right next door to view the historic:

7. Lincoln Theatre

The greater U Street neighborhood is a place for dining out, hanging out, and nightlife. But for decades, this area was predominantly a cultural and residential stronghold for African Americans, who had started to settle here after the Civil War. In the 1920s, [‘]30s, and [‘]40s, the popularity of jazz venues and their stars, like D.C.’s own Duke Ellington, led fans to dub the area “Black Broadway.” The Lincoln Theatre, open since 1922, was at the center of it all, welcoming Duke Ellington, Pearl Bailey, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holliday, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, and others to its stage. See a show if you’re here at night.


Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.