(Note: I strongly recommend that you reserve visitor passes to the National Museum of African American History & Culture before arriving. If you’re successful, then incorporate that tour into this one. You’ll need to allow a day and a half then, or better yet, two days. If you have not successfully procured an advance pass, follow this itinerary as is, which focuses mainly on the African-American experience in the capital itself.)
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 Georgetown, the city’s oldest neighborhood, from its 1751 beginnings as a tobacco port. (And worshipping: Georgetown’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church celebrated its 203rd year in 2019, making its worshippers the city’s oldest black congregation.) 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 48%. 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. So let me ask you something: Do you think the Anacostia site is too far away to visit? 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, 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:
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 convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The memorial at the northwest corner of the Tidal Basin, has 16 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.” Your next stop is the place where King delivered that line.
Cross Independence Ave. and walk westward along the avenue until you reach a lane leading to the:
Forty-one years before Martin Luther King, Jr., delivered his famous “I Have a Dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, another black man addressed a crowd here. Dr. Robert Russa Moton, the president of Tuskegee Institute, gave the keynote speech at the memorial’s dedication, on May 30, 1922. The attendees were mostly white and the seating segregated, but the occasion, nevertheless, was momentous for paying honest tribute to Lincoln’s legacy. It’s not certain where Dr. Moton stood that day, but Dr. King’s step is clearly marked: Ascend to the top of the steps, then count down to the 18th and look for the stone inscribed with the words “I HAVE A DREAM. MARTIN LUTHER KING, JR. THE MARCH ON WASHINGTON FOR JOBS AND FREEDOM. AUGUST 28, 1963.”
Catch the DC Circulator headed toward Union Station and debark at the stop near the Hirshhorn Museum, at 7th St. and Jefferson Dr. Cross Independence Ave. and return to the L’Enfant Plaza Metro station. Board the Green Line train to the U Street/African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop and exit to 10th St., which puts you right in front of your next destination.
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.:
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:
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.
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