The US Capitol located in Washington, D.C.
Jeffrey Zeldman /

Tracing African-American History: A Day Tour in Washington, D.C.

The story of African Americans in Washington, D.C., actually pre-dates 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 they were worshipping: Georgetown’s Mount Zion United Methodist Church opened in 1816, 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 50 percent. 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 the Tour: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, in Anacostia.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at Cedar Hill
Walter Smalling for the Historic American Buildings Survey / Wikimedia Commons
Stop One: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site at 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. Marshall, appointed by Pres. 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: Take the Green Line Metro to the Anacostia station, pick up the DC Circulator bus in the direction of Skyland, travel one stop to the corner of W St. SE and Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE, hop off and walk two blocks east to the visitor center at 14th and W sts. SE.  Easy peasy.

Follow the Tour: From the house, simply reverse the steps listed above, picking up the DC Circulator at 14th and W sts. SE, this time headed toward Potomac Ave., hop off at the Anacostia Metro station, and catch the Green Line train to the U St./African-American Civil War Memorial/Cardozo stop and exit to 13th St.
Greater U Street, African American Civil War Memorial
Ted Eytan /
Stop Two: Greater U Street
The greater U Street neighborhood these days is a hotspot, the place to go 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.” And in the 1950s and 60s, the area was a violent hotbed of civil rights activism. Black history references exist among the millennial attractions: the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, Duke Ellington townhouse residences at 1805 and 1816 13th St., and historic showcase theaters, like the Howard and the Lincoln. And one establishment from the tumultuous days of race riots and heartbreak following Dr. King’s assassination in 1968, has become a legend in its own time: Ben’s Chili Bowl, 1213 U St. NW, open since 1958, and where you should head now for a break. 

Ben’s Chili Bowl: Famous for its half-smokes and chili fries, Ben’s also serves decent vegetarian fare. You’ll see a cross-section of the city at Ben’s, which is open almost 24/7, 365 days a year.
[tel] 202/667-0909.

Follow the Tour: From Ben’s, walk to the corner of 14th and U streets and board the DC Circulator bus headed south in the direction of McPherson Square. Get off at the last stop, walk one block south to H St., turn right on H St. and follow to 1610 H St. NW.
Decatur House in Washington, DC / Timothy Vollmer /
Stop Three: Decatur House and Slave Quarters, Lafayette Square
When Benjamin Henry Latrobe (one of the architects of the Capitol and the White House) designed the lovely red-brick Federal-style Decatur House for War of 1812 hero, Commodore Stephen Decatur, he made sure to include back stairways and access passages where slaves might toil and traipse without being seen. A tour here takes you through the elegant 1818 main house as well as its “back building” rooms where slaves lived, laundered, and cooked. The guide notes that these slave quarters “are the only ones that exist within view of the White House,” which can’t help but call up a vision of the White House looming like a plantation mansion over fields being worked and structures being built by enslaved blacks. In fact, slaves constructed the White House, and lived for the duration in temporary tiny (10 foot wide by 10 foot long) huts on the muddy land that is now Lafayette Square.

Follow the Tour: If you don’t feel like strolling the mile to your next stop, walk one block north to the Farragut West station and board the Blue Line train headed toward Largo. Debark at the Smithsonian stop, exiting onto the National Mall. Cross the Mall to enter the National Museum of American History. 
National Museum of American History
Carol M. Highsmith / Wikimedia commons
Stop Four: National Museum of American History
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture will be glorious when it opens in late 2016/early 2017, but in the meantime stop by this museum’s preview exhibit, “Through the African-American Lens: Selections from the Permanent Collection,” to view 140 diverse artifacts, including a lace neckerchief worn by Harriet Tubman and an electric organ played by James Brown.

Follow the Tour: Exit the museum Mall-side and find the DC Circulator stop at 12th St. and Madison Dr. Take the Circulator to the Matrin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. 
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial
Official White House Photo by Lawrence Jackson / Wikimedia commons
Stop Five: 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 last but certainly not least, led the August 28, 1963 historic March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom that convinced Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Inscribed into the memorial walls are 16 quotes that attempt to define the man, including one that inspired the memorial’s design: “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope.” Now visit the place where King delivered that line. 

Follow the Tour: Cross Independence Ave. and walk westward along the avenue until you reach a lane leading to the Lincoln Memorial. 

The Lincoln Memorial at night
Izx / Wikimedia commons
Stop Six: Lincoln Memorial
Forty-one years before Martin Luther King delivered his famous “I have a dream” speech from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, another black man addressed a crowd here. Dr. Robert Russo 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 was nevertheless 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.”