From national memorials to museums and parks, Washington, D.C. has a bounty of Black history to learn and celebrate.
As the epicenter of American politics, Washington, D.C., is a historical and cultural juggernaut, despite being only 68 square miles in size. The nation’s capital has many takeaways about the country’s founding. But woven into those narratives are oft-forgotten legacies of the many contributions of African Americans in D.C.
It’s been a haven for freedmen since 1862 when Congress passed the D.C. Emancipation Act. The Act freed enslaved people in D.C. nine months before President Lincoln set his pen to the Emancipation Proclamation. By the start of the 20th century, D.C. was the first city to have a majority African American populace. For decades, African Americans everywhere affectionately referred to D.C. as “Chocolate City.”
But the city has transformed in the last few decades. While it no longer lives up to its former moniker, when you look in the right places, you can still find Washington, D.C.’s rich Black history and culture.
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National Museum of African American History and Culture
If you want to learn more about Black history in Washington, the most obvious place to start is the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. The museum opened in 2016 and showcases more than 36,000 artifacts taking visitors on a chronological journey through the African American experience.
Most people start with the Transatlantic Slave Trade in the basement and meander their way up through the decades. If you’re short on time, head up to the fourth floor for the Culture Galleries, which are less crowded. Museum staff says it would take visitors roughly 22 hours to see the museum’s entire collection, so plan to wear comfortable shoes and pace yourself.
Don’t skip the museum’s cafeteria, which provides a culinary history lesson with its scrumptious soul food offerings.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is nestled between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Monument. It’s not the most prominent tribute on the National Mall, but it has quite an impact. The centerpiece is a 30-foot statue of Dr. King carved into the Stone of Hope, which sits between two large boulders known as the Mountain of Despair. Together they represent a portion of the “I Have a Dream” speech. There are also 14 of his most famous quotes engraved on the Inscription Wall surrounding the statue.
Dr. King is the first African American to be honored on or near the National Mall and is only the fourth non-president to be memorialized in this way. Whenever my family and friends visit for the first time, the Dr. King Memorial is at the top of their D.C. must-see list, always inducing tears and pride.
Hundreds of thousands flock to the National Mall to visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. While President Lincoln is a significant figure in African American History, by way of the Emancipation Proclamation, his memorial has served as a site of protests and celebrations. Like when acclaimed African American singer Marian Anderson wasn’t allowed to perform at two prominent venues, she held a concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. And Dr. King gave his famed “I Have a Dream” speech from the memorial’s steps during the March on Washington.
When you visit, be sure to walk 18 steps down from the top to find an inscription that marks where Dr. King stood as he delivered that speech. The National Park Service added the marker in 2003 to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the address.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Perched atop one of the steepest and tallest hills east of the Anacostia River is Cedar Hill, the beautiful estate of abolitionist, author, and political behemoth Frederick Douglass. People visit the home to tour the mansion and learn about the causes Douglass championed, including eradicating slavery and women’s rights.
The tour, operated by the National Park System, takes visitors through the 21-room Victorian manor, providing a snapshot of Douglass’ personal life and professional success. Douglass purchased Cedar Hill in 1877 for $6,700, which would be more than $1 million today. Douglass lived there from 1878 until his death in 1895.
INSIDER TIPFrederick Douglass National Historic Site is closed for renovation until March 2023. Check their website for exact reopening dates.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
The Mary McCloud Bethune Council House National Historic Site was the civil rights leader and educator’s occasional home. The three-story Victorian home was the first headquarters of the National Council for Negro Women, which Bethune founded in 1935. Today the site serves as a museum operated by the National Park Service with both changing and permanent exhibits.
Often referred to as “the Mecca,” Howard University is a Historically Black College and University (HBCU) located in Washington, D.C. The school has been an incubator of greatness since its creation by an act of Congress in 1867. When walking on campus, take a glimpse of the three historic landmarks on the campus, Andrew Rankin Memorial Chapel, Frederick Douglass Memorial Hall, and the Founders Library, noted for their role in advancing civil rights in education.
The university offers undergraduate, graduate, and professional degrees in more than 120 programs and is one of the country’s largest producers of African American PhDs. Graduates include political, intellectual, and literary luminaries such as Vice President Kamala Harris, Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, famed author Zora Neale Hurston, Pulitzer and Nobel Prize winner Toni Morrison, and a bevy of popular entertainers.
The U.S. Capitol Building
Many notable Americans are immortalized in art throughout the U.S. Capitol Building, including Sojourner Truth, Rosa Parks, and Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune. But when visiting, you can also pay tribute to the many African American enslaved tradespeople and laborers who helped to construct the building.
Located on the lower level of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center is the Commemorative Slave Marker, a block of sandstone that was quarried by enslaved African Americans and used as an original part of the East Front of the U.S. Capitol that was constructed between 1824-1826.
Black Broadway (U Street Corridor)
Black history abounds no matter which neighborhood you’re visiting in the District. The ultra-fun and hip U Street Corridor is no exception. African Americans first settled in the area during the Civil War. In its heyday, this Black community prospered and became known as “Black Broadway.” Black-owned businesses, churches, and theaters thrived. As a result, several historic markers pinpoint notable sites along U Street. The Industrial Bank, Lee’s Flower and Card Shop, and Ben’s Chili Bowl are relics of that golden era and serve as fixtures on U Street today.
African American Civil War Museum and Memorial
The African American Civil War Museum and Memorial honors the 209,145 African Americans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War. The Spirit of Freedom, a stunning nine-foot bronze memorial, is situated near the museum’s entrance. The front of the sculpture features three infantrymen and a sailor defending freedom. Above them is the face of the Spirit of Freedom watches over them with her arms crossed. Each soldier’s name is etched on the Wall of Honor, which surrounds the tribute.
The Malcolm X Drum Circle
Delve into D.C. culture with a visit to Meridian Hill Park, locally known as Malcolm X Park. On Sunday afternoons in the warm months, parkgoers are treated to the sounds of the Malcolm X Park Drum Circle.
It’s said that this African-style drum circle started on the day Malcolm X was assassinated—as a way for locals to grieve and honor African heritage. Both novices and aficionados share in the making of music. The drum circles have no head or tail. Musicians diplomatically alternate between leading and following as they improvise to create a hypnotic pulse.
Attend a Live Go-Go Concert
It’s impossible to get acquainted with D.C.’s Black culture without attending a go-go concert. Go-go music is the lifeblood of Black D.C.’s culture and sound. The music became popular when live performances were taped and later distributed. But, except for some national hits by go-go pioneer Chuck Brown, this sub-genre of funk never really gained traction outside of the Beltway.
With the heavy use of percussions and call-and-response features, go-go is made for live performances. It has to be felt and heard.
At a live go-go concert, you can connect to the region’s heartbeat and listen to the voice of the people. Go-go is being used as a rallying cry to preserve the history and culture of long-time District residents. In 2020, it was designated as the official music of D.C.—a celebration and a step toward protecting this organic art form.