You are here
100 Free & Almost Free Things to Do: African American History & Culture
Delve into the city’s African American roots with these free and fun adventures.
Washington, DC’s history is entwined with its large population of African American residents, as evidenced by the more than 200 sites on the African American Heritage Trail in the city. Here are more than 20 important sites that celebrate the history and experience of African Americans in the nation’s capital.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is located on the National Mall adjacent to the Washington Monument. The museum promises to exhibit the richness and diversity of the African American experience. The stated mission of the museum is to promote a dialogue on race and inspire healing.
The four-acre crescent shaped site in West Potomac Park on the Tidal Basin was selected for the Martin Luther King Jr., Memorial. President Obama dedicated the memorial on Oct. 16, 2011. The two mountains represent the “Mountain of Despair” reaching for “Hope from Despair,” while the space in the middle symbolizes the distance between them. The memorial is one of the highlights on the National Mall.
The capital city was a dichotomy during the Civil War. Slave traders still bought and sold slaves in the city, while abolitionists in the community fought fiercely against slavery. Congress issued the DC Compensated Emancipation Act in April of 1862, nine months before Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation. It was a legal and symbolic act that officially ended slavery in DC and led to the eventual national decree. Washingtonians, as well as the District of Columbia government, celebrate Emancipation Day each year with a parade, live music, food and fireworks.
Philip Reid supervised the assembly of the Statue of Freedom on the top of the U.S. Capitol with his slave owner, sculptor Clark Mills. Reid was a skilled laborer, but while he worked on Freedom, his owner was paid for Reid’s work – except on Sundays, when Reid was entitled to wages paid directly to him. The craftsman worked most weeks without a break from July of 1860 until May of 1861.
During the Civil War, more than 10 percent of the soldiers serving in the Union Army were African American. As their contributions had not been properly recognized before, the African American Civil War Memorial was dedicated in 1998 in the historic U Street neighborhood. The accompanying museum opened in its permanent location in 2011, in the Grimke Building. Archibald Grimke was born a slave but became the second African American to graduate from Harvard Law School.
Famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass was born into slavery, but after running away, he became an outspoken advocate who had the ear of American leaders. During the Civil War, Douglass encouraged President Lincoln to live up to the ideals stated in the Declaration of Independence. Years later, Douglass bought his beloved home, Cedar Hill in Anacostia, and lived there until his death. National Park Service offers daily tours.
The Thurgood Marshall Federal Judiciary Building is affiliated with the United States Federal Courts. Completed in 1992, it was named for Thurgood Marshall, the first African American on the U.S. Supreme Court. Marshall, a grandson of a slave, moved Civil Rights forward when he successfully sued the University of Maryland to overturn “Plessy vs. Ferguson,” the law that upheld the concept of “separate but equal.”
Born into slavery in Georgia to his enslaved mother Eliza and Irish slave owner father Michael Healy, Patrick Francis Healy moved to New York to study and enter the Jesuit Order. Healy taught at Georgetown University until 1874, when he became the president of the university, and the first African American President of a white university. While he was acclaimed for modernizing the college, his multi-racial identity remained secret until 1969. There is plenty to see and do in this historic neighborhood.
President Lincoln's Cottage provided the Lincoln family a safe haven from the swampy, unhealthy conditions around the White House during the Civil War. President Lincoln spent more than a quarter of his presidency here, where he visited with injured soldiers and worked on a draft of the Emancipation Proclamation to abolish slavery.
The Star-Spangled Banner flag on display in the National Museum of American History was the same flag flying over Fort McHenry in Baltimore on Sept. 13-14, 1814 as the British Navy attacked. One of the flagmakers who created and manufactured this flag was an African American enslaved woman. Louis Armstrong’s trumpet, Muhammed Ali’s headgear and a biplane flown by a Tuskegee Airman are also on display.
The FDR Memorial on the banks of the Tidal Basin portrays the four terms served by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who served as commander-in-chief during the Great Depression and World War II. He pushed forward New Deal policies to help the poor, and First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt was a huge influence in the fight for Civil Rights. The President and First Lady frequently sought expertise from African American activists to better understand and support the African American community.
There are five lines etched on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial designating where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech.” If you can't make out the words, you may want to pour some water over the stone to better read the text.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached his last Sunday sermon before his assassination in Memphis at the Washington National Cathedral. You can tour the cathedral, located in Upper Northwest, and visit its Bishop's Garden in spring and summer. Another interesting fact: Among the gargoyles and grotesques decorating the towers is a depiction of Darth Vader.
One of the three figures in the Vietnam Veteran Women’s Memorial is an African American woman standing by a wounded soldier. According to the sculptor, Glenna Goodacre, this female soldier was “searching for a medevac helicopter in the sky or help from God.”
There are three African American servicemen among the 19 statues representing the American military servicemen who fought in the Korean War. Written on the Korean War Veterans Memorial are the words, “Freedom is Not Free.”
Arlington House was Confederate General Robert E. Lee’s home before the start of the Civil War. In the back of the mansion stands the slave quarters of individuals who served the Lee family. Following the Civil War, some of the land that is now Arlington National Cemetery served as a Freedman’s Village (near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier). More than 3,800 inhabitants are buried in the Jim Crow section, Section 27. The headstones are marked “Citizen” or “Civilian.”
The National Mall has been the site of many important African American events and marches. Martin Luther King Jr. led the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in support of Civil Rights in 1968. The Million Man March of 1995 was a march to promote “brotherhood, unity and atonement;” led by Louis Farrakhan, the 850,000 participants were mostly African American men calling attention to negative stereotypes. The National Mall was also the site for the election and reelection of the first African American President, Barack Obama, in 2008.
Stop in Busboys and Poets for a poetry reading or a bite to eat. Designed as a place where “art, politics and culture collide,” this locally owned chain of restaurants is named for Langston Hughes, an African American poet who wrote insightful portrayals of black life in America. Hughes lived in Washington, DC as a young man, and earned money working at the Wardman Park Hotel in Woodley Park as a busboy. A restaurant/bookstore/performing venue, Busboys and Poets seeks to bring people of all races together to share progressive ideas.
Situated near Logan Circle, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is the home of the organizer and national political leader who founded the National Council of Negro Women. Her home is now a National Historic Site where interpreters share stories of her life and legacy. Across town in Capitol Hill, you can also visit a statue dedicated in her honor.
Benjamin Banneker was a self-educated astronomer, farmer, mathematician and urban planner. In 1791, Banneker literally helped shape the District by working with Major Andrew Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the future nation’s capital. Banneker was also a free man. Benjamin Banneker Memorial Park, a favorite of landscape architects, pays homage to the surveyor.
Walk through the historic Shaw neighborhood near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, once home to prominent African Americans who lived and worked in Washington, DC. Among its notable citizens is jazz legend Duke Ellington. Shaw was named for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a member of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of black soldiers who fought during the Civil War. It was nicknamed the “Heart of Chocolate City” as escaped slaves settled here and eventually started businesses catering to the large population of African Americans.
During the Civil War, African Americans who escaped slavery or had been freed, and began to settle around the Fort Reno area in Upper Northwest during the Civil War. African Americans commonly moved near areas protected by Union soldiers. After the war, it became a “Freetown” for former slaves. Fort Reno is part of the National Park Service property and is the highest topographical point in the District of Columbia. The park has tennis courts, grass areas and has hosted a free, live summer concert series.
If you want to learn even more about the local African American history in the nation’s capital, we urge you to read up on U Street, which was once known as “Black Broadway” and predates Harlem as one of the nation’s centers for African American art and culture.
Check out the full list of 100 Free & Almost Free Things to Do in Washington, DC.