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Guide to African American History & Culture in Washington, DC
Experience a wealth of African American history, culture and entertainment in the District.
With its Southern connections, Washington, DC has always had a significant African American population. Before the Civil War, the city was home to a growing number of free blacks who worked as skilled craftsmen, hack drivers, businessmen and laborers, and slave auctions were outlawed altogether in 1850.
All slaves owned inside the city were emancipated on April 16, 1862. Since then, DC has remained home to a large African American population that has created vibrant communities and shaped the city’s identity as a culturally inclusive and intellectual capital.
The influence of African American culture is undeniable as you make your way through the District. We’ve laid out must-see locations to help you take in this vibrant heritage and history.
“Without a struggle, there can be no progress.” – Frederick Douglass
Start your exploration with a visit to the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum. Located in the historic African American neighborhood southeast of the Capitol called Anacostia, the museum houses a collection of approximately 6,000 objects dating back to the early 1800s. The history of this neighborhood – home to orator and abolitionist Frederick Douglass – is directly tied to the museum.
Speaking of Frederick Douglass: make sure to visit the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, located at his former home, Cedar Hill. Tour this 21-room Victorian mansion, learn of Douglass’ incredible efforts to abolish slavery and take in one of the city’s most breathtaking views.
Make your way to the National Mall, where you’ll find two of DC’s most prominent enduring monuments to African American history and culture. The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial sits on a four-acre site and features a 30-foot statue of Dr. King that displays words from his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. The moving memorial also displays a 450-foot long Inscription Wall with 14 quotes from King’s unforgettable speeches, sermons and writings.
On Sept. 24, 2016, the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened its doors a short walk away from the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. This eight-story building, with a stunning exterior that features a three-tiered, bronze-colored screen, focuses solely on African American life, art, history and culture, covering artifacts from the African Diaspora to the present day. Same-day timed entry passes starting at 6:30 a.m. daily available only through the museum website or order advance tickets while available.
Journey to the U Street neighborhood next, where you’ll find the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum. Appropriately located in the Shaw section of the neighborhood (named after Robert Gould Shaw, the white colonel of the all-black Massachusetts 54th Regiment), the memorial is a sculpture that commemorates the 200,000-plus soldiers that served in the U.S. Color Troupes during the Civil War. The nearby museum features exhibits, stories and educational programming that build on the powerful message of the memorial.
Last but not least, follow Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail to see more than 200 significant sites rich in local black history, from churches and schools to famous residences and businesses.
“Music is what I hear and something that I live by.” – Duke Ellington
DC served as the starting place for some of music’s greatest figures, including jazz great Duke Ellington, R&B legend Marvin Gaye and the godfather of go-go, Chuck Brown. Their legacy is prominent, as the District remains a hotbed for grooves.
Once known as “Black Broadway,” the U Street neighborhood is a perfect place to start your dive into the District’s rich musical history. Twins Jazz is a prime spot to kick back and enjoy smooth sounds. The U Street Corridor also features the Howard Theatre, recently restored to its original grandeur. Its stage hosted the likes of Duke, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong in its 20th-century heyday, and now it boasts some of the greatest names in underground and popular music, plus a recurring gospel brunch on the first Sundays of the month. Lincoln Theatre, also a historic hot spot for jazz, similarly features marquee names throughout its calendar. A cab ride to Georgetown to check out Blues Alley is also recommended – this jazz club has been standing for over fifty years.
Chuck Brown’s go-go music still thrives in DC, and you can pay homage to the legend at Chuck Brown Memorial Park in Northeast DC. Just as the music of Marvin Gaye still resonates, so does his impact on DC. Tap into some creative mojo by visiting Marvin Gaye Park – the singer used to sit by the stream on the east end of the park and write songs. We also recommend dining at Restaurant Marvin on 14th Street, decorated with images of the legendary singer and sporting an American/Belgian menu in honor of Gaye’s excursion to Belgium in 1981.
If you’re interested in taking some of DC’s musical history home with you, the city has a litany of record shops where you can browse for jazz, go-go and R&B classics, among other genres (ask employees to point you in the right direction). Som Records on 14th Street lets you sample before you buy, while a jaunt down 18th Street will take you to Crooked Beat Records and Smash!, while Hill & Dale Records in Georgetown is also an option.
Be sure to check out all the different ways to engage with African American history and culture in Washington, DC.