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12 Ways to Engage with African American History & Culture in Washington, DC
The African American experience is honored at locales throughout the nation's capital
From the city's roots as a vibrant community for African Americans to the opening of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in September 2016, Washington, DC is rich with African American history. Check out the numerous ways to engage with the vast and complicated history and fascinating culture of African Americans in the District.
Through stunning architecture and four floors containing exhibits and thousands of artifacts, the newest Smithsonian museum details African American life, history and culture in incredible detail. The National Mall landmark has become one of the city’s most popular attractions since opening last fall. Click here to learn how you can obtain tickets to this free museum.
The Smithsonian National Museum of American History has acquired the Greensboro Lunch Counter, one of the most important civil rights artifacts. When four African American college students sat down at the counter in a North Carolina restaurant on Feb. 1, 1960, racial segregation was still legal in the U.S. By staying in their seats after being asked to leave, the students gave rise to a powerful movement that challenged inequality throughout the South.
At the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art, you can enjoy a comprehensive look at the history of artistic expressions in Africa, allowing you to see the continent through a creative lens. The museum features a collection of roughly 12,000 artifacts, including stunning photographic archives and a world-class library.
The National Mall has been the site of vital African American history, including the March on Washington led by Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1963 and the first Million Man March led by Louis Farrakhan in 1995. You can also admire the spot where King delivered his “I Have A Dream” speech during the aforementioned March, as five lines from the address can be found etched onto the Lincoln Memorial steps.
Situated on a four-acre, crescent-shaped site in West Potomac Park, the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial features a 30-foot statue of Dr. King carved into what is known as the Stone of Hope, which stands past two other pieces of granite known as the Mountain of Despair (both are references to his “I Have A Dream” speech). Visit the Inscription Wall to read incredible quotes from King’s speeches, sermons and writings.
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. The National Park Service offers daily tours.
Mary McLeod Bethune was a prominent civil rights activist and organizer who stood up against racial and gender discrimination. The Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, situated near Logan Circle, is where the national political leader founded the National Council of Negro Women. Her home is now a National Historic Site where interpreters share stories of her life and legacy. Please note that the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House is temporarily closed while it undergoes renovations. 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. Benjamin Banneker Memorial Park, a favorite of landscape architects, pays homage to the surveyor.
Lives Bound Together: Slavery at George Washington’s Mount Vernon is a 4,400 square-foot exhibit at the Donald W. Reynolds Museum at George Washington’s Mount Vernon. The groundbreaking display features the stories of 19 slaves that worked on Washington’s estate, told through roughly 150 artifacts. Visitors can understand the vital role that slaves played at the estate, the destruction that slavery brought to their lives and Washington’s evolving opposition to slavery.
Walk through the historic Shaw neighborhood near the Walter E. Washington Convention Center, once home to prominent African Americans, including jazz legend Duke Ellington, (whose statue resides in front of Howard Theatre). The neighborhood was named for Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, a member of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry of black soldiers who fought during the Civil War. The area earned the nickname, “The Heart of Chocolate City,” as escaped slaves settled there and eventually started businesses catering to the large population of African Americans. Once you are done admiring its history, check out Shaw’s awesome dining scene.
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. The neighborhood has also undergone an extensive revitalization over the last decade, making it one of the most vibrant sections of DC.
Situated in the historic U Street neighborhood, the African American Civil War Memorial is dedicated to African American soldiers that served in the Union Army during the Civil War, making up more than 10 percent of the forces. The accompanying museum tells the story of these heroic troops.
After you've read about these ways to honor the African American experience, check out our guide to African American history and culture in the nation's capital.