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12 Ways to Engage with African American History & Culture in Washington, DC

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial at Sunset - Washington, DC

DC locales honor the African American experience

Washington, DC is rich with African American history - even more so since the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture opened last fall. In honor of Black History Month, we present the numerous ways to engage with the vast and complicated history and fascinating culture of African Americans in the nation's capital.

1 Be amazed by the expansive Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture

@h.i.o - Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture - Washington, DC

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 the free museum.

2 Discover 184 pieces of art at the Smithsonian American Art Museum

John Biggers, Shotgun, Third Ward #1, 1966 - Smithsonian American Art Museum

The Smithsonian American Art Museum pays homage to the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Black History Month with Artworks by African Americans from the Collection (on display through Feb. 28). 184 pieces made by African American artists, from painting and sculpture to textiles, are on display, reflecting centuries of African American experience and expression.

3 Cut through the fabric of time at the National Museum of African Art
Cut through the fabric of time at the National Museum of African Art Cliff via Flickr

The notion of time is explored to dazzling effect in Senses of Time: Video and Film-based Works of Africa, an exhibit at the National Museum of African Art on display through March 26. Six African artists explore how time is both experienced and produced by the body across seven different videos. The power of the camera is shown through pacing, looping, layering and sequencing, altering time for both the viewer and the characters depicted within.

4 Dig deeper into an African American community at the National Museum of American History
Dig deeper into an African American community at the National Museum of American History

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History features Celebration: Snapshots of African American Communities, consisting of 25 photographs depicting special occasions and day-to-day activities of African Americans in a small community in Louisiana from the 1940s-1970s. The mostly black-and-white images intimately depict a close-knit community, a perfect companion to the powerful exhibits at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

5 Stand beside Martin Luther King, Jr. at a majestic memorial

Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial - Washington, DC

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.

6 Head east of the Anacostia River to the home of Frederick Douglass
Head east of the Anacostia River to the home of Frederick Douglass Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

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.

7 Get jazzed by wonderful images at the National Portrait Gallery

Louis Armstrong / Herman Leonard / 1960 (printed 1998) / Selenium-toned gelatin silver print

Herman Leonard is known as the preeminent jazz photographer, as he hung out with some of the art form’s greatest performers during the genre’s heyday. While bouncing from club to club, Leonard photographed legendary figures such as Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Duke Ellington, Billy Holiday and Thelonious Monk. Experience these historic images at the National Portrait Gallery’s In the Groove: Jazz Portraits by Herman Leonard, open through Feb. 20.

8 Come face-to-face with the heroes of Harlem

Smithsonian American Art Museum - Washington, DC

Harlem Heroes: Photographs by Carl Van Vechten at the Smithsonian American Art Museum (through March 19) displays the work of a vital figure in the Harlem Renaissance who immersed himself in the most creative circles of the time. The exhibit contains Van Vechten’s most famous photographs, including intimate shots of James Baldwin, Langston Hughes, Ella Fitzgerald, Bessie Smith and many more.

9 Learn personal slave stories at George Washington’s Mount Vernon
Learn personal slave stories at George Washington’s Mount Vernon vgm8383 via Flickr

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.

10 Experience Jacob Lawrence’s incredible work at the Phillips Collection

Jacon Lawrence - The Life of Toussaint L'Ouverture: Toussaint at Ennery (1989) Printed by Workshop, Inc., Washington, DC, From the collection of Di and Lou Stovall

This Phillips Collection exhibition focuses on a series of 15 silkscreen prints created by American artist Jacob Lawrence to tell the story of the life of Toussaint L’Ouverture, a former slave who led the fight for the liberation of Haiti during the French Revolution. Lawrence is an expert at depicting the quest for freedom, so you won’t want to miss your chance to view these rarely seen prints.

11 Book the Langston Hughes suite at Marriott Wardman Park Hotel
Book the Langston Hughes suite at Marriott Wardman Park Hotel The Photographers Gallery / Marriott Wardman Park

Walk in the footsteps of one of America’s greatest poets inside the luxurious Marriott Wardman Park Hotel. Langston Hughes worked as a busboy at the hotel in his youth (a fact that inspired the popular DC café, Busboys and Poets) before emerging artistically.

In addition, the new Langston Hughes Suite Experience package was designed with the Langston Hughes enthusiast in mind, complete with a one night stay in the Langston Hughes Suite, Langston Hughes’ first book, “The Weary Blues,” his and her fedoras provided by the bespoke hat maker Goorin Bros, a bottle of champagne and, in honor of Langston Hughes’ birthday 2/1, two $21 gift certificates to Busboys and Poets. The package is priced at $2,117.00. Available only on the weekends, excludes all tax, gratuity and can be booked by visiting www.wardmanparkmarriott.com.

12 Visit the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
Visit the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum

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.