Seek out the nation’s black history, and you’ll find it scattered across Washington, which was a magnet for African Americans practically from its inception.
But the most awe-inspiring markers? They won’t always be found in memorials. Some vestiges of the African American experience require a stop, a second look, and maybe a third, to understand their resonance.
Two objects that made our list:
“The Death of Cleopatra” at Smithsonian American Art Museum
In a sculpture-filled hall of the American Art Museum, there’s a work that tour guides like to stop and point to: Cleopatra.
Set off from the rest of the wing and displayed in its own nook with dusky purple walls, “The Death of Cleopatra” was the work of a young sculptor named Edmonia Lewis. African American and Native American, Lewis was considered to be the first professional black sculptor in U.S. history; she showed so much promise that a sponsor sent her to Rome to pursue her art, and newspapers noted her work widely.
But the sculpture didn’t arrive at the American Art Museum in style. Shortly after its early exhibitions, it turned up at a Chicago-area racetrack, where it was a grave marker for a horse and remained for nearly a century.
The “I have a dream” etching at the Lincoln Memorial
The stern figure rising out of rock on the edge of the Tidal Basin wasn’t the first tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall.
The five short lines of text carved into the granite on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial came before, marking the spot where King rallied an estimated 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.
It wasn’t until 2003, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the march, that local stone carver Andy Del Gallo was enlisted (after a law was passed by Congress allowing the addition) to etch the words that stretch no more than two feet wide.