African American history sites are plentiful in Washington


Ben's Chili Bowl on U St. in Washington was open during the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s assasination and has been visited by a number of famous African Americans over the years. (Amanda Voisard/THE WASHINGTON POST)
August 24, 2011

by Emily Wax

and Jessica Goldstein

The Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorial is attracting all the fanfare this week. But just outside the spotlight, in Washington and its surroundings, there are dozens of houses, museums and other sites that reflect the history of African Americans in this capital city and the country.

Some places boast a large historical footprint, such as the U.S. Supreme Court on Capitol Hill, where Thurgood Marshall argued 1954’s Brown v. Board of Education . The case ended in the landmark decision that declared segregated schools unconstitutional. Others offer more backstory to the story of race in America, such as the home of Carter G. Woodson, known as the “father of African American history.” Located at 1538 Ninth St. NW and recently acquired by the National Park Service, the house will eventually be restored and opened to the public.)

Back when downtown Washington was for white people, entire black business areas thrived. The most famous was the U Street entertainment district in Northwest. Known as the Black Broadway, Cab Calloway, Duke Ellington and Ella Fitzgerald performed there even after they had attracted nationwide attention. Today, U Street, site of the historic Lincoln Theatre and Bohemian Caverns jazz club, is at the heart of the city’s liveliest nightlife scene — and now open to all.

Listed below is a sampling of African American Washington. Admission is free unless noted. But there’s much more: In 2000, Cultural Tourism DC surveyed the city to create an inventory of more than 200 sites. CTDC’s constantly updated Web site offers detailed and an often surprising list of suggestions; visit www.culturaltourismdc.org.

African American Civil War

Memorial and Museum

Famous for: Challenging America’s traditional memory of African Americans during the Civil War as slaves awaiting rescue, the museum uses documents and photographs to tell the story of how African Americans fought to maintain the Union.

And there’s more: From 2- 4 p.m. on Sundays this summer, the museum hosts the Duke Ellington Sunday Jazz Series, featuring the HR-57 All Stars. In September, when the jazz series is over, a 10-week gospel series will begin.

Getting there: 1925 Vermont Ave. NW; 202-667-2667; afroamcivilwar.org. Open 10 a.m.-6:30 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, until 4 p.m. Saturdays, noon-4 p.m. Sundays.

Alain Locke Residence

Famous for: Locke was the first black Rhodes Scholar from the United States. He graduated Phi Beta Kappa from Harvard University and taught at Howard University for more than 40 years.

And there’s more: In 1925, Locke was the editor of “The New Negro,” an anthology of art, prose and poetry.

Getting there: The site, at 1326 R St. NW, is marked with a plaque; the home is privately owned and not open to the public.

Alexandria Black History Museum

Famous for: The museum is focused on preserving and celebrating local and regional African American history. There is also a reading room and nine-acre heritage park.

And there’s more: Through Dec. 31, you can see the exhibit “In Black and White: Photography by Nina Tisara and Peggy Fleming,” an exploration of the culture, worship and social lives of African Americans in Alexandria.

Getting there: 902 Wythe St., Alexandria; 703-746-4356; www.alexblackhistory.org. Open 10 a.m-4 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays. Admission is $2.

Bell School

Famous for: Founded in 1807 by three former slaves — George Bell, Nicholas Franklin and Moses Liverpool — the Bell School is recognized as the first school for African Americans in the District.

And there’s more: The founders all worked as caulkers at the Navy Yard.

Getting there: The site, at Second and D streets SE, is marked with a plaque.

Ben’s Chili Bowl →

Famous for: This U Street hangout has been serving up half-smokes to luminaries including President Obama, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Nat “King” Cole, Miles Davis and Ella Fitzgerald. Legend has it that Bill Cosby met his wife, Camille, at Ben’s.

And there’s more: During the riots after King’s assassination, much of the city closed down. Ben’s stayed open, after curfew, to give activists and firefighters food and a place to stay.

Getting there: 1213 U St. NW; 202-667-0909; http://benschilibowl.com. Open 6 a.m.-2 a.m. Mondays-Thursdays, till 4 a.m. Fridays, 7 a.m.-4 a.m. Saturdays, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sundays.

Blues Alley

Famous for: Founded in 1865, Blues Alley is the oldest continuing jazz supper club in the United States.

And there’s more: Performers have included Dizzy Gillespie, Sarah Vaughan, Eva Cassidy and Ramsey Lewis.

Getting there: 1073 Wisconsin Ave. NW; 202-337-4141; bluesalley.com. Open 6 p.m.–12:30 a.m. seven days a week.

Bohemian Caverns

Famous for: Called Club Caverns when it opened in 1926, this club has showcased performers including Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross and the Supremes, Ella Fitzgerald, Ramsey Lewis, Sarah Vaughan, Thelonious Monk and Bill Cosby.

And there’s more: Caverns also has a restaurant, the Tap and Parlour.

Getting there: 2001 11th St. NW; 202-299-0800; bohemiancaverns.com, tapandparlour.com. Doors at the Caverns open at 7 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays, 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays. Tap and Parlour hours: 5-11 p.m. Tuesdays-Thursdays, 11 a.m.-3:30 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays (brunch), 5 p.m.-2 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays (dinner).

Charles E. Sumner Museum

and Archives

Famous for: The first high school graduation for African Americans in the country took place in 1877 at the Charles Sumner School. Sumner also educated African American students in elementary and secondary school.

And there’s more: Now in its 25th year as a museum, the Sumner School site houses the official archives of D.C.’s public schools.

Getting there: 1201 17th St. NW; 202-730-0478; http://sumnerschool.tumblr.com/info. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays–Fridays. Archival materials available 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays by appointment.

Duke Ellington Mural

Famous for: This 24-by-32-foot mural of Ellington, completed in 1997, was created by G. Byron Peck.

And there’s more: Peck hired D.C. students to paint the mural with him.

Getting there: The mural is above the U Street/Cardozo Metro stop at 13th and U streets NW.

←Fort Stevens

Famous for: Fort Stevens was built in 1861 on land that was partly owned by Elizabeth Proctor Thomas, a free black woman. Her house was torn down by soldiers in 1862 to make room for the fort. When President Abraham Lincoln visited Fort Stevens, he promised to pay her for the loss, but there’s no record that she was compensated. Thomas lived in the community until her death in 1917. A reconstruction of Fort Stevens, which deteriorated after the war, was completed by the Civilian Conservation Corps and stands on the original site.

And there’s more: It was the site of the District’s only Civil War battle, on July 11, 1864, ending in a Union victory.

Getting there: 13th and Quackenbos streets NW; 202-895-6070; http://nps.gov/rocr/ftcircle/stevens.htm. Open dawn to dusk.

Frederick Douglass

National Historic Site

Famous for: Frederick Douglass’s 14-acre estate, Cedar Hill, centers on a Victorian mansion in Anacostia. The famed orator and former slave lived there from 1878 until his death in 1895.

And there’s more: The house, furnished much as it was when Douglass resided there, is filled with photographs, documents and gifts from Harriet Beecher Stowe and Abraham Lincoln. The “Growlery,” a small fieldstone outbuilding on the property, is the studio where Douglass wrote and studied.

Getting there: 1411 W St. SE; 202-426-5961; free tours; www.nps.gov/frdo/index.htm. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. April 15-Oct. 14, until 4:30 p.m. Oct. 15-April 14.

Griffith Stadium site

Famous for: The Negro Leagues baseball teams all played at Griffith, including the Washington Elite Giants, the Washington Pilots and the Le Droit Barons. In 1965, the stadium was razed — Howard University Hospital now occupies the site — but a plaque commemorates the site.

And there’s more: The Homestead Grays were based in Pittsburgh but played at Griffith when the Washington Senators were away. The Grays’ most famous player was Jackie Robinson.

Getting there: 2041 Georgia Ave. NW.

Grocery protests site

Famous for: During the Great Depression, the New Negro Alliance organized protests against white-owned businesses that had “no colored clerks in colored neighborhoods.” The Sanitary Grocery (forerunner to Safeway) fought back, but in 1938 the U.S. Supreme Court declared that the NNA had the right to picket and boycott such businesses.

And there’s more: “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” groups spread across the nation.

Getting there: A plaque at 1936 11th St. NW marks the site of the Sanitary Grocery.

Holy Rood Cemetery

Famous for: Holy Rood is said to be the burial site for as many as 1,000 free and enslaved African Americans.

And there’s more: The cemetery, established in 1832, is currently owned by Georgetown University.

Getting there: 2016 Wisconsin Ave. NW. Open 24 hours.

Howard University Libraries - Moorland-Spingarn Research Center

Famous for: Moorland-Spingarn is dedicated to documenting the culture and history of not just African Americans but all people of African descent.

And there’s more: It is the largest and most thorough center of its kind.

Getting there: 500 Howard Pl. NW; 202-806-7239; howard.edu/msrc. Manuscript division is open 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2--4:30 p.m. Mondays through Fridays. University archives are accessible by appointment only. The Moorland Reading Room is open 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2-4:45 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays and 9 a.m.-1 p.m. and 2.-4:30 p.m. Fridays.

Jennie Dean Memorial

Famous for: On the site of the Manassas Industrial School for Colored Youth, this five-acre park is now a park of remembrance for the school’s founder, former slave Jennie Dean. The outlines of the foundations of the original building are marked, and there is a model of the school and a kiosk with an audio program that provides information about Dean and the school’s founding.

And there’s more: Dean raised money for the school for almost 10 years before Manassas Industrial was chartered in 1893. The dedication ceremonies were led by orator Frederick Douglass.

Getting there: 9601 Prince William St., Manassas; 703-368-1873; www.manassascity.org/index.aspx?nid=219. Open 24 hours.

Langston Legacy Golf Course and Driving Range

Famous for: Langston opened in 1939 as a public golf course for African Americans. Now owned by the National Park Service, it is named for John Mercer Langston, founder of Howard University’s law department (now school) and the first black congressman elected from Virginia (1888).

And there’s more: Langston, which also attracted white golfers, grew to be immensely popular. Joe Louis, Bob Hope, President Gerald R. Ford and Lee Elder all played there.

Getting there: 2600 Benning Rd. NE; 202-397-8638; langstonjunior.org/legacy.htm. Playing nine holes costs $17, $22 on weekends. Open 6 a.m. -7 p.m.; last tee time at 5:30 p.m.

Lincoln Theatre

Famous for: Built in 1922, this theater on U Street provided the stage for some of the nation’s finest performers, including Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Nat King Cole, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong and Sarah Vaughn. Today, the Lincoln hosts concerts, musicals, pageants and other performances. It can also be rented for private events.

And there’s more: This was the inspiration for Langston Hughes’s poem “Lincoln Theatre.”

Getting there: 1215 U St. NW; 202-328-6000; thelincolntheatre.org.

Mary McLeod Bethune House

Famous for: McLeod, the child of former slaves, grew up during Reconstruction in the South and became a teacher, writer, presidential adviser and early civil-rights activist.

And there’s more: McLeod founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935, and this house served as its first headquarters.

Getting there: 1318 Vermont Ave. NW; 202-673-2402; nps.gov/mamc. Tours Memorial Day through Labor Day every day from 9 a.m. (last tour at 4 p.m.); same hours from Labor Day to Memorial Day but closed on Sundays.

Metropolitan AME Church

Famous for: This African Methodist Episcopal church, dedicated in 1886, is the oldest continuously black-owned property in the District. Its congregation integrated before legal integration took place. Booker T. Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt and Ida B. Wells all spoke at Metropolitan, and John Philip Sousa performed there. Metropolitan holds regular Sunday services, Bible school and a number of community events throughout the year.

And there’s more: Frederick Douglass gave a speech on racial oppression there in 1894; later, it was the site of the funerals for Douglass and Rosa Parks.

Getting there: 1518 M St. NW; 202-331-1426; metropolitanamec.org.

Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture

Famous for: The museum pays tribute to Maryland’s African American heritage. There are three permanent galleries: “Things Hold Lines Connect” on how slavery in Maryland affected family ties; “Building Maryland, Building America,” about how oppression contributed, in a complicated way, to the future of the United States, and “The Strength of the Mind” on music, dance, art and language.

And there’s more: It’s the largest African American museum on the East Coast.

Getting there: 830 E. Pratt St., Baltimore; 443-263-1800; africanamericanculture.org/. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Wednesdays through Saturdays, until 8 p.m. Thursdays, noon-5 p.m. Sundays. General admission, $8.

St. Augustine Roman Catholic Church

Famous for: St. Augustine is considered “the mother church of black Catholics” in Washington.

And there’s more: It was founded as a school and chapel in 1858 by emancipated black Catholics.

Getting there: 15th and V streets NW; 202-265-1470; http://saintaugustine-dc.org. Open daily for Mass; hours vary.

St. Elizabeths Hospital

Famous for: The 19th- and 20th-century hospital buildings cover 300 acres, including a Civil War cemetery that serves as the final resting place for 300 Confederate and Union soldiers. The Brookings Institution suggests this might be the first public cemetery where people were buried regardless of race. The site has one of the city’s most spectacular views. The original buildings are no longer open, but visitors can tour the campus.

And there’s more: Carl Jung, whose research on the subconscious is nearly as famous as Freud’s, worked with black patients at St. Elizabeths. He studied whether one’s unconscious was influenced at all by race; he determined that race has no effect on the subconscious.

Getting there: 2700 Martin Luther King Jr. Ave. SE; 202-562-4000. Open only by appointment (the entire campus is gated) 9 a.m.-5 p.m.

Smithsonian Anacostia Community Museum

Famous for: This Smithsonian Institution museum is devoted to the culture and history of African Americans.

And there’s more: “Jubilee: African American Celebration” is currently on exhibit. “Jubilee” explores 300 years of history of African American celebrations, up to the present day.

Getting there: 1901 Fort Pl. SE; 202-633-4820; http://anacostia.si.edu/. Open 10 a.m.-5 p.m. daily.

Thurgood Marshall Center for Service and Heritage

Famous for: In the restored Italian Renaissance-style building that housed the historic 12th Street YMCA, the first full-service Y for African Americans.

And there’s more: Visitors can see the Y’s original gymnasium, and the Heritage Room has exhibits from the early men’s-club era. The building was designed by one of the nation’s first African American architects, W. Sidney Pittman, son-in-law of Booker T. Washington.

Getting there: 1816 12th St. NW; 202-462-8314; thurgoodmarshallcenter.org. Open 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Mondays-Fridays.

WOOK-TV building

Famous for: WOOK-TV started broadcasting in 1963 as the first all-African American television station in the United States.

And there’s more: The “Teenarama Dance Party” was the city’s first black teen dance show. The format was similar to that of “American Bandstand,” and the show ran from 1963 until 1970 and occasionally featured such guests as the Temptations, Martha Reeves and the Vandellas, Marvin Gaye and James Brown.

Getting there: The site, at 5321 First Pl. NE, is marked with a plaque.

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