Black History

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Go to Destination: D.C.

Putting Black History on the Map

By Lori Robinson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, Feb. 2, 1996

1. Anacostia Museum
1901 Fort Place SE. 202/287-3369 or 202/287-3060.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.

Started in 1967 to engage community residents in a non-traditional way, the country's first experimental neighborhood museum still is thriving. Community outreach through cultural programs and festivals remains a priority, but this Smithsonian museum has broadened its scope beyond one neighborhood, becoming a regional museum of African American culture and history. Although it is not Metro accessible, the Museum furnishes transportation: Through a joint project with the Octagon Museum, near Metrorail at 1799 New York Ave. NW, visitors can reserve seats for shuttle buses which run between the two museums every half hour from 9:30 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. Each museum houses half of the exhibition "Southern City, National Ambition," a historical look at the making of Washington into an urban center from 1800 to just before the Civil War. Also on exhibit are "Caribbean Music in Washington, D.C." and "From Soweto to Anacostia: Art Prints From the Funda Arts Centre," linoleum print art from South Africa.

(Make a virtual visit to the Anacostia Museum in preparation for a trip in person.)

2. Bethune Museum and Archives
1318 Vermont Ave. NW. 202/332-1233.
Open weekdays 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.

Few African American women have had the ear of a U.S. president. Mary McLeod Bethune had the ear of several. Bethune came to Washington in 1935 to advise President Franklin Roosevelt's administration on minority affairs. She lived here from 1943 until her death in 1955, but her national influence first grew through building an institution now called Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. The child of former slaves, Bethune is perhaps best known for founding the National Council of Negro Women, an umbrella group for black women's organizations that was headquartered here from 1943 to 1966 in the Victorian town house that now houses the museum. Besides housing the National Archives for Black Women's History, believed to be one of the country's largest collections of manuscripts relating specifically to African American women, permanent exhibits profile influential black women and recount Bethune's life.

3. Black Fashion Museum
2007 Vermont Ave. NW. 202/667-0744.
Open by appointment only.
Adults $2, children $1.

Researching the life of former slave and dressmaker Elizabeth Keckley in Dinwiddie County, Va., was so interesting to Joyce and Norman Bailey that they decided to share their findings with the public. The husband and wife opened this small community museum in March 1994 as an extension of Harlem's museum of the same name. The permanent collection includes a re-creation of one of President Lincoln's wife's gowns, originally made by Keckley, who also sewed for Jefferson Davis's wife. The museum's displays mostly consist of old photos and magazine articles featuring African American designers and models from the earlier part of this century. This spot's not fancy, but as Executive Director Joyce Bailey, a retired McKinley High School teacher, says: "We dispel the myth that black people are new-found talent in the fashion field and we spotlight the contributions of black people in fashion."

4. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
1411 W St. SE. 202/426-5960.
Open daily 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Free.

Perhaps the country's greatest abolitionist, Frederick Douglass spent the last years of his life at Cedar Hill, the home he bought with his wife, Anna, in 1877. They broke a "whites only" covenant, becoming the first black family in Anacostia, a move that continued a great personal tradition: refusing to accept limits placed on blacks. Born a slave in Talbot County, Md., in 1818, Douglass rejected that status by escaping up north in 1838, just as he rebuffed illiteracy, teaching himself to read after one owner's wife forbid her to teach young Frederick. "What's so unique about the home, we have practically all of his books. His library is very impressive," says Keith Harmon, a park ranger at Cedar Hill. Visitors start with a 17-minute film on Douglass' life -- shown on the hour from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. -- and then take a guided tour through more than a dozen rooms, each with a variety of his personal items on view.

5. Howard University
Georgia Avenue and Bryant Street NW. 202/806-6100.

Founded in 1867, Howard is part of a great legacy of black colleges established during Reconstruction with the support of the Freedmen's Bureau, the federal agency set up to help newly freed slaves. "In the early postbellum period and into the early 19th century there was a real sense among black people throughout the country that Washington was a mecca," says Adele Logan Alexander, an American history professor at George Washington University. "Howard, of course, is the keystone, the mecca of black intellectual life in the country." Many impressive Americans studied at Howard, including the first black Supreme Court justice, Thurgood Marshall, former Virginia Gov. Douglas Wilder, former New York City Mayor David Dinkins, former U.N. Ambassador Andrew Young, author Toni Morrison and opera diva Jessye Norman. Inside Founders' Library is a small campus museum which chronicles the school's history, and the Moorland-Spingarn Research Center, a collection of more than 180,000 books and other documents about African people.

(You can also visit Howard's Web site for a brief history of the school and a pictorial history of Founder's Library.)

6. The Lincoln Theatre
1215 U St. NW. 202/328-9177. Box office: 202/328-6000.
Free tours by appointment.

Before desegregation, the Lincoln Theatre was an anchor establishment on U Street, then a thriving community known as "Black Broadway." Now a performance theater, the Lincoln first opened in February 1922 as a movie house for African Americans, who were denied access to downtown theaters. "The builders of the theater recognized that this was an untapped market," says Nathea Lee, executive director of the U Street Theatre Foundation. "So they built a theater where African Americans could come to see first-run films and vaudeville shows in an environment that was elegant." Soon after, the Lincoln Colonnade was built in back. This 1,000-seat ballroom (since demolished) was a social center for D.C.'s black elite and was frequented by such popular musicians of the 1930s and '40s as Duke Ellington and Count Basie.

7. Mt. Zion United Methodist Church
1334 29th St. NW. 202/234-0148.
Sunday service at 11 a.m.

There are many black churches in Washington worth visiting for their historical value. Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal (1518 M St. NW), built in 1886, boasts some glorious members, including Paul Laurence Dunbar and Frederick Douglass. And St. Augustine's (1500 V St. NW), the oldest congregation of African American Catholics in Washington, can be traced to a group of freed slaves who worshiped together in 1858. But Mt. Zion earns a place in history because it is believed to be the oldest black congregation in the city, organized in 1816 by worshipers who were dissatisfied with their segregated Montgomery Street Church. Georgetown was a major slave port in the early 19th century, as well as home to many slaves and free blacks. Mt. Zion was especially significant to that community as a stop on the Underground Railroad. In 1823, long before there was public money for black education, the church established one of the area's first black schools. Mt. Zion recently restored its 19th-century cemetery (27th and Q) and its Community House (2906 O St. NW), built in 1811 and home to the city's first black library.

8. National Museum of African Art
950 Independence Ave. SW. 202/357-2700.
Open daily 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Free.

Black history started centuries before Africans were brought to the western hemisphere as slaves. Conserving and displaying the art created on that massive, diverse continent is this museum's aim. This collection of primarily sub-Saharan African art showcases work from ancient to contemporary eras. Permanent exhibitions include "Images of Power and Identity," more than 100 works grouped geographically to foster understanding of the continent's diverse cultures, and installations on two capitals of ancient kingdoms, Benin and the Nubian city of Kerma. While on the Mall, check out the National Museum of American History (14th and Constitution NW) for "Field to Factory: Afro-American Migration 1915-1940," a permanent exhibit documenting the northward migration of blacks, and "Sitting for Justice," featuring the lunch counter from the Greensboro, N.C., Woolworth store where the famous 1960 student sit-in took place.

(Before heading to the museum, you can check out their online listing of current exhibits.)

9. Charles Sumner School Museum and Archives
1201 17th St. NW. 202/727-3419.
Open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Free.

After delivering an anti-slavery speech, Massachusetts Sen. Charles Sumner was beaten severely by South Carolina Sen. Preston Smith Brooks on the Senate floor. Nevertheless, Sumner continued his relentless support of African American causes. Washington's educators recognized his work by naming the first black public school after him in 1873. The school, built in 1866, ranks with Howard University as a landmark D.C. education institution. Built as the black counterpart to Franklin, a white public school, it now houses a permanent collection of items of primarily local import that includes a diploma from the first graduation at the school in 1877, an antique bust of Sumner and historical photos of D.C.'s most prominent black women. It also exhibits the works of area artists.

10. Banneker-Douglass Museum
84 Franklin St., Annapolis. 410/974-2893.
Open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. to 3 p.m., Saturdays noon to 4 p.m. Free.

After once being threatened with demolition, the former Mt. Moriah African Methodist Episcopal Church building, built in 1874-1875, now houses Maryland's official repository of African American heritage, named after two of the state's most notable sons: mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker and Frederick Douglass.

(Prince George's County has a rich store of African-American history. SAILOR, Maryland's free online service, has published a list of black history sites in the county.)

11. The Great Blacks in Wax Museum
1601-3 E. North Ave., Baltimore. 410/563-3404.
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m., Sundays noon to 6 p.m.
Adults $5.50, senior citizens and college students $5,
ages 12-17 $3.50, ages 2-11 $3.

The country's first black history wax museum gives a comprehensive overview of African history, opening with such royal figures as the Queen of Sheba and Askia the Great, founder of Timbuktu. A chronological display of more than 100 life-size wax figures presents a summary of black heritage. The figures, each depicted in a historically relevant scene, are accentuated by sound effects, lighting and animation. Other scenes include the Middle Passage, the horrific transatlantic journey through which African people were shipped to the Americas, the antebellum and postbellum periods, Reconstruction, the Harlem Renaissance and the civil rights movement.

12. Alexandria Black History Resource Center
638 N. Alfred St., Alexandria. (Entrance on Wythe Street.) 703/838-4356.
Open Tuesday-Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Suggested donation: $1.

In 1939 five black men asked for library cards in a white public library on Queen Street in Alexandria. When refused, they chose books off the shelf, began to read quietly and were quickly arrested. The city's response was to build Robinson Library a year later, the city's first public library for blacks. Located in the historic Parker-Gray district, the building reopened in 1983 to showcase the heritage of African Americans in Alexandria and the rest of the state from 1749 to today. There is a collection of books, art and photographs, and the staff provides tours and lectures on Alexandria's black history.

(The Black History Resource Center offers a walking tour of Alexandria, which you can preview online courtesy of the Montgomery County Public Schools.)

13. Mount Vernon
At the south end of the George Washington Parkway, eight miles south of Alexandria.
Open daily, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Adults $8, senior citizens $7.50, ages 6-11 $4, 5 and younger free.

During America's war for independence from Britain, Virginia was the largest slave-holding state, and George Washington, father of the country, was just another slave owner. Nearly 400 African Americans lived in bondage at Mount Vernon, most of them working fields on outlying farms. Among the sites of interest are refurbished slave quarters and a new museum featuring slavery-related archaeological finds, including wine bottles and glasses, Chinese porcelain tableware and a silver-plated shoe buckle.

14. Harpers Ferry
About 65 miles northwest of Washington off U.S. 340. 304/535-6298.
Open daily 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. $5 per vehicle.

On Oct. 16, 1859, white abolitionist John Brown and about a dozen followers attacked the U.S. Arsenal at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to arm neighboring slaves and foment a widespread revolt. Many of Brown's men were killed at the scene. Brown and others who were captured were hanged, their deaths making them martyrs for freedom. Within this 2,300-acre park, the site of the raid, are several museums highlighting the area's struggle for black freedom. Due to the recent flood, Brown's namesake museum and the Storer College Museum, which chronicles the school's Reconstruction history, are closed until further notice. Still open is the Black Voices From Harpers Ferry Museum, highlighting the lives of black area residents since slavery.

(The Harpers Ferry National Historic Park has a Web page with images of John Brown's Fort from 1891 to the present.)

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