The Washington Post

Easter Monday at the National Zoo

While hordes of people with connections are on the White House lawn, looking for Easter eggs and listening to Willow Smith, many of Washington’s African-American families are celebrating a local tradition: African-American Family Day at the National Zoo.

A zoo spokeswoman said “upwards of 20,000” people are at the zoo today. “It’s pretty crowded. You can barely move,” she said cheerfully.

Easter Monday, a traditional African American Family Day is celebrated at the National Zoo every year. Zaria M. Arrington, 7, of Herndon, growls and shows her "claws" and teeth after having her face painted like a cat during the 2007 celebration. (Dayna Smith/DAYNA SMITH/FTWP)

The free gathering, which dates back to the 1890s, almost as far as the White House Easter Egg Roll. Oral history says that black domestic workers were required to work on Easter Sunday, so Monday was the day of family celebration. And since the White House in those segregated days either didn’t allow or strongly discouraged African-Americans at its egg roll, the District’s black residents created their own.

The city’s trolleys offered discount fares on Easter Monday, and children rode free, so the zoo became a hugely popular venue with picnics, its own Easter egg roll on the Great Meadow, live music and in later years, a visit from the “Easter panda.”

In the 1960s, the zoo administration began offering organized events, too. This year that includes 56 different talks with animal keepers and demonstrations and feeding of the cheetahs, gorillas, elephants and other animals.

The celebration was temporarily marred in 2000 when a teenager, in a dispute with teens from another neighborhood, shot and wounded seven children at the zoo’s main entrance. A year later, the shooter was sentenced to 25 years in prison.

Patricia Sullivan covers government, politics and other regional issues in Arlington County and Alexandria. She worked in Illinois, Florida, Montana and California before joining the Post in November 2001.


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