Bill Cosby is no longer featured on the Ben’s Chili Bowl mural, but more than a dozen black luminaries and cultural figures have a spot on the massive public painting.
The unveiling of the long-awaited mural Wednesday was an ode to stalwarts in the District’s history and a celebration of the restaurant’s storied past.
Legendary D.C. radio host Donnie Simpson basked in his place on the mural. D.C. Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D) also was there to mark her inclusion on the famed mural on the bustling U Street corridor.
Comedian Dave Chappelle, a D.C. native, snapped photos in front of his portrait on the mural, which honors figures such as abolitionist leader Harriet Tubman, former D.C. middle school teacher and singer Roberta Flack, and “Mayor for Life” Marion Barry.
“I want to say this is one of the best honors of my career,” said Chappelle, who graduated from the Duke Ellington School of the Arts in 1991. “I’m honored to be here.”
The city-commissioned artwork on prime real estate in the 1200 block of U Street NW has been one of the most high-profile and controversial murals in the nation’s capital.
Artist Aniekan Udofia painted the previous mural on the restaurant’s facade in 2012. It featured portraits of then-President Barack Obama, Simpson, “Godfather of Go-Go” Chuck Brown and actor Bill Cosby.
But after allegations that Cosby had sexually assaulted dozens of women and revelations in court documents that he had admitted that he intended to drug women with whom he wanted to have sex, pressure mounted for the landmark restaurant to remove his face.
The mural remained for more than two years after allegations surfaced, until the restaurant began painting over it in January. Everyone except Cosby is back on the new mural, which Aniekan also painted.
Cosby has long been a friend of the restaurant and, along with the Obamas, gets free half-smokes for life. There was little mention of Cosby at Wednesday’s crowded ceremony, which had people flowing onto U Street.
Earlier this year, the restaurant’s owners asked the public to vote online to determine who would be included on the mural. The mural, the owners say, represents the wishes of the public. Barack and Michelle Obama have a prominent position on the new mural.
“It’s a strong group of people who represent positive change for our people and all people,” said Kamal Ben Ali, son of restaurant founder Ben Ali.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened Ben’s Chili Bowl in 1958 in the predominantly African American U Street NW corridor. During the 1968 riots that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader Stokely Carmichael received permission to keep the restaurant open past curfew to provide food and safety to those working to restore order to the city.
While much of the corridor was ravaged by riots, Ben’s Chili Bowl remained intact.
Since then, the restaurant, known for its half-smokes, has been a landmark on the corridor and in D.C. history. Mayor Muriel E. Bowser (D) said Wednesday that Ben’s Chili Bowl has been a stronghold in the community through good and bad times.
The ceremony honored this history, with many people featured on the mural giving short remarks.
Norton took a jab at President Trump during her speech.
“When I hear the word ‘wall,’ I go into fighting mode because we’re so busy fighting Donald Trump’s wall,” she said. She later added in a tweet that “being wrapped in DC’s flag on the wall of Ben’s Chili Bowl is an honor that makes me blush as I fight for my hometown and D.C. statehood.”
Local newsman Jim Vance, who is undergoing treatment for cancer, said “you cannot imagine my joy and pride when I got the word.”
Family members of Brown and Barry, who died in 2012 and 2014, respectively, spoke on their behalf.
Cora Masters Barry, who was married to Barry for nearly 21 years, joked that the former mayor would request food from Ben’s Chili Bowl in his hospital room during the last few months of his life.
“He went down fighting for Washington, D.C.,” she said.
Chappelle closed the event with an enthusiastic plug for D.C. statehood.
“Long live D.C.,” he said. “God willing, the 51st state.”
The mural also includes local radio personality Russ Parr, rapper Wale, actress Taraji P. Henson, Prince, Muhammad Ali, and civil rights activist and comedian Dick Gregory, who attended Wednesday’s ceremony.