The country’s struggles with racial injustice and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic have raised deep concerns about the survival of many black businesses. Perhaps no other business is as iconic to the District and civil rights history in the city as Ben’s Chili Bowl. The Bowl is not just a restaurant, but a cultural landmark that has survived riots, reconstruction and gentrification. Covid-19 brought the Bowl nearly to the brink, and now unrest after the police killing of George Floyd has carried the ghosts of America’s racist past into the present.

In recent days, I caught up with 86-year-old Virginia Ali, who opened the Bowl nearly 62 years ago with her husband Ben Ali, who has since died. Her daughter-in-law Vida joined in the conversation.

Karen Attiah: So, you guys were expecting 2020 to be a good year for you.

Vida Ali: It was set up to be one of our best years, actually. We were going to be featured in the March 2020 issue of Hemispheres, which is United Airlines’ magazine. They were doing a story about three perfect days in D.C., and we were going to be on the cover.

Attiah: Of course, because you guys are world-famous! I have to know, how did you come up with opening a chili dog restaurant? Now I definitely associate the half-smoke with being one of D.C.’s signature foods.

Virginia Ali: Well, we wanted to serve convenient comfort food. You know, we weren’t experienced enough to have a full-service restaurant. There were lots of hamburger places in town. But there were no chili dog places. My husband had worked his way through college at restaurants. He had this amazing recipe for chili. And we thought what looks more American than a hot dog? So we put this very spicy homemade chili sauce on it and made it something very special.

Attiah: After the coronavirus hit this year, the news came that you did not get a loan at first to continue your business, and then you finally got approved. What was it like at first to hear there would be no help coming?

Vida Ali: We went through the process. And then apparently they just ran out of money even before the deadline. … That was very devastating because we were kind of banking on that to try to keep the business open.

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Attiah: You guys are also famous for having had some of the nation’s most prominent civil rights leaders spend time at the Bowl.

Virginia Ali: Dr. King had a satellite office to the youth right next to the drugstore. So he was in town fairly often and would often come to the Chili Bowl. Jesse Jackson was another one that was there quite often. They would just come in and sit down and have lunch, like so many involved in the civil rights movement at that time. I remember some of the conversations. … It was an exciting time because we felt like we were making progress.

We had the unfortunate death of Dr. King on April 4, 1968. There was a devastating period for us. I remember vividly someone just coming into the front door announcing that Dr. King had been shot; several other people came in with the same news. … The sadness that was felt in the community. People coming in in tears. We were all crying and very, very upset. And then after a while, that sadness turned to frustration and the frustration turned to anger. And the uprising began. The uprising lasted for three, four nights. The National Guard was called in. A curfew was put in place, and we were right there in the middle of it. We were the only business that was allowed to be open after the curfew.

Attiah: Why was that?

Virginia Ali: We were a safe space where young people could gather. It was scary, there would be just gangs of people. I would look across the street and see things burning, you’d look to the corner and you’d hear glass being broken and things like that. But we were open and feeding the first responders and the activists. Stokely Carmichael would come, and so would Walter Washington, the mayor of that time. And they would sit down and have a little meeting to talk about what to do to quell the violence.

Attiah: Ms. Virginia, how are you coping with all of this?

Virginia Ali: I like being there, and I like greeting people from all over the world, intellectual backgrounds and everything. Right now I’m at home because I’m an old person and I’m not supposed to be down there in the crowd. So this is the most difficult thing I’ve encountered in my 61 years with the Bowl. No one can come inside the Chili Bowl for safety now.

Vida Ali: I was given the task of not letting her leave the house. I don’t care. Even if you have to take her key. She cannot be coming to the Chili Bowl.

Attiah: D.C. has been under curfew in the recent days. Just like in the ’60s.

Virginia Ali: Yes, this is the first time we’ve had to close for a curfew. No one asked us to remain open this time.

Attiah: We’re at the beginning stages of this coronavirus, and now we have national unrest over racial issues. Have there been any lessons for you so far that you feel are different from what you saw in the past?

Virginia Ali: I used to just take for granted everybody’s gonna be all right. Today, I worry about that. Are we gonna be all right? I don’t know. You’re afraid to go out in crowds. Of all the challenges that we’ve undergone, we haven’t had to deal with people being sick and dying. You know, this is really tragic. I’m doing the best I can to cope.

When I reflect on all of that, Karen, and I think to 1968, I am so saddened that our sons and daughters have to go through the same issues we fought so hard for in the ’60s. But it is hopeful to see thousands of young people out there, in Washington and all over the world demonstrating for basic human rights. I think that’s very hopeful.

Nsé Ufot of the New Georgia Project urges protesters to connect what they are demanding in the streets with what they are choosing at the polls June 9. (Joel Adrian/The Washington Post)

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