20 African-American history destinations in Washington, D.C.

With the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC), there may be some that believe that the Smithsonian museum is the be-all-end-all of where to go for black history and contemporary culture in the nation’s capital, but that’s not true.

From the African American Civil War Museum to the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, there are plenty of sites worth the hike for discovering how significant African Americans have been not only in Washington, D.C., but in the nation.

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#1 1. National Museum of African American History and Culture

The Smithsonian's newest museum has opened with sections focused on slavery as well as how African Americans have influenced business, sports, the visual and performing arts, and fashion. Expect to take a few days to be able to explore the 600 years of history that are packed into each level of the museum.


#2 2. National Museum of African Art

Celebrate the beauty and power of African art with this Smithsonian institution, founded in 1964 by a former U.S. Foreign Service officer known as Warren M. Robbins. This museum focuses on the traditional arts of sub-Saharan Africa as well as modern and contemporary artworks. According to the NMAfA website, this is the first museum in the U.S. to include a sustained focus on modern and contemporary African art in its mission. The museum website also hosts "Radio Africa," which offers hours of tracks of field recordings from remote villages, political protests, and Afro-pop artists.


#3 3. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial

No tour of Washington, D.C. is complete without visiting King's Memorial. This sculpture has undergone a few changes, but has always remained a towering, significant presence at the Tidal Basin, alongside other memorials like the FDR Memorial and the Jefferson Memorial. This memorial was added in 2011. One of the quotations etched on the statue is, "Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope," which is a section from the August 28, 1963 speech, "I Have a Dream."


#4 4. Howard University

Founded in 1867, Howard University has been described as a "capstone of Negro education" due to its central role in African American education in Washington, D.C. Originally, the institution was a theological school before being chartered as a university by an act of the United States Congress in 1867. According to the Black Past blog, Howard University is the only historically black college to hold that distinction. Howard also established the first black law school in the nation. Alumni of the school include authors Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston, Founder of the precursor to Black History Month Carter G. Woodson, Associate Justice of the Supreme Court Thurgood Marshall, and musician Sean Combs, who is more often known as "P. Diddy."


#5 5. Malcolm X Park (a.k.a. Meridian Hill Park)

In the 1960s, this park hosted a variety of political demonstrations. Because of this, activist Angela Davis unofficially renamed the park Malcolm X Park in 1969. The park is more commonly known as Meridian Hill Park, named so because the site was originally used as a geographic marker.


#6 6. Ben’s Chili Bowl

This landmark restaurant is known for serving chili dogs and half-smokes for roughly 50 years. So beloved is this restaurant that during the 1968 riots, the venue remained unscathed. It has been regularly visited by celebrities like Chris Tucker and Barack Obama as well as jazz greats like Duke Ellington and Nat King Cole. It has also been featured on TV shows like the Travel Channel's "Man v. Food" and "Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations." The founder is Ben Ali, a Trinidadian-born immigrant and Howard University graduate.


#7 7. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Frederick Douglass was an African-American social reformer, abolitionist, and statesman. He's known for escaping slavery and writing telling autobiographies. When he lived in Washington, D.C., he lived in this single-family home from 1877 to 1895. In 1988, the landmark was established as a National Historic Site and has been preserved ever since. At this historic site, visitors will be able to learn about the life and vision of Douglass.


#8 8. Mary McLeod Bethune House

In this location was the first headquarters of the National Council of Negro Women, an organization that combatted racial, class, and gender discrimination worldwide. It also served as the last home for Mary McLeod Bethune. Bethune was the first person in her family born free and the only person in her family afforded a formal education. Her passion in life was to empower young African American women through education. She founded Daytona Normal and Industrial School for Negro Girls in 1904, which was later renamed Bethune-Cookman College. In 1935, she became the highest ranking African American woman in the the federal government, working as the Director of the Negro Division of a New Deal program called the National Youth Administration.


#9 9. Anacostia Community Museum

This is one of the most underrated Smithsonian museums as well as one of the most worthy of a visit. The mission of the organization is to serve as an outreach effort to the local African American community through exhibitions and local programs focused on community issues and local history. This Smithsonian museum became the first federally funded community museum in the nation in 1967.


#10 10. The Lincoln Theatre

Located on "Washington's Black Broadway," this theatre served the African American population of Washington, D.C. during the time when segregation forced them out of many musical venues. Past performers have included Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, and Ella Fitzgerald. After the 1968 riots, the theatre fell into disrepair, but was later restored in 1993.


#11 11. African American Civil War Museum and Memorial

This museum remembers and celebrates the 209,145 African-American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. The museum features photography, newspaper articles, and replicas of uniforms. A year before the museum opened, the memorial was unveiled in 1998, which serves to remember the United States Colored Troops (USCT). It depicts USCT soldiers surrounded by a wall that lists over 200,000 USCT soldiers.


#12 12. The Howard Theatre

This historic theatre opened in 1910 before later undergoing a $30 million renovation in 2012. In its heyday, it served the African American population of Washington, D.C. and was billed the "Theater of the People." It has hosted artists like The Roots, Drake, and Gregory Porter. According to The Washington Post, the venue is currently struggling with "mismanagement and mounting financial problems," so be sure to visit the theatre while you can in case its decline continues.


#13 13. Charles Sumner School

When this school was constructed in 1872, it became the flagship school of the segregated, African American school system. This structure housed the first public high school for African American students. It was named after an abolitionist senator from Massachusetts. Currently, it houses a museum and archive for the D.C. public school records and artifacts.


#14 14. Phyllis Wheatley YWCA

This site memorializes Phillis Wheatley, the first African American woman professional poet and writer in the U.S., according to Henry Louis Gates in his publication, Trials of Phillis Wheatley: America's Second Black Poet and Her Encounters with the Founding Fathers. The building houses the Phyllis Wheatley Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA), Inc., whose goal was to provide care and housing to African American women and girls flocking to the city to seek employment. The organization became affiliated with the National Board in 1918, and the building was dedicated on December 19, 1920 as the first “Colored” YWCA in the U.S. Currently, the 1920-built building is undergoing a $17 million renovation that will preserve 84 permanent, supportive, and affordable housing units for low-income women.


#15 15. Lincoln Memorial

No trip to Washington, D.C. is final without visiting the Lincoln Memorial. While most may see the site as a location to remember the end of slavery, it's also a location to sit and remember one of the most important speeches made in U.S. history—Martin Luther King, Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech. On August 28, 1963, King performed the speech on the steps of the memorial, delivered to over 250,000 civil rights supporters. In 2003, his words were etched on the place where he stood.


#16 16. A. Philip Randolph Monument

At the Starbucks near Union Station's Amtrak boarding gates, there is a statue that is typically walked past, but little known. Despite this, it's well worth a visit as it honors a key leader in the Civil Rights movement, known as A. Philip Randolph. In 1925, he was elected president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, one of the first labor unions led by black Americans, according to History.. He lobbied President Franklin Roosevelt for fair employment practices, his work eventually leading to the signing of Executive Order 8802, which prohibited racial discrimination in defense industries.


#17 17. Emancipation Monument

At the corner of East Capitol and 11 streets NE, visitors of Lincoln Park can find a statue of President Abraham Lincoln and a newly freed slave at what is known as the Emancipation Monument. This monument was created in 1874 by Thomas Ball. Other names that this monument goes by include the Freedman’s Memorial or the Emancipation Group. The statue originally faced west towards the U.S. Capitol. It was rotated in 1974 to face east towards the Mary McLeod Bethune monument.


#18 18. Sojourner Truth

This is the U.S. Capitol's first sculpture to honor an African-American woman. Located in the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, this bronze bust honors abolitionist and women's-rights advocate Sojourner Truth. The bust was unveiled on April 28, 2009, donated by the National Congress of Black Women, Inc. The artist behind the bust is California-based sculptor Artis Lane.


#19 19. The Shaw Memorial

American sculptor Augustus Saint-Gaudens created this patinated plaster monument in order to memorialize Colonel Robert Gould Shaw and the first Civil War regiment of African Americans enlisted in the North, known as the 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Since 1997, this artwork has been located in the National Gallery of Art's West Building on a long-term loan.



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