Washington DC

Where to Learn About DC’s Black History

A museum historian's guide to the best museums, neighborhoods, and other sites to visit during Black History Month.

Photo by Alan Karchmer
Photo by Alan Karchmer
Photo by Alan Karchmer

It’s virtually impossible to discuss any time period in the history of Washington, DC without referencing the contributions of Black Americans. Since the inception of the city, the culture of Black Americans has been entirely intertwined with our nation’s capital, making it the ideal place to learn about Black history-whether you’re a longtime local or just in town for a weekend.

“You can’t really separate DC history from Black history,” says Kelly Navies, a museum specialist in oral history at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture. “Starting with the history of the enslaved people who helped to build things such as the National Mall with Benjamin Banneker. From the very beginning, the city was infused with Black history.”

Today, DC remains a cornerstone of Black history across the country as the site of Howard University, one of the most well-known Historically Black Colleges and Universities; historic Black-owned restaurants that once served as meeting sites for leaders of the Civil Rights Movement; and so much more.

Navies, who moved to the city 20 years ago, says you needn’t even step foot into a museum or gallery to learn about Black history in DC-you just have to look around you. So here’s a roundup of her picks for the best neighborhoods, monuments, and other locations around DC that you should visit to learn about the city’s Black history during Black History Month and beyond.

Visit a historic neighborhood

“When you think about places to learn in Washington, DC, it’s almost like, ‚Äėwell, where can you not go?’ because there’s Black history all over this city,” Navies says. “There are obvious spaces, like all up and down U Street, for example, and I’m not sure if so many people even know about that anymore.”

Though U Street is now a prime example of DC’s ongoing gentrification, it was once known widely as Black Broadway. Navies explains that there are still plenty of historical nuggets in the neighborhood today that remind Washingtonians of its rich history.

“U Street was the heart of the Black community during segregation,” she says. “There were all types of Black-owned businesses, and today you still have the Howard Theatre that’s been there since 1910, the Lincoln Theatre which has been there since 1922.”

The Howard Theatre
The Howard Theatre
The Howard Theatre

Duke Ellington, an internationally acclaimed composer and musician, was a DC native and played a big role in Washington’s Black community in the 20th century. The city pays tribute to the artist in many ways-one of them being a mural that was first installed on the side of a vintage store in 1997 and was subsequently taken down, only to be reinstalled on the side of True Reformer Hall on U Street in 2019.

Some long-standing Black-owned businesses continue to thrive on U Street as well, like the beloved Ben’s Chili Bowl, a historic spot that first opened in 1958 and is still operated by Ben’s wife, Virginia Ali. Lee’s Flower and Card Shop opened back in 1945 and remains a premier local destination for purchasing bouquets and more.

Ted Eytan/Flickr
Ted Eytan/Flickr
Ted Eytan/Flickr

Another perhaps unexpected neighborhood that Navies recommends visiting to learn about Black history is Georgetown, which she says was once a predominantly Black community up until around the 1960s. In the early 1900s, Black Georgetowners played an active role in forming the culture of the neighborhood, creating the Rock Creek Citizens Association in 1916 to speak on important issues like local safety, cleanliness, playgrounds and to deal with issues of police conduct. Social groups such as Black fraternal clubs and church groups also played a pivotal role in local service projects.

“You can learn about a lot of Georgetown’s Black history at the DC Public Library-in the Peabody Room of the Georgetown Library. There you can find a history of almost every single address in Georgetown, and you can find out about a lot of the history of the people who originally owned those houses,” says Navies.

The historian also wants to let you in on a little-known fact: In the People’s Archive you can find not only a great Black Studies book collection, but historical records of the city that includes fire maps, census records, dozens of regional newspapers, as well as some of her own oral histories which are also accessible online.

Since each neighborhood in the city has its own Black history, you can follow any part of Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail. It winds through the city with more than 200 significant sites to witness and learn from along the way.

Attend an educational event

With DC’s wealth of museums, monuments, and other educational destinations comes plenty of special events for Black History Month, making this an ideal time to pay them a visit. Institutions like the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture and DC’s public library system are hosting book talks, panel discussions, and other events all month long, so keep an eye on the calendar. On February 11, spend the day at the theater for the DC Black History Film Festival, featuring short films and feature-length productions alike. Or show off your knowledge at East City Bookshop during a series of trivia events all month long highlighting Black authors in general fiction, sci-fi and fantasy, and more.

STUDIO MELANGE/Shutterstock
STUDIO MELANGE/Shutterstock
STUDIO MELANGE/Shutterstock

Learn about history while strolling the park

Even taking a walk through the city’s parks will reveal important nuggets of DC’s Black history. Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill is a prime example, where you’ll find the now-controversial Freedmen’s Memorial, or Emancipation Memorial-first unveiled back in 1867. The statue depicts President Lincoln symbolically freeing a Black man who kneels before him.

“Even though people have mixed feelings about the statue itself because of the kneeling enslaved person, the newly freed Black community was very instrumental in raising money for it, and Frederick Douglass even spoke at the ribbon-cutting ceremony,” says Navies.

Another statue dedicated to civil rights activist Mary McLeod Bethune is also located in the park, so “there’s a lot of history right there,” Navies says.

Christopher Lin/Shutterstock
Christopher Lin/Shutterstock
Christopher Lin/Shutterstock

Most Washingtonians have spent an afternoon picnicking or walking their dog around what is known as Meridian Hill Park, but some may be unaware that the popular park is also known as Malcolm X Park-named by the community after the activist was assassinated. Navies recommends visiting the park during warmer months, when African drummers regularly assemble a circle in the afternoons to play joyous music.

For those looking to get active, try following the bike trail through Marvin Gaye Park, which was named after the music legend. On the side of the park, you’ll find the Riverside Healthy Living Center-DC’s first comprehensive community food hub aimed at supporting the local community. The space was once home to the Crystal Room nightclub, where Gaye made his musical debut.

Orhan Cam/Shutterstock
Orhan Cam/Shutterstock
Orhan Cam/Shutterstock

Explore galleries, museums, and monuments

If there wasn’t already enough to see and do on U Street, there’s also the African American Civil War Museum, which Navies suggests visiting in addition to the nearby African American Civil War Memorial. The memorial includes a bronze statue and half circle wall that lists the names of 209,145 United States Colored Troops who fought for freedom during the American Civil War.

Navies said that when she visited herself, she was able to locate several names of her own ancestors on that wall. For those interested in digging more into the ancestry, the historian recommends a trip to the National Archives once it reopens to the public.

“What’s great about being in DC is having access to the National Archives, which houses all of this source material-all these resources where people can find out about their ancestors who, for example, may have fought in the Civil War,” she says. “They have pension records sitting right there that, in my case, happened to have the actual handwriting of my great, great grandmother. So that kind of thing is here in Washington, DC.”

ItzaVU/Shutterstock
ItzaVU/Shutterstock
ItzaVU/Shutterstock

Another perk of living in (or visiting) DC is the wealth of museums to explore, such as the Smithsonian Institution’s Anacostia Community Museum. There, a collection of more 6,000 objects dating back to the early days of the city is housed. The neighborhood of Anacostia is also the former home of Frederick Douglass, and today you’re able to visit his residence, Cedar Hill, and tour the 21-room Victorian mansion while learning about his lifetime of activism.

Another iconic activist, Martin Luther King, Jr., has a dedicated memorial sitting on four acres by the National Mall that is a must-see. The first memorial in the city to honor a man of color-it includes a 30-foot statue of the visionary as well as an inscription wall with some of Dr. King’s most iconic quotes.

Photo by Alan Karchmer
Photo by Alan Karchmer
Photo by Alan Karchmer

Navies also, of course, recommends a trip to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. A part of the Smithsonian Institution, the museum was actually established by an Act of Congress in 2003, and is the only national museum exclusively dedicated to understanding and honoring the Black American experience.

“The museum’s presence is historic because it’s a place where people throughout the nation, and the world really, can come and access all of this important information in one place,” Navies says. “Wherever you look, at the museum or otherwise, there’s going to be a story related to African American history and culture.”Want more Thrillist? Follow us on¬†Instagram,¬†Twitter,¬†Pinterest,¬†YouTube,¬†TikTok, and¬†Snapchat.

Austa Somvichian-Clausen is a freelance food and travel writer, who lives in Brooklyn with her girlfriend and two fur babies. Follow her on Instagram.

Washington DC

15 Totally Free Things to Do in DC

A full itinerary, completely free of charge.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Washington DC is one of the country’s most popular tourist destinations, and for those of us who call the District home, it’s easy to see why. With dozens of world-class museums, murals that transform streets into galleries, and sites brimming with history, DC offers a full agenda-completely free of charge. Whether you want to try a new farmer’s market, explore a new hike, or polish off your roller skating or canoeing skills, here are some of our favourite free things to do in the District.

Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco
Flickr/gawnesco

Hike, bike, or stroll along the C&O Canal

The historic Chesapeake and Ohio Canal is one of the most accessible nature escapes from the District. Thanks to a multi-year restoration project, the first mile of the canal is an idyllic walk that’s easy to access in Georgetown. Stick to a short stroll there, or grab a bike or lace up your hiking shoes for a longer adventure along the 184.5-mile canal.

Jump on the pickleball craze

Pickleball is working its way up the ladder past kickball and softball as one of America’s favourite games. Jump on the craze and practice your paddling at one of the District’s pickleball courts in Takoma Park, the Palisades, and more. Plus, Washington DC Pickleball invites guests to drop in to beginner sessions to try their hand at the sport before signing up for a $30 annual membership.

Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion
Flickr/mcfeelion

Bike the Mount Vernon Trail

DC is incredibly bike-friendly, and luckily that applies to the land immediately outside of the city as well. Start in the city and bike along the Mount Vernon Trail, a scenic route that hugs the water and cuts through the woods. It’s about a 10-mile trip from DC to Mount Vernon, but you can cut the trip slightly short and end at the Old Town Alexandria waterfront-just make sure to factor in time for ice cream before pedalling home.

Explore a sculpture park

While not located in the District proper, Glenstone, an expansive sculpture park in Maryland, is worth the 45-minute drive. Tickets to the park are free (just be sure to reserve several weeks in advance), and the 300-acre space offers stunning art, architecture, and open land. In addition to its indoor gallery spaces, you can spend hours walking on paths that wind through sculptures, meadows, and forests.

Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston
Flickr/Geoff Livingston

See the monuments at night

When the sun goes down-and the summer humidity somewhat dissipates-head to the National Mall for the rare chance to see the monuments without busloads of tourists. Moonlight will give you a different perspective as you traverse the marble steps of the Lincoln Memorial or gaze up at the Washington Monument set aglow with lights.

Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum and the Renwick Gallery

Museum hop the day away

One of DC’s greatest strengths is its world-class Smithsonian museums that are open to the public free of charge. There is no shortage of options, from the intimate Renwick Gallery, to the sprawling National Museum of Natural History, the Smithsonians offer something for everyone. Pro tip: Some of the museums are open late in the evenings, making for an ideal date night.

muralsdc
muralsdc
muralsdc

Explore the city’s murals

Washington is home to hundreds of murals that are becoming as much a part of the city’s landscape as the monuments on the National Mall. Take a self-guided tour of these colourful creations no matter which neighbourhood you happen to be in. MuralsDC, the organization behind 150 of the District’s public artworks, is a great resource for mapping out a route to explore the city’s street art.

Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington
Hotel Washington

Take in a birds-eye view of the city

Washington looks pretty stunning from up high, and there are few spots within the city that make for phenomenal vantage points. Rooftop bars and restaurants offer epic views for the price of a drink or two, but there’s no more iconic sight than seeing the city from the top of the Washington Monument, which is completely free. Book a ticket ahead of time and ride an elevator all the way to the top of the monument and step out on the 500-foot observation deck.

Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond
Flickr/Nicolas Raymond

Wander through a garden

DC is home to some of the most beautiful urban gardens in the country, and many of them are open to the public for free. There is nothing like an afternoon spent strolling through, or picnicking, at the expansive 446-acre United States Arboretum or wandering through the Botanic Garden on the edge of the Mall. For something a bit smaller, explore the grounds at Tudor Place or Dumbarton Oaks (free in the winter), both of which are in Georgetown.

Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien
Flickr/ehpien

Hike the Billy Goat Trail

You can catch one of the District’s most popular hiking trails, the Billy Goat Trail, from the C&O canal. The full trail is 4.7 miles and ranges from easy to strenuous, so hike a section in and back or make the full loop for the variety.

Pay your respect at Arlington National Cemetery

Just across the Potomac from DC, Arlington National Cemetery is the final resting place for more than 400,000 veterans. The cemetery is an expanse of 639 hallowed acres and the ANC Explorer allows visitors to locate graves, notable sites, and take self-guided walking tours to spots including the tomb of the Unknown Soldier as well as the final resting place of President John F. Kennedy.

Lace up your roller skates

When was the last time you went roller skating? Chances are it’s been too long. So get back into this nostalgic activity at the Anacostia Park roller skating pavilion. You can rent skates for free, just show proof of a government-issued ID, and the skating pavilion is open from 9 to 5 every day.

Help clean up the Anacostia River

We all know there’s a lot of work to be done to keep our waterways clean. Do your part, and have some fun, by participating in the city’s Green Boat initiative. On select weekends, DCers can join a two-hour guided paddle along the Anacostia River to collect trash and monitor the river’s progress.

Eastern Market
Eastern Market
Eastern Market

Stroll your local farmer’s market

DC’s close proximity to the farms of Maryland, Virginia, Pennsylvania, and beyond mean that the city’s farmers’ markets always have something to offer. Check out the year-round markets like Eastern Market in Capitol Hill and the Sunday market in Dupont Circle or head to seasonal markets like the pop-up in front of the White House that draws vendors like Cucina al Volo and Call Your Mother Deli.

The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress
The Library of Congress

Play tourist all around the city

It’s easy to forget that all those traditionally touristy activities can be fun for locals too. If you haven’t been on a tour of the White House, the National Archives, the Library of Congress, or the Capitol, this is your sign. All are free with advanced reservations. Plus, tucked in the northern quadrant of NW, the Washington National Cathedral is free and open to all. Tour the cathedral’s impressive architecture, 215 stained glass windows, 112 Gothically-inspired gargoyles, and enormous pipe organ. See if you can spot the sculpture of Darth Vader.

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Madeline Weinfield is a Thrillist contributor.

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