Explore DC…Virtually!

Submitted By: TP Harris

Washington, DC, capital of the United States, is a compact city of 68 square miles and 700,000 residents nestled on the Potomac River and bordered by the states of Maryland and Virginia. 

Washington, DC, is not a state. It possesses no voting representation in Congress, but in 1973, Congress did enact the District of Columbia Home Rule Act, providing for an elected mayor and thirteen-member council for the district. Segregation, poor housing, unemployment and low funding for the public-school system plagued the city. It’s not surprising that discontent surrounding racism and disenfranchisement erupted in 1968 following the assassination of MLK Jr., when four days of riots and civil unrest blazed through the city leaving it scarred but standing. 

I am a native Washingtonian who grew up fully aware of our politically and racially charged predicament. But as with most DC natives, I have always been fervently proud of my “Chocolate City” (an affectionate name signaling our then predominantly African American population). After all, contributors to the “New Negro Renaissance” of the 1920’s and the Black Arts Movement of the 60’s and 70’s hailed from DC, a fact that helped shape my artistic spirit and endeavors.

DC has long been considered a cultural center. In 2018 nearly 22 million domestic tourists arrived ready to see the Lincoln Memorial, the cherry blossoms, The White House, the Kennedy Center, the world class Smithsonian Museums, and a plethora of historic landmarks. But just as important as these notable attractions are the opportunities to explore Black History in DC. 

With DC in Phase Two of its reopening in recovery from the COVID-19 crisis, Museums, galleries and other cultural sites may be open, but with limited capacity. In case you’re not quite ready to venture out, Lindsay Hill of Destination DC, the official destination marketing organization for the city, has created the Black History DC Virtual Itinerary, a robust four-day virtual travel experience that introduces the 400 year-long struggle for freedom and equality through the region’s hallmark institutions. The Itinerary provides links to virtual historic site tours, lesson plans, audio clips, artworks and more, that immerse you into the Black history of the city. Parents, educators, students, travel buffs and culture enthusiasts will find it a valuable resource for virtual discovery and exploration! 

According to Elliott Ferguson, President and CEO of Destination DC, “During the coronavirus pandemic, Destination DC aims to keep Washington, DC top of mind and provide inspiration for future travel. It is key to ensure potential visitors feel connected to the city and to introduce opportunities to learn about the city’s vibrant historical footprint. The itinerary allows us to cater to students and teachers and facilitate a “travel” and educational experience. While DC is in the spotlight for First Amendment protests while people call for social justice, it is also important to provide an opportunity to showcase Black history. Our tourism team assembled a list of important attractions, tours and topics while researching virtual options that are available.”

Check Out some of my favorite stops featured in the Black History DC Virtual Itinerary:

IMAGE: African American Civil War Memorial courtesy of washington.org.

Near U Street NW, the African American Civil War Memorial is included in Day 4 of the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary. The memorial commemorates the more than 209,000 African-American soldiers and sailors who fought in the Civil War. Their service helped to end the war and free over four million slaves. The memorial includes a 9-foot-tall bronze statue, finished in 1997, just outside the entrance to the neighborhood’s Metro station.

IMAGE: Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial. Ken Kistler (Creative Commons)

The centerpiece of The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is a 30-foot statue of Dr. King, featuring his likeness carved into the Stone of Hope, which emerges powerfully from two large boulders, known as the Mountain of Despair. Visitors enter through the Mountain of Despair and tour the memorial moving through the struggles that Dr. King faced during his life highlighted by a 450-foot long inscription wall which features quotes from his speeches, sermons, and writings. The MLK Jr. Memorial is one of several monuments included in Day 2 of the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary.

IMAGE: Frederick Douglass House, Cedar Hill. NPS Photo/Rachel Hendrix

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves and interprets Cedar Hill, where Frederick Douglass lived from 1877 until his death in 1895. The centerpiece of the site is the historic house, which sits on top of a 50-foot hill and eight acres of the original estate. Restored to its 1895 appearance, the house is furnished with original objects that belonged to Frederick Douglass and other household members. The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site is included in Day 1 of the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary

IMAGE: U Street sunset courtesy of washington.org

The U street Corridor is anchored by the famed Howard University. Founded in 1867 Howard University is a leading Historically Black University (HBCU) that counts among its talented alumni: E. Franklin Frazier (sociologist), Kwame Ture (activist, chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), born Stokely Carmichael), Phylicia Rashad (American Actress and Director), Chadwick Boseman (Actor), Kamala Harris (US Senator) and so many more accomplished African Americans! At the end of the 19th century and for the first half of the 20th century despite segregation, D.C.’s historic Black greater U Street community prospered and built a self-reliant economic, social, civic, and cultural existence. During the height of the Jim Crow era, this influential Black U Street neighborhood of extraordinary achievers once known as “Black Broadway” birthed D.C.’s Black Renaissance and served as a prominent symbol of black culture and sophistication amid racial and political tension in America. The U Street Corridor is included in Day 3 of the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary.

IMAGE: Ben’s Chili Bowl on 14th and U Street courtesy of washington.org

No visit to the U Street Corridor would be complete without a visit to Ben’s Chili Bowl. For 62 years Ben’s has provided an informal gathering place for local residents, tourists, artists and politicians who gather to break bread, talk business and feast on their famous half-smokes. The restaurant fed attendees of the 1963 March on Washington and remained open and unharmed through the 1968 riots. Ben’s is the ultimate example of DC’s ability to endure while remaining a tight knit, supportive community.

IMAGE: Statue of ‘Robert Smalls, U.S. Congressman’ at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. Ron Cogswell/CC License 2.0

Since its opening in September 2016, the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, which chronicles A People’s Journey ~ A Nation’s Story, has attracted more than 5.5 million visitors. The artifacts in NMAAHC’s vast collection span several generations of African American history and culture from Harriet Tubman’s shawl and Emmett Till’s casket to costumes from the Broadway musical The Wiz. NMAAHC is included in Day 1 of the Civil Rights DC Virtual Itinerary.

IMAGE: Black Lives Matter Plaza courtesy of washington.org

On June 5, in support of the predominantly peaceful protests surrounding George Floyd’s tragic murder, DC’s Mayor Muriel Bowser became the first to introduce a new mural and rename a two-block section of 16th Street NW Black Lives Matter Plaza. On the street leading to the White House, one encounters a 40-foot high street mural that spans 580 feet and in bright and bold yellow letters reads “Black Lives Matter.” 

Of the mural Mayor Bowser said: “As Washingtonians, we simply all want to be here together in peace to demonstrate that in America, you can peacefully assemble, you can bring grievances to your government, and you can demand change”. The Mayor sees Black Lives Matter Plaza as “a place for healing, strategizing protest and redress.” 

Commending Mayor Bowser for her efforts, Elliott Ferguson remarks “Destination DC is incredibly proud of DC’s Black history and culture, and we make a concerted effort to share ways for visitors to experience it, like the virtual itineraries. I’m proud that our mayor, Muriel Bowser, led the nation in creating Black Lives Matter Plaza, which has been replicated and earned worldwide attention. 

As a proud Washingtonian, I encourage you to use Destination DC’s Black History Virtual Itinerary to experience the historical backdrop that DC is and has always provided for the nation.

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