Posted September 12, 2020

Exploring African American Culture in Washington, DC


On September 24 in Washington, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History & Culture will open to much fanfare on the National Mall, with President Obama officially opening its doors–a culmination of more than 100 years of efforts to highlight the various ways African Americans have shaped American history.

NFAAHC exterior - credit Alan Karchmer-NMAAHC

The exterior of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. (Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

It’s the only national museum exclusively devoted to the documentation of African American culture and features close to 37,000 items, like the dress Rosa Parks was sewing the day she refused to give up her seat on a Montgomery bus, a trumpet owned by Louis Armstrong and boxing headgear worn by Muhammad Ali.

NFAAHC exterior on the Mall - credit Alan Karchmer-NMAAHC

The exterior of the museum, as viewed from National Mall. (Photo credit: Alan Karchmer/NMAAHC)

There are also dozens of sites in the nation’s capital that celebrate African American history and heritage. Here are some of our favorites:

Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site 

Sometimes overlooked on tourist lists, the Anacostia neighborhood east of the Potomac River is a historic African American neighborhood in D.C. Its crown jewel is Cedar Hill, the 21-room estate of abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass. Go here on a guided tour for a glimpse into Douglass’ daily life and personal items, like his letter-writing desk, his piano and a leather-bound bible presented to him by members of the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1889.

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial 

As the first memorial on the National Mall dedicated to a person of color, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a must-see. The four-acre site features a 30-foot statue of Dr. King, seemingly deep in thought, gazing across the Potomac River towards Thomas Jefferson memorial and only a short walk from the Lincoln Memorial where he delivered the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. For the most powerful glimpse of the memorial, visit at night when the stark white statue and the 450-foot inscription wall of 14 quotes from King glow against a black sky.

MLK Memorial

The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial in West Potomac Park. (Photo credit: Destination DC)

Howard University 

Founded in 1867 just after the abolition of slavery, Howard University is one of the country’s most prominent historically black colleges. Starting as a single-frame building, the university has evolved into a beautiful, stately campus of 200-plus acres in D.C.’s Northwest quadrant near U Street, with 13 schools and colleges. Notable African American leaders from a variety of fields attended Howard, including civil rights lawyer and first black Supreme Court justice Thurgood Marshall, author Toni Morrison and entertainment mogul Sean “P. Diddy” Combs.

U Street Corridor + Shaw

When it comes to African American history in Washington D.C., the U Street Corridor and Shaw neighborhood is a must. Once known as “Black Broadway,” U Street earned its nickname much in part to its native son, jazz legend Duke Ellington, and a host of famous African American artists, like Cab Calloway and Pearl Bailey, who performed in area theaters in the early 20th century, as well as Marvin Gaye and the godfather of 70s go-go music, Chuck Brown. One still-standing performance hall is the recently refurbished Howard Theatre, where a large sculpture of Ellington is erected in his honor.

In nearby Shaw, pause to reflect at the African American Civil War Memorial honoring the free, and in some cases still enslaved, African American men that fought during the United States Civil War. Near the memorial, the African American Civil War Museum houses historic documents, photographs and exhibits dedicated to the names on the monument.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House and Lincoln Park Statue

One lesser-known spot on the African American culture trail through Washington D.C. is the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House. The three-story Victorian row house served as the home of educator and activist Mary McLeod Bethune and the first headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women, an organization she founded to combat racial and gender discrimination worldwide. The historic site commemorates her legacy as an influential educator, presidential advisor and political activist, and is the current headquarters for the National Archives for Black Women’s History. Across town in Capitol Hill’s Lincoln Park, a statue is cast in her honor.

Where to Eat: For soul food at its finest, look no further than Georgia Brown’s near McPherson Square. Menus are influenced by Lowcountry, West African, Native American and French flavors, and items like Charleston She Crab soup and crisp, juicy fried chicken have lured celebrities like Michelle Obama and Jesse Jackson for decades. Busboys and Poets is a favorite hangout of the young and vibrant African American population, opting to not only enjoy dinner but also stay for open mic poetry nights. For something quick, Ooh’s & Aah’s or the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl is just the ticket.

Man walking past Ben's Chili Bowl

Don’t miss the standout flavors of Ben’s Chili Bowl. (Photo credit: Destination DC)

Where to stay: One of Kimpton’s 13 Washington D.C. area hotels, in neighborhoods from downtown to Dupont Circle.


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  1. Krista K. Harris says:

    great ideas – headed to DC for a quick 2 day family trip so appreciate the insight.