Follow African American heritage trails in Washington, DC, on an itinerary that includes the National Museum of African American Heritage & Culture, the African American Civil War Museum, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the Newseum, Ben’s Chili Bowl, and other Civil Rights sites.
I was a guest of Destination DC, but all thoughts and opinions are my own.
Table of Contents
- 1 African American Heritage Trails in Washington DC
- 2 National Museum of African American History & Culture
- 3 African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
- 4 Lincoln Memorial
- 5 Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
- 6 United States Supreme Court
- 7 Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
- 8 Newseum
- 9 Ben’s Chili Bowl
- 10 Washington DC’s Heritage Trails
- 11 Map It!
- 12 We Would Love to Hear From You
- 13 Pin this Post!
African American Heritage Trails in Washington DC
As a lifelong traveler, I am frequently asked which is my favorite city.
It’s not a difficult question. London is my favorite city.
If we narrow the scope to the United States, it is still an easy question.
Washington, DC, is my favorite domestic city for many of the same reasons London is my international city of choice.
It has lots of history, most attractions are free, and it is so walkable. I am grateful for the Metro when I need to get somewhere quickly, but honestly, I love walking our nation’s capital city.
I have visited DC more times than I can recall. I have walked its endless sidewalks in the heat of summer, cool of autumn, and in the winter when they were iced over with snowdrifts piled high.
On most visits, I have an informal itinerary of museums, monuments, and memorials in mind, but little is ever etched in stone.
The last time I visited, however,I decided to tour sites connected to African American history and the modern Civil Rights movement. Even casual acquaintances understand my passion for heritage travel and my convictions of “liberty and justice for all.”
Within the space of two days I was able to explore some of the “biggies,” But hundreds of sites on Washington, DC’s African American and Neighborhood Heritage Trails remain, enough to keep me busy for years to come.
National Museum of African American History & Culture
I was in Maryland touring sites along the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway when I first heard the buzz about the grand opening of the National Museum of African American History & Culture. Little did I know that in less than a year, I would be exploring the newest Smithsonian myself.
And it did not disappoint.
Like most DC attractions, admission to the NMAAHC is free, but because of its popularity, timed entry passes are in high demand. When planning your visit, be sure to do your research by navigating to this page.
In case you are wondering how much time to budget to fully tour every floor of the museum, I can tell you from my experience that I spent four hours there, moving at a relaxed pace.
I could easily have stayed even longer.
My museum tour began with the subterranean history galleries and then moved upstairs to the culture galleries. I prefer following a sequential historical timeline, but visitors are free to move between floors and view exhibits at random.
I have a fascination with artifacts, especially those tied to historical figures and events with which I am familiar, and this museum has no shortage of realia, with more than 36,000 items in their collection and about 10% of them on display.
One of the largest artifacts in the museum is a segregated rail car from the Southern Railway Company.
The irony of slave sales and auction blocks against a backdrop of the Declaration of Independence all too effectively illustrate the Paradox of Liberty.
Thomas Jefferson, primary author of the document and third president of the United States, was a slaveowner who fathered children who became his slaves.
Influential black Americans are featured throughout the museum, and their powerful words are etched on walls.
Antiquarian copies of literary works by African American writers and Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel that “started a great war,” are on display.
One of the most moving sections of the museum is the Emmett Till Memorial. Till’s original casket, salvaged from a 2005 exhumation is on display. There is typically a long line to enter the memorial, but it moves steadily forward.
In 1955, while on a summer visit with his extended family in Mississippi, 14-year old Emmett Till was kidnapped, tortured, and murdered for flirting with a white woman. His disfigured body was recovered from the Tallahatchie River and shipped home to Chicago. Emmett’s mother Mamie made the courageous decision to have an open casket at his funeral so the world could see what racists had done to her son.
Photos of Till’s mutilated body were published in Jet magazine, making the event a catalyst for the modern Civil Rights movement. The Emmett Till Memorial is the only section of the museum where photos are not allowed.
Be sure to read Backroad Planet’s story Searching for Emmett Till: A Mississippi Delta Pilgrimage featuring the full-screen art of photographer Ashleigh Coleman.
Vintage photos and film footage reveals the vast number of white allies who put their lives on the line in the struggle for equality of their black brothers and sisters during the Movement. They were threatened, arrested, and some even gave their lives for the cause.
Some artifacts give testament to state-sponsored segregation in the era of Jim Crow.
There is no shortage of dresses and other articles of clothing that belonged to black women of note, including Rosa Parks, Carlotta Lanier of the Little Rock Nine, and Oprah Winfrey.
The museum also features memorabilia from proud moments in black history, such as the Obama presidency.
Memorable moments from historic Olympic medal ceremonies are recognized. A photo beneath the cleats Jesse Owens wore while winning four gold medals at the 1936 Berlin Olympics shows Owens saluting the American flag while German athlete Luz Long gives a Nazi salute.
A free-standing statue depicts American 200 meter gold medalist Tommie Smith and bronze medalist John Carlos giving the Black Power salute at the 1968 Mexico City Olympics.
As a confirmed roadtripper, I was especially fascinated with exhibits that interpret the road travel experience for black Americans during segregation. My eyes were opened to this perilous reality when I read Mildred D. Taylor’s book The Road to Memphis with my sixth-grade students many years ago.
Publications such as The Green Book helped black travelers find gas, food, and lodging while on the road in unfamiliar locales.
UPDATE: All the Days Past, All the Days to Come, the long-awaited tenth book in Mildred D. Taylor’s Logan Family series was published January 7, 2020. The award-winning motion picture Green Book starring Mahershala Ali and Viggo Mortensen tells the story of African American classical pianist Don Shirley and his driver/bodyguard Frank “Tony Lip” Vallelonga on a tour through the American South in the early 1960s.
The Contemplative Court is a place for reflection and meditation. The white noise of a cylindrical waterfall makes the room quiet, yet filled with sound. It is a great place to end your tour of the historical galleries or return at the end of your visit.
African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum is dedicated to honoring the fighting men of the United States Colored Troops. Few people realize that 209,145 members of the USCT made up more than 10% of Union forces during the Civil War.
The “Spirit of Freedom” by sculptor Ed Hamilton is the heart of the memorial. It depicts three infantryman and a sailor on one side and a soldier with his family on the opposite side. The sculpture, dedicated in 1998 as the central feature of a granite-paved plaza, is encircled by a Wall of Honor engraved with the names of each member of the USCT.
If you time your visit well, you may be able to witness historic interpreter Marquett Milton in action at the memorial site.
The museum, located directly across Vermont Avenue from the memorial, tells the story of the USCT through artifacts, exhibits, and informational panels.
It was unlawful for men of African descent to enlist in the Union army until fifteen months into the war, when President Lincoln and Congress realized they were an “indispensable military necessity.” On October 27, 1862, a month after they enlisted, the very first black regiment to join the Union army helped capture Donaldsonville, Louisiana, a destination I toured and wrote about on an earlier visit.
Perhaps the most renowned regiment in the USCT was the Massachusetts 54th Infantry, that gained notoriety in the 1989 motion picture Glory, starring Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman, and Matthew Broderick. Twice I have attended the reenactment of the Battle of Olustee near Lake City, Florida, where brave men of the Massachusetts 54th and the 35th United States Colored Troops engaged Confederate forces.
On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation empowered the War Department to officially authorize recruitment of African American men. Black soldiers fought in every major campaign of the Civil War during the last two years. Their service prompted President Lincoln to declare, “Without the military help of the black freedmen, the war against the South could not have been won.”
The AACWM is open daily at varying hours. Admission is free, but tax-deductible donations are accepted.
The Lincoln Memorial is the most-visited site in Washington, DC, and it is a key Civil Rights destination for two main reasons.
The memorial itself honors the 16th president of the United States who ended slavery with the Emancipation Proclamation and whose leadership preserved the Union.
The steps of the memorial is also the location where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech at the 1963 March on Washington.
The Lincoln Memorial opened to the public in 1922. It is situated at the west end of the National Mall, and its steps offer a sweeping view of the Washington Monument and reflecting pool.
A 19 ft. tall statue of a seated Lincoln designed by sculptor Daniel Chester French dominates the central chamber of the memorial interior.
The moving “In this temple . . . .” epitaph is etched into the rear wall above the statue, and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address and Second Inaugural Address are inscribed on the side walls.
In 2003, to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the March on Washington and the “I Have a Dream” speech, an inscription was etched into the granite at the location where Dr. King stood when delivering the immortal words. The inscription shows up better for pictures if sprinkled with water.
The Lincoln Memorial is open to the public 24 hours a day.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
The Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial is located in West Potomac Park, a half-mile walk from the Lincoln Memorial.
The memorial sculpture was inspired by the phrase “Out of the mountain of despair, a stone of hope,” from Dr. King’s “I Have a Dream” speech. Carved by sculptor Lei Yixin, the 3D design depicts King as the stone of hope, having emerged from the mountain of despair.
The 30 foot tall sculpture is a relief of Dr. King’s likeness partially carved from stone.
Fourteen memorable quotes from Dr. King’s sermons, speeches, and writings are inscribed on a 450 ft. long semi-circular wall. These eternal words communicate the Civil Rights leader’s main principles of justice, democracy, hope, and love.
The King Memorial faces the Potomac Tidal Basin. During my visit, a trio of military helicopters gave tourists an unexpected sensory experience with a heart-pounding fly-over.
United States Supreme Court
Completed in 1935, the United States Supreme Court building is the location where many monumental civil rights cases were decided, including the precedent-setting 1954 Brown v. Board of Education.
The Brown decision effectively reversed the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson ruling, made while the Supreme Court was still housed in the Capitol building, stating that “separate educational facilities are inherently unequal.”
The Supreme Court building is open to the public for self-guided tours Monday through Friday from 9:00 AM to 4:30 PM.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
Cedar Hill in Washington, DC’s Anacostia neighborhood is home to the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.
The outspoken abolitionist and orator was born a slave, taught himself to read and write, escaped to freedom, and married his first wife in 1838. Douglass published a bestselling autobiography in 1845, traveled internationally promoting his anti-slavery message, supported women’s rights at the Seneca Falls Convention, and ultimately became an advisor to President Lincoln.
In 1878, Douglass purchased the home and acreage at Cedar Hill with its panoramic view of Washington, DC.
Frederick lived at Cedar Hill with his first wife Anna Murray-Douglass until her passing in 1882. A year and a half later, he married Helen Pitts, the daughter of a white abolitionist and a woman twenty years his junior. The marriage was controversial for its time, and although both sides of the family took issue with the couple, their love and commitment withstood the contention.
The 21-room home at Cedar Hill has been fully restored to its 1895 appearance. The rooms are furnished with many personal effects of Frederick Douglass and members of his household.
My favorite room in the house is Frederick’s two-story library. This space truly illustrates his propensity as a man of letters. I would love to have explored the library’s many bookcases, but the room is cordoned off. The National Park Service has cataloged all of the Douglass library titles for reference.
Frederick Douglass died of a massive heart attack at home on February 20, 1895, after attending a National Council of Women meeting.
A death mask and hand casting by Washington Sculptor Ulric Dunbar is on display in the Frederick Douglass NHS visitor center.
The Cedar Hill grounds and visitor center are open daily from 9:00 AM to 5:00 PM. Guided tours of the home are available at set times throughout the day, and online reservations are available.
UPDATE: “After 11 years and nearly 10 million visitors, the Newseum closed to the public on Dec. 31, 2019.” For the record, for posterity, and in hopes of a rapid re-opening, the Newseum will remain a part of this guide. You can learn more about the closing and the Newseum’s current status here.
The Newseum is one of the most incredible museums I have ever toured. I had passed the location on previous visits to Washington, DC, but never realized its magnitude until I walked through its doors.
With the full text of the First Amendment etched on its exterior wall, the Newseum is dedicated to preserving and defending free expression through the core freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.
And from it prime location on Pennsylvania Avenue, the Newseum terrace offers a stellar view of the United States Capitol. Jerry’s daughter Brandy was married on the Speaker of the House’s balcony on October 4, 2013, during the federal government shutdown.
As an educator, author, and travel writer, the Newseum opened my eyes to many previously unfamiliar facets of journalism and made me realize how crucial a free press is to democracy everywhere.
A recommended tour of the Newseum begins by taking an escalator down to the Concourse level. There the Berlin Wall Gallery displays the largest section of unaltered wall outside of Germany and a headless toppled statue of Vladimir Lenin.
Although guests are free to randomly navigate the museum, the visitor’s guide suggests taking one of the glass express elevators from the Concourse to Level 6 to continue the tour, descending level by level through the museum’s many galleries and theaters.
Music lovers will appreciate the Louder Than Words: Rock, Power and Politics exhibit that portrays how popular music has changed attitudes “about patriotism, peace, equality, and freedom.” Rare artifacts from the music world such as Jimi Hendrix’s guitar, Lady Gaga’s meat dress, and the Village People’s costumes are displayed.
Other galleries display realia from criminal and terrorist acts, including John Dillinger’s death mask, the Times Square bombing, and 9/11.
A wall map provides a global view of world nations with free, partly free, and not free press, and a gallery of ancient printed publications portrays the evolution of news reporting through history.
The importance of First Amendment freedoms to the Civil Rights movement is presented in a series of interactive exhibits.
Traveling to Tennessee to research the The Clinton 12 Story had left me wondering why the first secondary students to desegregate a public school in the South did not receive the attention of the LIttle Rock Nine just one year later. Although Clinton, Tennessee, did make national and international headlines, apparently there were major technological advances in television between 1956 and 1957 that pushed Little Rock, Arkansas, permanently to the forefront of history.
The Newseum’s Make Some Noise exhibit has chairs and a section of the original F. W. Woolworth lunch counter from Greensboro, North Carolina, where four African-American college students initiated the sit-in movement in 1960. Chairs and lunch counter sections are also exhibited in Washington, DC, at the Museum of African American History & Culture and the National Museum of American History.
Ben’s Chili Bowl
Ben’s Chili Bowl is a Washington, DC, landmark located on U Street, an historical district known for its nightclubs, jazz venues, and other cultural hotspots.
Ben and Virginia Ali opened doors for business in 1958 with a cooked-to-order menu featuring the Chili Half-Smoke, a grilled sausage served on a steamed bun with mustard, onions, and homemade chili sauce.
Ben’s has been recognized countless times for its cultural cuisine, most notably as a recipient of the prestigious James Beard Foundation America’s Classics Award. It has been a favorite hangout for celebrities from every field, including notables such as Dr. King, Ella Fitzgerald, Bono, Hillary Clinton, and President Obama. Ben’s has even been a movie location for Denzel Washington’s The Pelican Brief, Russell Crowe’s State of Play, and Don Cheadle’s Talk to Me.
When race riots erupted in 1968, following the assassination of Dr. King, Ben’s kept its doors open late, serving rioters and law enforcement officers both.
Stopping for lunch, we paused to admire the work of local artist Aniekan Udofia on Ben’s side wall. Still in its beginning stages, a mural entitled “The Torch” would feature 15 African American legends as selected by 30,000 respondents in a major poll.
As we left the restaurant, we happened to notice one of those legends, comedian and civil rights activist Dick Gregory, had stopped by to see the progress of his portrait. The reunion of old friends became a photo op for Mrs. Ali, her son Nizam, and Gregory.
Photo Credit: Courtesy washington.org
Mr. Gregory returned later to speak at the dedication of the completed mural, but passed away only a few weeks after our memorable encounter.
Ben’s Chili Bowl is open daily from early until late at its original U Street and satellite locations.
Washington DC’s Heritage Trails
Cultural Tourism DC is the official sponsor of more than twenty Neighborhood Heritage Trails. The website features a wealth of downloadable maps, booklets, apps, and audio tours. In town, the neighborhood trails are marked with interpretive signage to indicate significant historical sites and help keep self-guided tours on track.
After touring the “biggies,” the all-encompassing African American Heritage Trail will help you navigate your way to hundreds of additional historical and cultural sites such as the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, the Duke Ellington Statue, and the Howard Theater.
We Would Love to Hear From You
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