The Black Bucket List: Washington, DC

From Howard University to the U Street Corridor, learn the ropes of D.C.'s black cultural scene.

U Street Corridor (Aude)

There it was -- that familiar face and figure, dressed in a suit with arms folded in front, carved in granite, rising 30 feet above the National Mall. Even on a wet and humid September Monday, a crowd of sightseers trailed toward the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial. Unveiled only a few weeks ago, the tribute to the heralded black civil rights leader has become a pilgrimage destination. And no wonder: It's the freshest, most visible and majestic place of homage to an African American in D.C.

But it's by no means the only one. There's Cedar Hill, perched on a hillside in the historically black Anacostia neighborhood. This mansion, where Frederick Douglass lived in the late 1800s, is now a museum celebrating the life and work of the famed orator and abolitionist. And across the city in posh Canal Square in Georgetown, the walls at the Parish Gallery, a monument of another kind, regularly display spectacular paintings and sculpture from artists throughout the Diaspora. In between, in the U Street Corridor, Georgia Avenue and other lively neighborhoods, there are temples to Southern cooking, hangouts for spoken-word poetry, funky jazz joints, dance clubs and venues celebrating just about every other imaginable aspect of black arts.

This rich banquet of black life puts Washington, D.C., high on The Root's Black Bucket List of places to see before you die. With African Americans making up more than half of the city's population of 601,723, this urban area's black cultural scene is one of the liveliest and most layered in the U.S.

As a D.C. resident for the past two decades, I never tire of exploring the city's historic African-American sites. It's hard to venture to anywhere here without discovering a place of black history or contemporary culture. Some are spectacular tourist attractions, such as the MLK Memorial. Others are lesser known, like the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, a townhouse in the Logan Circle neighborhood celebrating the contribution Bethune made to black education in the late 1800s and early 1900s.    

Howard University is a favorite stop. This attractive, tree-covered, 256-acre campus, located in D.C.'s Northwest quadrant, is an enclave of Victorian Revivalist buildings and the modern streamlined classroom structures. One of the country's most prominent historically black colleges, founded in 1867, a few years after the abolition of slavery, Howard has given us a wide range of well-known black leaders. Among them: civil rights lawyers Thurgood Marshall (the first black Supreme Court justice) and Charles Houston, and 1960s activist Stokely Carmichael.

Another cool locale: the Anacostia Community Museum, a modern structure in predominantly black Southeast D.C., which showcases the black arts and history of greater Washington and other parts of the country. As a curious student of local black culture, I am always absorbed by the exhibitions. One permanent show is devoted to the Negro Baseball teams that once flourished in segregated D.C. Another show documents more recent waves of immigrants from the Caribbean and Central America to black Washington.

A new spot on my self-styled black history tour ever since the historic 2008 election of Barack Obama as the first black president of the U.S.: the White House. Heavy security can make tours of the interior complicated to organize, so a glimpse at the first couple's residence will usually have to do.

What would Sunday afternoon in D.C. be without a long listen to the drums resounding across Malcolm X Park? Just walk straight north from the White House up 16th Street for about a mile to this finely landscaped Italianate garden and follow the pitter-patter. Also known as Meridian Hill Park, it runs between Euclid and Florida avenues and between 16th and 15th streets. The beat will lead you to a circle of talented, music-loving black drummers jamming in the open air, surrounded by a mixed and always captivated crowd.

Too short of time to take it all in? A shorter tour of black Washington should start at the U Street corridor. Running along U Street in Northwest D.C., roughly between 15th and Seventh streets, this strip of boutique shops, bars, restaurants and cafés capture the mood of both historic and contemporary black life in D.C.

History hangs in the air here. This is part of D.C.'s Shaw neighborhood, where a community of black musicians, writers and artists lived in the early 1900s. The most prominent, Edward Kennedy "Duke" Ellington, was born in this area and spent most of his early life in these parts. Writer Jean Toomer, author of the classic novel Cane, also lived here as a teenager. Stroll around and you can find plaques to Ellington, Toomer and others scattered along U and some of the side streets.