For most families, Easter festivities may have concluded on Sunday as they tossed out the eggs and retired their Sunday best back to their closets, but in Washington, D.C., celebration was still in order on Easter Monday.
Beyond Sunday’s church ceremonies, bunnies and delightfully colorful eggs, for many families in D.C., the “Easter panda” is just as much a symbol of the holiday spirit. Since 1891, African-American families in the District of Columbia have spent Easter Monday at the National Zoo, which once again hosted the annual event.
Easter Monday at the zoo is both a source of great pride and the object of curiosity. The origins of the day tend to escape some of its participants. There are a couple of theories, but the most popular of the bunch attributes it to the banning of African Americans from the White House Easter Egg Roll, which began back in 1878.
“The reason that we migrated to the zoo for Easter is because it was more acceptable here and more comfortable,” says Iris Gray, 63. “The White House was where all the Easter parties were, and we weren’t really welcomed.”
Arthur Jenkins, 66, and his wife, Francine Jenkins, both proud native Washingtonians, share those sentiments. Arthur states, “In the 1950s, when we came up here, this was our White House.”
Francine continues, “There was a time we could not get into the White House, so we had to come to the zoo. I just realized during the years why we came here, not knowing we couldn’t go to the White House!”
Despite the segregation at the heart of its historical beginnings, what gives this event its contemporary context is the spirit of its biggest supporters: the kids. With screeching laughter ricocheting through the air and a sea of little smiling faces, Washingtonians are clearly here to give their children something special to remember.
Strolling by the Olmstead Walk, 10-year-olds Malik and Carmelo describe their first Easter Monday event with great anticipation. “I hope to have fun seeing all the animals and learning facts about them,” says Carmelo.
Malik echoes those sentiments, adding that what he’ll remember most about today is “quality time with my family.”
“Yeah,” says Carmelo. “I got time to spend with my family, too.”
Francine Jenkins wants her three grandchildren and one great-granddaughter who are accompanying her to know that it’s not just the White House where they can go to enjoy Easter: “The zoo is open to everyone. Anybody can come here from anywhere. You don’t have to be just one kind of person to come here.”
And she’s right. What was once referred to as an African-American family tradition is now called the Washington family tradition. D.C. residents from all backgrounds take part.
Maybe the message of the National Zoo’s Easter Monday—whether it’s an egg hunt or animal show—is to embrace the spirit of family, regardless of color and despite the poison of segregation. The event stands as a symbol of black families’ resilience in the District—where, decade after decade, and even after black children could join in the White House Easter Egg Roll, families still show up to honor the example of love set by other parents before them.
“I have been to the White House several times with my children when they were younger,” says Francine Jenkins. “But I don’t mind coming here. We have just as much fun. They have a lot of activities for the children and you get to see the animals. What more fun could it be?”
Emiley Mallory, an aspiring journalist with a master’s degree in communications from Trinity Washington University, is a freelance writer who covers a variety of topics, including music, news, lifestyle and entertainment. She lives in the Washington, D.C., metro area. Follow her on Twitter.