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.
Students of D.C.'s rich black past could easily spend a couple of hours touring these streets. One stop should be the African American Civil War Memorial & Museum, located at U and Vermont streets. Here the 10-foot Spirit of Freedom sculpture bears the images of uniformed soldiers and a sailor. And a wall displays the names of the more than 200,000 United States Colored Troops who fought in the Civil War. The Civil War Museum, around the corner, documents their story.
Just down the block, on U Street, is the Lincoln Theatre, a locus of black cultural life in D.C. since the 1920s. Built in 1922, it became center stage for Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald and other performers. In segregated Washington, this was the only place black residents could watch live shows. A tour of the gilded interior, restored to its '20s glory, takes you back to the building's heyday.
But when it comes to old-fashioned Southern favorites, dished up in a trendy setting, Georgia Brown's, located off McPherson Square downtown, rarely disappoints. The fried chicken is crisp and moist; the collard greens well-flavored; the peach cobbler divine. And the crowd, usually a mix of well-dressed blacks and whites, more than often may include some local celebrities. Barack and Michelle Obama have been spotted here, as has D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray.
Dusk is settling, signaling the official arrival of "get loud time," otherwise known as Open Mic Night. Popular in most urban areas, it's a big D.C. thing. There is no shortage of excellent options in different parts of the city. On the first Saturday of the month, Crescent Moon, in Sankofa on Georgia Avenue, hosts a soulful version, attracting a warm crowd and a good range of performers. On Thursdays, there's the Howard U crowd at Cadence, hosted at the Everlasting Life Cafe, also on Georgia.
On a recent Tuesday I opted for the open mic at Busboys and Poets on 14th Street, one of the main hangout spots for youthful blacks and others in D.C. Held in the Langston Room, a long, private dining area decorated with posters of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and other black leaders, this event boasts a strong following of regulars, mostly young African Americans.
On that night, talent was in high drive, ranging from a young novice white comic doing a Dave Chappelle riff to a black man ranting in verse about almost everything. But when a full-bodied black woman took to the stage with stories of life on the down-and-out, the crowd's mood hinged on her every word.
As greater D.C. becomes more multicultural, the definition of black Washington is changing, too. In the past decade or so, neighborhoods and venues that might have drawn an exclusively African-American crowd in the past have broadened their reach to embrace blacks from across the Diaspora and from other races. African-rooted immigrants from Honduras, Colombia and other Central and South American countries are blending in with the black population.
Drop into Pure Lounge, a club on U Street, on Tuesday night and the dance floor is packed with African Americans, but the stage dancers and the vibe are straight out of an Afro-Colombian scene in Bogotá. St. Augustine's Church, an elegant structure located just south of Malcolm X Park, bills itself as the city's first African-American Roman Catholic church, but the congregation draws heavily from Central American and white residents in the surrounding neighborhood.
Census analysts predict that D.C.'s black population, gradually diminishing, could drop below majority status in a year or two. Gentrification is already transforming the demographics. In the Shaw, Georgia Avenue and H Street areas, for example, all known in the past as deep in the black hood, white professionals are gradually moving in, while longtime black residents are resettling in the Maryland and Virginia suburbs.
To catch the allure of black Washington, D.C., in full autumn glow, all I can say is, plan a visit soon.
Gary Lee is a freelance feature writer specializing in the culture of urban areas in the U.S. and other countries. He is based in Washington, D.C., and can be reached here.