On U Street, around Old Anacostia

Where trailblazers toiled, black history is life-size

Obama has made an early mark U and 14th Streets. Obama has made an early mark U and 14th Streets. (Veronica Lukasova/NY Times)
By James Sullivan
Globe Correspondent / January 4, 2009
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WASHINGTON - The big front windows of the historic, multipurpose True Reformer building on U Street let in abundant natural light. Inside, framed photographs, engravings, and documents crowd the walls of the meticulously tended African American Civil War Museum, one of dozens of institutions here in the capital that commemorate black heritage.

In the corner of the museum on a recent visit stood a life-size cardboard cutout of a man in a very un-Civil War-like suit and tie, a thoroughly modern man who has prompted plenty of renewed interest in the Civil War: President-elect Barack Obama. As Washington swarms with well-wishers for the inauguration, cultural sites such as this one should expect unprecedented foot traffic.

U Street would be an appropriate place to begin any African-American heritage tour of the city. The neighborhood, which is in the midst of extensive restorations (and more than a little gentrification), was once the site of a huge encampment for black soldiers fighting for the Union Army. Over the first half of the 20th century, the corridor was the city's "Black Broadway," with native son Duke Ellington, Virginia-born Ella Fitzgerald, and many other greats routinely appearing at venues such as the Lincoln Theatre (now restored as a performing arts center) and the legendary Howard (now vacant).

The names of more than 200,000 soldiers of the US Colored Troops are inscribed in the Wall of Honor at the nearby Civil War memorial. This stretch of U Street is also home to a landmark of quite a different sort: Ben's Chili Bowl, a bustling, old-fashioned eatery of such local significance that when Bill Cosby trumpeted the success of "The Cosby Show," he did so at Ben's. Hanging behind the cash register is a sign designating "Who Eats Free at Ben's." For years there was just one name on the list - Cosby's. It was recently amended to include the Obama family.

The handsome brick row houses of the city include many preserved residences where influential black Americans, from Carter G. Woodson, the "father of Negro history," to the flamboyant religious leader Bishop Charles Manuel "Sweet Daddy" Grace, lived and worked. En route downtown from U Street, just past Logan Circle, stands the National Historic Site of the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, the part-time home and reception center of the founder of the National Council of Negro Women. In a former second-floor guest room, one photo shows several young ladies in ruffles and ankle skirts, tending the farm at the Florida school Bethune founded in 1904. Their trusty mule, the caption notes with no further comment, was named Bush.

A strong-willed adviser to four US presidents, Bethune (1875-1955) is also honored across town in Lincoln Park. There, an impressionistic statue of her stands opposite one of the earliest memorials to President Lincoln (whose phrase "A New Birth of Freedom" has been adopted as Obama's inaugural theme). The base of the Bethune statue, unveiled in 1974, nearly a century after Lincoln's, is inscribed with a long quote of hers stressing the importance of education and personal dignity. "I leave you love," it begins. "I leave you hope."

The outlying enclave of Old Anacostia in Southeast Washington is well worth the drive to see the home at Cedar Hill, the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, where the noted abolitionist - "the Sage of Anacostia" - lived for the last 18 years of his life. On the edge of Fort Stanton Park sits the Smithsonian's Anacostia Community Museum, which just opened a lively exhibit, "Jubilee," dedicated to African-American holidays and celebrations.

"The more men you make free," wrote Douglass, "the more freedom is strengthened." Those words are inscribed alongside the display of the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery in the hallowed great room of the National Archives. On our visit, the contemplative mood of the Archives was knocked for a loop in the gift shop, where James Brown's "Night Train" rumbled over the loudspeakers.

Before Obama sits for his official portrait, he may want to take his daughters to the National Portrait Gallery and the exhibit "20th-Century Americans: The American Search for Justice." The labor organizer A. Philip Randolph, the Harlem Renaissance writer James Weldon Johnson, the late Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and the radical thinker Malcolm X are among the many trailblazers featured. Elsewhere in the august halls of the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which shares the cavernous building with the Portrait Gallery, visitors are introduced to a wide range of African-Americans' creative expression, from the charming childlike folk art of Jimmy Lee Sudduth to the epic, federally sponsored Depression-era painting of Earle Richardson.

Sometime in the near future ground will be broken on the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an ambitious undertaking that will reside near the Washington Monument. In the meantime, the museum staff has been busy curating special traveling exhibits, such as the two that have been extended through March 9 at the Smithsonian's Ripley Center.

"Road to Freedom" is an intense photographic record of the Civil Rights movement from 1956-68, the first image of which shows the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. leading a demonstration in a dark suit and a worn pair of workboots. In adjacent rooms of the gallery, "After 1968" looks at race in America from the unique perspectives of several contemporary artists. The centerpiece is an imposing installation of amplifiers stacked in an allusion to Atlanta's Ebenezer Baptist Church, the site of King's memorial service, where he and his father had been co-pastors. Created by the London-born artist Nadine Robinson, "Coronation Theme: Organon" fills the underground gallery with a throbbing sound collage, an otherworldly chorale set to the percussive sounds of mayhem in the streets.

No visit to Washington would be complete without a hike up the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Midway up the broad staircase, a small plaque inlaid in 2003 marks the spot where King delivered his "I Have a Dream" speech in August 1963.

On the edge of the Reflecting Pool stood another kind of monument, a makeshift plywood tribute to the incoming president covered like a guest book of graffiti. As passersby mingled, signing the board and taking cellphone snapshots, a jogger in a bandanna wove through the group, calling exuberantly over his shoulder, "Yes we can!"

James Sullivan can be reached at

If You Go

What to do
African American Civil War Memorial and Museum
1200 U Street NW
The memorial and museum are two blocks apart.

Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
1318 Vermont Ave. NW  202-673-2402

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
1411 West St. SE

Anacostia Community Museum
1901 Fort Place SE

National Portrait Gallery
Smithsonian American Art Museum
8th and F Streets NW

S. Dillon Ripley Center
(International Gallery)
1100 Jefferson Drive SW
Through March 9: "Road to Freedom: Photographs of the Civil Rights Movement, 1956-1968" and "After 1968: Contemporary Artists and the Civil Rights Legacy."

Where to eat
Ben's Chili Bowl
1213 U Street NW
The Original Chili Half-Smoke (pork and beef sausage with mustard, onions, and homemade chili sauce, $4.95) is named for Bill Cosby.
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