The nation’s black history is deeply intertwined with Washington.
As the capital city, the area long attracted prominent African Americans, including civic leaders and artists. Slaves in the District of Columbia were freed before the Emancipation Proclamation, African American men had voting rights before those elsewhere and institutions such as Howard University were a draw as well.
But the vestiges of that history won’t always be found in statues or memorials.
“It is all around us,” says Marya McQuirter, an adjunct professor at George Washington University and the author of Cultural Tourism DC’s African American Heritage Trail guide. “There is so much to choose from and so much we don’t know.”
You’ll find the story in historic homes, quietly displayed in our art museums and public spaces and in simple etchings.
With Black History Month approaching, we’re singling out eight of Washington’s quiet treasures, the artifacts that are full of resonance, even if you have to look twice to notice them. Each has a story to tell, and some will downright surprise you. Make it a point to see them all.
The “I have a dream” etching at the
It’s startlingly easy to overlook the five short lines of text carved into the granite on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Every day, feet tromp across those words: “I HAVE A DREAM,” they begin.
The stern figure rising out of rock on the edge of the Tidal Basin wasn’t the first tribute to the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. on the Mall. The elegantly etched words at the Lincoln Memorial came before, marking the spot where King rallied an estimated 250,000 people on Aug. 28, 1963, during the March on Washington.
It wasn’t until 2003, on the eve of the 40th anniversary of the march, that local stone carver Andy Del Gallo was enlisted (after a law was passed by Congress allowing the addition) to etch the words that stretch no more than two feet wide. Yet they’re transportive: To plant your feet on the spot is to imagine yourself there in 1963, looking out as King might have, to the people gathered as far away as the Washington Monument — and seeing all the promise.
23rd Street NW and West Potomac Park. 202-426-6841. www.nps.gov/linc. Free.
“The Death of
Cleopatra” at the American Art Museum
In a sculpture-filled hall of the American Art Museum, there’s a single work that tour guides like to stop and point to: Cleopatra.
Carved from marble, she’s limp in her throne, her neck thrown back, her face frozen in unmistakable calm. Set off from the rest of the wing and displayed in its own nook with dusky purple walls, “The Death of Cleopatra” was the work of a young sculptor named Edmonia Lewis. African American and Native American, Lewis was considered to be the first professional black sculptor in U.S. history; she showed so much promise that a sponsor sent her to Rome to pursue her art, and newspapers noted her work widely. Her “Cleopatra,” weighing nearly two tons, may have been her most notable piece, causing a stir when it was displayed at the Philadelphia Centennial Exposition in 1876.
But the sculpture didn’t arrive at the American Art Museum in style. Shortly after its early exhibitions, it turned up at a Chicago-area racetrack, where it was a grave marker for a horse and remained for nearly a century. Until, that is, it was moved unceremoniously to a salvage yard in the 1970s. When it finally arrived in the hands of American Art, it was in shambles, requiring reconstruction of the queen’s nose, hands and breast, while the asp in her hand (which Cleopatra famously used to commit suicide) had to be replaced before it was unveiled by the museum in 1996. But move in close and you can still see the statue’s strange journey in the worn, pocked stone.
Second Floor, Eighth and F streets NW. 202-633-1000. www.americanart.si.edu. Free.
on the Mall
Children regularly scramble onto the carousel on the Mall for a three-minute thrill, one which the rapidly whirling merry-go-round with the faded paint and kitschy ponies never fails to deliver.
The Smithsonian carousel was built in the 1940s by the Allan Herschell Co., but its history is far richer than the families who frequent it might suspect.
Before the carousel arrived near the Smithsonian Castle, it was a popular attraction at Gwynn Oak Amusement Park in Woodlawn, Md., one of the region’s most booming parks. Gwynn Oak was, as many amusement parks were at the time, whites-only.