Black History Permeates Nation's Capital

About 60 percent of Washington, D.C.'s 572,000 residents are black, and their history in the area predates the 1791 creation of the federal district by Congress. That makes the nation's capital rich in black heritage, from the Colonial era to the antebellum and Civil War eras, to contemporary urban life.

"There was always a sizable free black population in the District of Columbia," said James Horton, the Benjamin Banneker professor of American Studies and History at George Washington University.

Yet for decades after the capital was established, slave markets flourished in the area that is today the National Mall, particularly along what is now Independence Avenue.

Slaves and free blacks helped build the White House and U.S. Capitol as both laborers and craftsmen.

Although President George Washington personally took part in placing the south cornerstone for the future capital at a spot known as Jones Point, 8 miles north of his Mount Vernon estate, it was the surveyor Banneker who performed the calculations needed to position 39 other stones along a route measuring 10 miles on each side. Banneker was a well-known black inventor, mathematician and astronomer who had been born free.

Slave Houses, Escape Plots

"Washington was dedicated to having high-quality craftsmen and workmanship," said Stephanie Brown, a Mount Vernon spokeswoman. Many of the 316 slaves living at his estate at the time of his death were trained as coopers, millers, blacksmiths, carpenters and shoemakers and distillers.

Washington housed many slaves in the "House for Families," a communal quarters. Although the original building burned early in the 20th century, it has been reconstructed.

Neighborhoods created by and for blacks in the capital, including shops, churches and homes, survive today. Some were sometimes intricately involved in surreptitious escape plots. The Georgetown section of Washington had several "safe houses" used by conductors on the Underground Railroad. "It's really only on the black history tours that slavery is discussed in any detail," said LaNelle Daughtry, spokeswoman for the Guild of Professional Tour Guides of Washington, D.C.

According to Daughtry, a village established for runaway and freed slaves was located on the grounds of what is now Arlington National Cemetery. It once had a population of 30,000. Section 27 of the cemetery contains their graves, and those of the U.S. Colored Troops, the Union Army's official designation for its black units during the Civil War.

Homes with Historic Pasts

Anderson Cottage, the summer retreat where President Lincoln spent about 25 percent of his presidency, was declared one of America's Treasures at Risk in 2000. The 14-room home on the grounds of the Soldier's Home in Northwest Washington is where Lincoln wrote the final draft of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1865.

The home where abolitionist and orator Frederick Douglass lived during the last 18 years of his life is also a national historical site. The Victorian mansion sits on an 8-acre site overlooking the city from one of the highest points in the district east of the Anacostia River. Records indicate that Douglass did much of his civil rights work during Reconstruction in the home's small library.

"In that room, you will find the cane that Mary Todd Lincoln gave to Douglass after the death of President Lincoln," said Bill Clark, a spokesman for the National Park Service.

The Park Service also administers the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, where the National Council of Negro Women was founded. Bethune, who founded Florida's Bethune-Cookman College, was a confidante of First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. The district is also home to the African-American Civil War Memorial. The 15-foot bronze statue features the images of black troops and sailors as well as so-called contraband slaves liberated by Union forces during the war. Stainless steel plaques are inscribed with the names of 209,145 soldiers and 19,000 sailors who served with Union forces.

"Virtually every black family in the United States has a name on this wall," said Frank Smith, executive director of the African American Civil War Museum. The home of Carter G. Woodson, the educator considered the "father" of black history month, is undergoing preservation nearby.

African-American Heritage Trail

Cultural Tourism D.C. has worked with the city government, the National Park Service and others to promote a local African- American Heritage Trail.

"There are more than 60 museums off the National Mall that people seldom find," said Kathryn S. Smith, consulting historian on the project.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of the landmark Brown v. the Board of Education decision. The 1954 Supreme Court decision declaring "separate but equal, inherently unequal," cleared the way for integration. During the Civil Rights era and the Vietnam War, the Lincoln Memorial and surrounding National Mall were the rallying points for Americans fighting for social justice.

The Lincoln Memorial was the site of opera singer Marian Anderson's Easter concert, after she was barred from performing at DAR Constitution Hall.

"The steps of the Lincoln Memorial were just etched last year with the words from Martin Luther King's 'I Have a Dream' speech," said Victoria Isley, spokeswoman for the Washington, D.C., Convention and Tourism Council.

Dressed in Sunday Best

At the Smithsonian's Anacostia Museum, the photo-essay "Crowns" includes 30 portrait-quality black-and-white photographs of black women. Although the subjects were homemakers, domestics, and others who did menial jobs, they used their day of worship to add fashion and flair to their lives.

"Sunday was a day that they could really get dressed up," said Michael Cunningham, the photographer who produced the work. Five of the hats, passed down from one generation to the next, are also included in the exhibit.

The Recorder of Deeds office features murals that depict eminent blacks including Douglass, Banneker, Revolutionary War patriot Crispus Attucks, North Pole explorer Matthew Henson, and the Massachusetts 54th Regiment, a decorated Union Army unit that included Sgt. William H. Carney, the first black American to earn the Congressional Medal of Honor. The murals were painted during the Great Depression by artists employed in the New Deal's Works Progress Administration. Since 1881, when Frederick Douglass was appointed Recorder of Deeds, that position has been held almost exclusively by blacks.

At Lincoln Park, the Freedmen's Memorial Monument to Abraham Lincoln was financed with donations from freed slaves, primarily those who'd served in the Union Army. It depicts Lincoln cutting the chains of slavery, symbolizing his issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation. The slave depicted in the work is believed to be Alexander Archer, the last man captured under the Fugitive Slave Act.

Also at Lincoln Park is the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, the first statue of a black woman erected in a public park in the nation's capital. Dedicated in 1974, it depicts Bethune surrounded by children, symbolizing her role as an educator. If You Go…

BLACK HISTORY IN WASHINGTON, D.C.: Information on black history month events and the African American Heritage Trail at A brochure about the trail is free at many sites, or can be ordered for $4.75 from (202) 661-7581. MOUNT VERNON: George Washington's estate in nearby Alexandria, Va., includes the restored "House for Families" communal slave quarters. Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily through February; 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. in March and 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. starting April 1. Admission: adults, $11; seniors, $10.50; children, 6 to 11, $5; under 5, free. Call (703) 780-2000 or visit FREDERICK DOUGLASS HOUSE AND NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE: 1411 W St., SE. Hours: 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily; closed for maintenance March 1 to 12. Admission: $2. Visit or call (202) 426-5961. MARY MCLEOD BETHUNE COUNCIL HOUSE: 1318 Vermont Ave., NW. Free admission. Hours: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Visit or phone (202) 673-2402. SMITHSONIAN INSTITUTION'S ANACOSTIA MUSEUM AND CENTER FOR AFRICAN AMERICAN HISTORY AND CULTURE: 1901 Fort Place, SE. Hours: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Free admission. Visit or call (202) 287-3306. AFRICAN AMERICAN CIVIL WAR MEMORIAL AND MUSEUM: Museum located at 1200 U St., NW; memorial two blocks away intersection of Vermont Street and U Street NW. Hours: Monday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Saturdays 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Free admission. Visit or call (202) 667-2667. LINCOLN PARK: Massachusetts Avenue, NE and East Capitol Street.

DECATUR HOUSE: 748 Jackson Place, NW, one block from the White House. Hours: Tuesday to Saturday, 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m., Sunday, noon to 4 p.m. Admission is by donation. This small museum houses one of the last intact slave quarters in downtown Washington. Call (202) 842-0920 or visit RECORDER OF DEEDS OFFICE: 515 D St., NW. Hours: Monday to Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. WASHINGTON, D.C. CONVENTION AND TOURISM CORP.: Call (202) 789-7000 or visit