10 Things You Didn’t Know About Black DC History

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Dear Washingtonians,

When people talk about our city, they’re quick to talk about the monuments, the White House, and Capitol Hill. But our city’s history — especially it’s Black History — goes well beyond what meets the eye. In fact, we were the first majority Black city in the nation.

DC’s Black History is consequential to Black people all over America and all over the world. And as the Black population diminishes — largely due to displacement, gentrification, and economic exploitation — we have an obligation to tell these stories this month and throughout the year.

Check out 10 things you probably didn’t know about DC’s Black History:

1. Did you know Benjamin Banneker, a free Black man and tobacco farmer, helped map out and plan DC?

Born and raised in Maryland to two free parents, Benjamin Banneker was a self-taught mathematician and astronomer who assisted the white land surveyor, Andrew Ellicott, in assessing the land and creating boundary lines for what became the nation’s capital. He even did pioneering research about the Brood X cicadas that still resurface in DC every 17 years. Banneker’s prowess and skills were recognized by the white media at the time. In fact, an article in the 1791 Georgetown Weekly Ledger said that his abilities as a surveyor and astronomer, “clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s [President Thomas Jefferson] concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation.” However, Banneker did not want special praise — he simply wanted all Black people to be able to become educated so they could reach their full human potential.

2. Did you know that a variety of historically renowned Black creatives, abolitionists, historians, and civil rights giants used to live in DC?

Historian Carter G. Woodson, composer-jazz musician Duke Ellington, abolitionist Frederick Douglass, activist-educator Mary McLeod Bethune, and poet Paul Laurence Dunbar — just to name a few — all resided in DC at some point in their lives. Their homes still stand to this day. Dunbar’s and the childhood home that Ellington grew up in have both been sold, but Bethune’s, Douglass’, and Woodson’s former residences are now National Historic Sites. Woodson, Ellington, Douglass, and Bethune have statues and memorials located throughout DC: Douglass’ statue is in the Emancipation Hall of the U.S. Capitol Visitor Center, Bethune’s memorial — which was the first dedicated to a Black woman in DC — is in Lincoln Park, and Woodson’s and Ellington’s memorials are both located in Shaw.

Frederick Douglass’ former residence, memorial to Carter G. Woodson, and the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House.

3. Did you know that the M Street High School — also known as the Perry School — was one of the first Black public schools in the country and was founded in DC?

Founded in 1870, the school’s curriculum comprised of several tracks including academic, scientific, and business. Many of the students went on to attend the nation’s top colleges in the North. In 1916, the number of students outgrew the building, and the school was moved to the Dunbar High School. Its previous building became an elementary school and junior high school for Black children and was renamed the Perry School, up until the desegregation of schools. The building where M Street High School once was now serves as an educational consultant called the Perry School Community Services Center.

4. Did you know that DC was home to the first African American Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in the country?

Reverend Anthony Bowen established what was then known as the Colored Young Men’s Christian Association, providing refuge for Black Washingtonians during the mid-to-late and 19th and early 20th centuries. Located in Shaw, the Twelfth Street YMCA was a place where the Black community was supported and uplifted during a time when the rest of the world refused to do so. It was a place where sports were played, parties and lectures were attended, baptisms took place, and young African American men were provided shelter. During the 1920s, Langston Hughes lived there and worked as a busboy at hotel before slipping his poetry to a famous guest and getting a scholarship to university. The Anthony Bowen facility is still in DC on W Street.

5. Did you know that Industrial Bank, which has been in operation for nearly 88 years, was the first Black owned bank in DC?

Opening its doors in 1934, Industrial Bank provided access to loans for Blacks’ trying to open and operate churches and businesses, and purchase homes. Located on U Street, this bank contributed to the flourishing of Black Broadway. Over the years, the bank attracted a celebrity clientele — including DC native Duke Ellington. The bank has since expanded and currently operates in DC, Maryland, New Jersey, and New York.

6. Did you know that Lee’s Flowers Shop is the oldest florist in DC?

Lee’s Flower shop is a Black-owned florist that has — for nearly 80 years — provided its customers with fresh floral designs and gifts. The shop, located in the U Street Corridor, survived the 1968 Martin Luther King Jr. riots and the impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic. Lee’s has been run by three generations of the Lee family.

The 12th Street YMCA, Industrial Bank, and Lee’s Flower Shop.

7. Did you know that the Anacostia Community Museum, located in Southeast DC, is part of the Smithsonian?

Launching in 1967, this hidden gem showcases thousands of artifacts from the Black community that surrounds it — Anacostia — and features items such as historic family archives from Black locals and artwork from local Black creatives.

8. Did you know that Go-Go originated in DC?

Stemming from funk music, this genre was created during the 1970s, and features strong elements of bass and percussion, and a call-and-response between the singer and the audience. Created by singer-guitarist Chuck Brown, the “God Father of Go-Go,” and his band the Soul Searchers, the genre skyrocketed to popularity in the District during the 1980s and was the most played genre in the dance halls of DC, which were called go-gos.

9. Did you know that the founding of the University of the District of Columbia is rooted in the abolition movement?

Giving the convocation speech at UDC in 2021.

In 1851, a white abolitionist named Mrytilla Miner founded the “Miner Normal School for Colored Girls.” Originally from New York, Miner spent some time teaching in Mississippi where she saw the horrors of slavery firsthand. She left determined to help uplift freed Black women through education. She chose DC for the school because it was the southernmost city and had the greatest number of uneducated free Blacks. UDC — an HBCU and the nation’s only fully urban land-grant university in the country — underwent various changes since then but honors Ms. Miner every year at its annual Founders’ Day celebration.

10. Did you know that DC has an African American Heritage Trail, which identifies “more than 200 sites that are important in local and national history and culture”?

The Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church and the Heritage trail in Logan Circle.

Many people know that Martin Luther King delivered his “I Have a Dream Speech” on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. But, what many might not know is that there are more than 200 sites around the DC area that are relative to African American history but are important in local and national history. From the United States Capitol to the Howard Theater to the Suburban Gardens Site to the Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church, the African American Heritage Trail identifies over 200 sites around the city that talk about the people and places that shaped DC.

This walking tour will take you to some of the lesser known, yet nonetheless important historical sites in the city. Fifteen neighborhoods are included in the trail. Those interested can print or download the trail booklets, which includes images and maps and identifies 98 of these sites, for any of the 15 neighborhoods here.

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