Black History, Alive in Washington





In 1957 Washington officially became the country’s first city where blacks were the majority. But by then, artists, writers and performers of African descent had been flourishing there for a century and a half or more. Seeking out their traces makes for a lively city tour, and one very much of the moment as an African-American first family makes Washington its home.

But before the tour, a shout-out of names you’ll be looking for: Alma Thomas, Frederick Douglass, Duke Ellington, Elizabeth Catlett, Paul Laurence Dunbar, Langston Hughes, Sweet Daddy Grace, Lois Mailou Jones and Marian Anderson, not to mention Marvin Gaye and the godfather of Go-go — the D.C. version of funk — Chuck Brown. All long-term or short-term Washingtonians; all in spirit or person still here.

Historically speaking, the place to start is outside the city center in the hilly, wooded Anacostia neighborhood. Established in the early 19th century as a working-class suburb, it was initially segregated: no blacks or Irish allowed. In 1877 the abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass moved in and broke the color barrier. The house where he spent his last years is still there, a National Park site open for tours.

Gradually the neighborhood became mostly black. In 1967 the Smithsonian Institution set up a satellite exhibition and research center here, the Anacostia Community Museum, which defines community in a nonlocal way. Its present show, “Jubilee: African American Celebration,” is national, even international, in scope and, needless to say, couldn’t be better timed.


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