Virginia Ali has been here before. “When the riots happened, the violence was pretty rough, it was really pretty rough,” she told The Dispatch in an interview on Wednesday. “We did have the National Guard out, we had a curfew in place.”
She could have been describing the previous night—but she wasn’t. Ali and her late husband founded Ben’s Chili Bowl on August 22, 1958, taking over the old silent Minnehaha Movie Theater at 1213 U Street NW in Washington, D.C., at a time when that neighborhood was still known primarily by a different name. “Black Broadway was the most important area for African Americans because it was our community center,” Ali said. “When we were talking about looking for a place to open a restaurant, if we could find something close to that, we think we would be in pretty good shape.”
The couple—set to wed in a few months—went about the business of converting their new building into what would quickly become a D.C. institution. “The neighborhood that we were in provided everything we needed,” Ali remembered. “We found the architect, the contractor, the plumber, the electrician, and the cabinet maker within a few blocks. They were African-American owned businesses.”
Ten years later, the Chili Bowl was the only restaurant on U Street the police allowed to stay open past the curfew instituted during the mass unrest that followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. Most black-owned businesses closed in honor of King—including Ben and Ali’s—and curfews were soon instituted regardless. But then a police captain called the Chili Bowl, Ali said, and told them their night staff could get passes to continue working. For four days in early April 1968, Historical Society of Washington, D.C. historian Jane Levey told The Dispatch, the Chili Bowl “became a safe and neutral space for people to meet when things were really hot elsewhere in the city.” And not just for the protesters. “For whomever!” Ali exclaimed. “City officials, police officers, anybody that wanted to come in.”
Perhaps because of this special status, the Chili Bowl remained standing through the riots while the rest of the block was reduced to rubble. “The neighborhood was literally destroyed,” Ali lamented. “And [it] took a downturn for the next 20 years.” She doesn’t want to see that happen again.