Black History

Portrait of Josiah Henson, 1876

"Not Fiction, but Fact": Josiah Henson and the Real Uncle Tom's Cabin

Josiah Henson is not a well-known name in American history—or even in the Washington area, where he was enslaved for many years. Born into bondage in Maryland, he lived in Montgomery County before eventually escaping to Canada—there, he served in the army, became a preacher, and established a prosperous settlement for escaped slaves. He was immortalized in Harriet Beecher Stowe's famous novel Uncle Tom's Cabin, serving as the inspiration for the titular character. But though the novel made him a well-known and popular figure in the nineteenth century, Henson was determined to tell his own story. As he says, the truth is stranger than fiction. 

Wishing in a Fountain: The Protest for more D.C. Pools

Children splash in the fountain at Columbus Circle to protest a shortage of pools in Washington, D.C.

In the early 1960s, the Evening Star called the Columbus Circle fountain in front of Union Station “a ready made swimming pool with ledges, platforms, and friendly statues. It is a grand place to wrestle and splash during the heat of the day, to get the shivers, and to finally recapture the heat by stretching full length on the warm bricks of the surrounding walk. Columbus looks on — pleased and noble.” However, as inviting as it was, swimming in the fountain was technically against Park Police regulations ... which made it the perfect place to protest Washington’s shortage of accessible swimming pools.

Honoring Alexandria's Two Lynching Victims

Memorial Corridor at The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. (Credit: Soniakapadia via Wikimedia Commons. Used via Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 4.0 International license.)

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, is dedicated to all the victims of racial terror lynching in this country. The memorial is made of hundreds of steel monuments with the names of all known lynching victims inscribed on the front. A monument representing Alexandria, Virginia contains two names: Joseph McCoy and Benjamin Thomas. This is their story, and our community's history. 

Gambling with Marion Barry's Summertime Legacy

Students participating in the Summer Jobs Program by preforming in the jazz band.  (Photo Source: Washington Evening Star. Used with permission from the DC Public Library Washingtoniana Special Collection).

For the first time since 1979, the future of the city’s Summer Youth Employment Program was in doubt after Sharon Pratt Dixon took the helm for a disgraced Marion Barry in 1991.  One of Pratt Dixon's main political objectives was to tackle the enormous budget deficit left in Marion Barry's wake.  The Summer Youth Employment Program was one of the first programs to be slashed from the budget which meant, for the first time since 1979, young Washingtonians seeking jobs through the program were not guaranteed a slot.  Sensing the tension around the budget cuts, Dixon appealed to the business community to help fill the void, effectively gambling with what might be considered Marion Barry's signature program.

The Jewel of U Street Reopens: The Lincoln Theatre

“The restored Lincoln Theatre, once a premier African-American entertainment venue, Washington, D.C.” (Photo Source: The Library of Congress) Highsmith, Carol M, photographer. The restored Lincoln Theatre, once a premier African-American entertainment venue, Washington, D.C. United States Washington D.C, None. [Between 1980 and 2006] Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2011636050/.

After the 1968 riots ravaged U Street, the famed Lincoln Theatre fell into disrepair. On the evening of February 4, 1994, however,1,200 invited guests attended a reopening gala for the Lincoln following a massive restoration project. For the first time in over 25 years, the burgundy curtain was rising on the Lincoln’s 38-foot-wide stage, and guests in attendance that night said that entering the restored theatre was like “stepping back in time.” 

Eat Anywhere! Mary Church Terrell, the Lost Laws, and the End of Segregation in D.C. Restaurants

Washington Afro American headline from June 9, 1953.

On Friday, January 27, 1950, Mary Church Terrell met three friends for a late lunch in downtown Washington. Terrell, then 86, entered Thompson’s Restaurant on 7th Street NW around 2:45 pm with Rev. William H. Jernigan, Geneva Brown and David Scull. Their party was integrated – Scull was white while the others were black – however, Thompson’s Restaurant was not. Like most other D.C. eating establishments at the time, it was whites only.

As the group went about selecting entrees along the cafeteria line, Manager Levin Ange emerged and informed them that Thompson’s did not serve “colored” people. Terrell clarified, “Do you mean to tell me that you are not going to serve me?” When Ange confirmed that was the case, the group left the restaurant.

The chain of events was, of course, entirely expected. As a leader of Washington’s civil rights movement for half a century, Mary Church Terrell was well aware of Thompson’s policy. But she and the others didn’t go to the restaurant to be served. Rather they went with the expectation of being turned away – the necessary, if also demeaning, first step toward bringing a new sort of legal challenge, which they hoped would topple segregation in the nation’s capital.

Mary and Elizabeth Edmonson

The Edmonson Sisters of Alexandria: Legends in the Fight Against Slavery

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the debate over the future of slavery raged through the halls of Congress. Abolitionists in the North, however, had little faith that their fight could be won through political discourse. A quarter of Washington, D.C.’s black population was enslaved, and the slave trade in the District was one of the most lucrative markets in the country. Abolitionists reasoned that they needed to resort to other means to combat slavery in this socially hypocritical and politically entrenched environment. In the early months of 1848, a local cell of the Underground Railroad devised a plan to smuggle slaves out of the area and take them north to free territory.

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