African Americans have been fighting for equality in Washington D.C. since the early 1800s. In 1848, 77 enslaved men, women, and children, attempted the nation’s largest single escape. They sailed out of D.C. aboard The Pearl, planning to head south on the Potomac and all the way to the free state of New Jersey. Tragically, they were delayed by unfavourable winds and captured on the Chesapeake Bay. This dramatic episode provoked a violent pro-slavery riot, in turn triggering debate in Congress. In 1862, the District of Columbia Emancipation Act was passed – nine months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation.
By the dawn of the 20th century, D.C. had the highest percentage of African Americans of any city in America. Nevertheless, racism was endemic, and laws instituted segregation in public schools and recreation facilities. Early civil rights action advanced during the Great Depression. The young men of the New Negro Alliance led “Don’t Buy Where You Can’t Work” campaigns against racist hiring practices. The phenomenal activist Mary Church Terrell campaigned for black women’s suffrage, formed the Colored Women's League, and (at age 86!) led a successful fight to integrate public eating places in D.C. through pickets, boycotts, and sit-ins. The first of the famous 1960s Freedom Rides departed from Washington D.C. for New Orleans.
The 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom is frequently viewed as the climax of the civil rights movement. The march brought over 250,000 people to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, where they bore witness to arguably the most famous speech in history. The Kennedy administration initially opposed the march, worried it would hinder the progress of civil rights legislation. A. Philip Randolph and Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. insisted that the march would proceed. President Kennedy was actually worried that not enough people would show up and even enlisted the aid of white church leaders to help mobilize supporters.
This march, however successful, was far from a happy ending to the civil rights movement. The assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. in 1968 triggered extreme and sometimes destructive unrest throughout the nation. In Washington, as elsewhere, African Americans rioted against continued discrimination.
Visitors to present-day D.C. have a wonderful opportunity to view many great symbols of the civil rights movement:
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial
You may have noticed that the story of the civil rights movement does not have a tidy ending. This is because the struggle for equality is ongoing, and this is reflected by the unfinished sculpture. This is the first sculpture on the National Mall to honour an African-American. The idea for the monument comes from his legendary speech: “With this faith, we will be able to hew out of a mountain of despair a stone of hope.”
This memorial was, of course, the iconic backdrop for Martin Luther King Jr’s speech, but the memorial has a much longer history with civil rights. The heart-warming story of Marian Anderson’s Easter Sunday concert in 1939 is one such link. As an African American artist, she was denied the right to perform at Constitution Hall (owned by the Daughters of the American Revolution). In response, First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt resigned from the DAR and liaised with artistic and civil rights organizations to arrange the Lincoln Memorial concert at which Anderson sang to a crowd of 75,000.
Smithsonian National Museum of African Art
This museum began as Warren M. Robbins’ private collection of African objects. He opened his collection for viewing in a house on Capitol Hill with no museum experience. Robbins hoped that the collection might encourage support for the advancement of civil rights and heighten respect for the African artistic element of black cultural heritage. The collection expanded throughout the 1960s until it occupied over 20 properties. Finally, the museum's National Mall building construction began in 1983.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Smithsonian’s newest museum building, which opened on Sept. 24, 2016, became the only national museum singularly dedicated to the documentation of African American history and culture.
Located on "Washington's Black Broadway", this theatre served the African American community when segregation excluded them from other venues. The Lincoln Theatre included a movie house and ballroom. It hosted jazz performers such as the renowned Duke Ellington. The theatre closed following the 1968 riots, but reopened in 1994.
The civil rights movement and the fight for equal opportunities in education caused huge waves in academia. An increasingly diverse generation of historians came to the forefront, with fresh perspective especially in the realm of black histories and American slavery. Pre-civil rights histories were dominated by white (male) academics. Key works on slavery contained many racist assumptions and were based on the idea that Africans were enslaved for their own good. Kenneth Stampp’s influential work The Peculiar Institution (1956) called out fellow historians of the south that presented racist narratives. He also connected the contemporary struggle of African Americans to their enslavement and was one of the first scholars to portray white slave-owners as brutal and violent. In the Civil Rights Era, black historians had growing authorship over their own histories: John Hope Franklin and Benjamin Quarles, in particular, became key scholars in African American history. Approaches to African American history are continually evolving under the influence of modern movements. Professional history as a whole, however, still has far to go in achieving inclusivity and diversity.