Washington’s Civil Rights Landmarks

The Great Tours: Washington, D.C.—Lecture 11 Guide

The struggle to establish civil rights for African Americans in the United States did not end with the Civil War and Reconstruction. It was (and still is) a slow, sometimes painful process marked by both tragedy and triumph. It has had a profound impact on how Washington, D.C. became the city it is today. Investigate the mark the struggle for civil rights has left on this city and take a virtual tour of some of its most important historical sites.

In this guide, we will discuss:
• Frederick Douglass’s home
• The Anacostia Community Museum
• The National Museum of African American History and Culture
• The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Watch the video introduction below, then let’s get started!

The Home of Frederick Douglass

One of the most recognized figures in the fight for the abolition of slavery was Frederick Douglass. Born into slavery in Maryland around the year 1818, he spent almost the entirety of his 77 years fighting first for his own freedom, and then for the freedom of others.

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Douglass moved to Washington, D.C. in 1872, to an estate called Cedar Hill. He served on a number of federal commissions, served in D.C.’s territorial government, and became a board member of Howard University, one of D.C.’s historically black universities. He served as the U.S. ambassador to Haiti from 1889 to 1891, and he continued to write, speak, and study until his death in 1895.

Douglass’s Cedar Hill home in the Southeast D.C. neighborhood of Anacostia is now managed by the National Park Service as a National Historic Site. The house was restored in the early 2000s to appear much as it did in 1895 and is filled with objects from Douglass’s personal and professional life. Guided tours of the house are available daily; advance reservations are recommended and can be booked via the National Park Service website. You can also check the website for special events.

Home of Frederick Douglass with lush green trees and American flag
Douglass moved to Washington, D.C. in 1872, to an estate called Cedar Hill.

The Anacostia Community Museum

Anacostia, built on the native foundations of the city, was one of D.C.’s earliest suburban communities. Although in the 19th century covenants were in place preventing black families from buying land in the area, by the mid-20th century, Anacostia’s demographics had shifted and the area became one of D.C.’s most significant African American communities.

In the 1960s, recognizing that geography and segregation had isolated Anacostia from life on the other side of the river, Smithsonian embarked on an experimental museum project called the Anacostia Neighborhood Museum. The idea was to bring a slice of the National Mall’s museums to the neighborhood.

Based on community feedback, the museum’s mission changed to focus on the lifeways and issues most relevant to the local populace. Renamed the Anacostia Community Museum, it developed exhibits on local history in general and African American history in particular. It also developed educational programs in cooperation with local schoolteachers, and even developed a youth advisory council to ensure that the museum served the entire community.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

National Museum of African American History and Culture at night time
The National Museum of African American History and Culture opened in September 2016 and immediately became one of the most popular attractions on the National Mall.

Long before the founding of the Anacostia Community Museum, there was a movement afoot for a national museum of African American history in the nation’s capital—a museum that would tell the nation’s story through the lens of the black experience. The idea took shape among a group of African American Civil War veterans in 1915.

Although it received support from President Hoover and a number of prominent black activists, funding bill after funding bill failed to pass Congress for decades. In 2001, Representative John R. Lewis and Representative J. C. Watts reintroduced funding legislation. Senator Sam Brownback of Kansas, intimately familiar with the historical struggles over freedom and slavery in his state, also proposed legislation, and then later joined efforts with Lewis. The bill was finally passed by Congress and signed into law by President George W. Bush.

The museum opened at long last in September 2016 and immediately became one of the most popular attractions on the National Mall. About 2.5 million people visit the museum each year. The crowds were managed through the use of timed-entry ticketing—a system that remains in place for weekends and holidays. Note that if you plan to visit the museum on a trip to D.C., you may be able to simply walk in on a weekday, but getting tickets in advance from the museum’s website is always advisable.

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The museum has a unique layout. The ground floor, called Heritage Hall, is devoted to visitor services. Below it, you will find the history galleries, and above it, the culture galleries, community galleries, and a special area that includes interactive exhibits and a research center.

The history galleries are often sobering, even harrowing. The community and culture galleries upstairs, on the third and fourth floors, are often joyful. For example, the Musical Crossroads exhibit celebrates the central role of African American traditions and performers in American music.

African American Military Service

African Americans of the 19th century participated in the fight to abolish slavery in many different ways, not least of which was through military service. Although the Union military allowed black men to serve in its ranks, they were segregated into a branch of the military called the United States Colored Troops, or USCT. Although only about 1 percent of the Northern population was African American, the USCT made up 10 percent of the Union Army and 25 percent of the Union Navy during the war.

The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington d.c. with clouds in blue sky
Like several newer memorials, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is a sculpture garden.

One mile away from the museum is the newest memorial on the National Mall: the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial. Found on the edge of the Tidal Basin, this memorial was dedicated on August 28, 2011, the 48th anniversary of the March on Washington. Its formal address is 1964 Independence Avenue SW, in honor of the 1964 Civil Rights Act that Dr. King helped make possible.

Although it was chartered by Congress, the bulk of the funds were raised by the Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, which Dr. King joined during graduate school. It is the only memorial on the National Mall to an African American individual.

Like several of the newer memorials, it is a sculpture garden. A four-acre granite plaza stretches in a crescent along the waterfront. The curved outer wall is inscribed with quotes from Dr. King’s writings.

The focal point of the memorial is the 30-foot-high statue called the Stone of Hope. Its form was inspired by a quote from the “I Have a Dream” speech: “With this faith we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope.”

Conclusion

Despite the sites in this guide being relatively new structures, they represent a thread of American history as deep and as significant as anything else you will see on your tour of Washington, D.C. The struggle for civil rights—and indeed, for human rights—is not a uniquely American struggle. However, the United States has provided an example in addressing the challenge of achieving its founding ideal: ensuring life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness for all.

Use these online resources to help plan your trip.
Douglass’s Cedar Hill Home NPS Website
The Anacostia Community Museum
The National Museum of African American History and Culture
The Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial NPS Website

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