Black experience in Washington takes the spotlight

Special To The Sun

Anyone intimately familiar with the nation's capital knows of its significant African-American population, a community both highly visible and deeply entrenched.

Yet rarely has the district's longtime status as a hub of black history and culture been properly recognized, at least on a grand scale.

That's all changed with the launch of Blues & Dreams, a citywide tourism thrust using the arts, literature and history to spotlight the black experience.

The campaign kicked off in September and runs through the end of this month. But officials hope it will continue to attract visitors by offering a more culturally inclusive view of the city.

"African-American history and culture has been central to Washington since its inception in 1791," said Mayor Anthony A. Williams. "The depth and breadth of [that] experience in the District of Columbia is unrivaled. ... This is a fitting way to mark the importance and relevance of our rich heritage."

Blues & Dreams ties in with this year's 40th anniversary of the 1963 March on Washington, and the "I Have a Dream" speech that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.

But long before the civil rights era, black Washingtonians were profoundly influencing the growth and character of the nation's capital.

Benjamin Banneker, a self-trained astronomer and mathematician, helped survey and lay out the Southern city. And before the Civil War, blacks were laborers, skilled craftsmen, drivers and entrepreneurs.

Over the years, even in the face of segregation, African-Americans created vibrant, thriving communities here.

For instance, Anacostia is where abolitionist Frederick Douglass settled years after escaping slavery in Maryland. He became the neighborhood's first black property owner in the 1800s, and today, Cedar Hill is open for visitors.

The Shaw neighborhood, birthplace of jazz great Duke Ellington, is in the city's historic U Street corridor. Dubbed "Black Broadway" by native Pearl Bailey, the area is said to predate Harlem as a mecca for black music and entertainment.

Such sites are incorporated into walking tours that are part of Blues & Dreams programming -- along with lectures, concerts, dance and theater performances and art exhibitions.

Perhaps the centerpiece event is the National Gallery of Art's major retrospective of Harlem renaissance collage artist Romare Bearden, on the first stop in a five-city American tour.

In the meantime, the Textile Museum has an African-American quilt exhibition with 20th-century handiwork from parts of the South. Representing an important component of U.S. history, they also reflect the diverse traditions of black quilters and their heritage.

Area restaurants have also gotten into the spirit, incorporating fanciful themed cocktails and soul-food dishes on their menus. Stop by CakeLove, a popular black-owned bakery on U Street, for a Blues & Dreams cupcake: vanilla pound cake, buttercream frosting, fresh raspberries and blueberries.

Things to see

The Art of Romare Bearden (National Gallery of Art, Fourth Street and Constitution Avenue Northwest, 202-737-4215): Bearden's collage art, painting and sculpture powerfully portrayed black history, literature and cultural pride in the places he lived and worked: the rural South, Harlem, the Caribbean island of St. Martin. Exhibit runs through Jan. 4.

African-American Quilts From the Robert and Helen Cargo Collection (The Textile Museum, 2320 S St. N.W., 202-667-0441): Patchwork quilts, story quilts and more, each distinguished by color and design. Hailing from the South, primarily Alabama, these 20th-century quilts are made of such fabrics as flannel, twill, pillow ticking and feed sacks. The museum will also offer quilting demonstrations, live music and lectures. Runs through Feb. 29.

The Urban Experience: African-American History at Decatur House and Washington, D.C. (The Stephen Decatur House Museum, 1610 H St. N.W., 202-842-0920): A new permanent exhibit inside the former slave quarters of this National Historic Landmark uses artifacts and documents to examine the lives of free and enslaved blacks in Washington.

No Dream Unfulfilled (The City Museum, 801 K St. N.W., 202-383-1800): An interactive exhibit that uses costumes, objects and primary documents, allowing visitors to step into historic moments in the African-American experience. Runs through Sunday.

Demonstrating for Civil Rights in D.C.: The March on Washington and Beyond (Martin Luther King Jr. Library, 901 G St. N.W., 202-727-1213): Photographs centering on the March on Washington and civil rights protests dating to the '50s. Also featured: Romare Bearden's Magical Memories, an exhibit of documentary and biographical material related to the Bearden exhibition at the National Gallery of Art. Runs through Sunday.

The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts (KC Jazz Club, 2700 F St. N.W., 202-467-4600): "Sizzling Jazz at the Kennedy Center" features some of today's best African-American artists in the genre, in a cozy nightclub-style setting.

Truth: The Fibers of Our Lives (The Black Fashion Museum, 2007 Vermont Ave. N.W., 202-667-0744): An exhibit focusing on the pioneering spirit of Sojourner Truth and showcasing the African-American contributions to the textile and apparel trade during the 1800s. The museum is listed by the National Park Service as a possible stop on the Underground Railroad. Runs through January.

New Visions: Emerging Trends in African-American Art (The Anacostia Museum and Center for African-American History and Culture, 1901 Fort Place S.E., 202-287-3369): Artists explore diverse contemporary issues reflecting the changing technology of art through video, computer generated images and found objects. Runs through Feb. 29.

Before Harlem There Was U Street (Cultural Tourism DC and Manna D.C. Tours begin at the Thurgood Marshall Center, 1816 12th St. N.W., 202-232-2915): Guided walking tours of this historic neighborhood, home to Howard University, one of the oldest, most prestigious black colleges in the country. Tours take place on the first and third Saturdays of each month.

More information

  • Washington D.C. Convention and Tourism Corporation: 202-789-7000 or www.washington .org.
  • Cultural Tourism D.C.: 202-661-7581.
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