The newest museum on the National Mall is popular for sure. Timed tickets for the National Museum of African American History and Culture are snapped up as soon as they are released. You can take a chance on scoring same-day tickets, but if you don’t have any luck, don’t worry — D.C. is enveloped in a rich African-American history with noteworthy sights aplenty.
Michèle Gates Moresi, Curator of Collections at NMHAAC, suggests visiting National Park Service sites like these three spots, which also have a connection to the museum.
Frederick Douglass National Historic Site
The former slave turned author, abolitionist and ambassador is well-represented inside NMAAHC with portraits and a copy of his slave narrative dating back to 1857. But you can actually visit his estate on a hill in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood.
“He was one of the most amazing Renaissance men and to imagine his life as a child and young man in enslavement can be inspirational to anybody, ” Moresi says. “To know that he has this home on a hill in Anacostia and he became an ambassador of the United States — it’s really quite amazing.”
Douglass’s personal effects sit in his home as if he’d just left for a walk. They are in pristine condition, under the watchful eye of the National Park Service. The only way to tour the estate, known as Cedar Hill, is by booking a guided tour, where you’ll see the tools of his trade like his old roll top desk, a typewriter dating back to the late 1800s and an iron press for printing letters.
“I think it is wonderful to go there and see that part of the city, a part that doesn’t get visited,” Moresi says. She also makes note of the nearby Anacostia Community Museum, with rotating exhibits dedicated to black life in Washington.
Mary McLeod Bethune Council House
An educator and activist who was appointed to a federal government position under President Franklin Roosevelt, Mary McLeod Bethune was also one of the early voices calling for an African-American history museum on the National Mall, a fact noted at NMHAAC.
“I think the Bethune Council House is one of those little known gems that a lot of people miss,” Moresi says. “One thing we hope people get when they come [to NMHAAC] is that they can make those associations.”
In the Logan Circle house, you can visit the parlor where Bethune entertained First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and the conference room that served as headquarters for the National Council of Negro Women, the organization she founded. The home was also a rallying spot for the 1963 March on Washington.
African American Civil War Memorial
Tintypes of the men that served in the Civil War and the posters calling them to serve are on display in the Smithsonian’s African-American history museum. But the 200,000 names of soldiers and sailors that served during the country’s bloodiest war are found at the National Park Service’s African American Civil War Memorial on U Street, a compelling piece of history in the middle of the uber-trendy Shaw neighborhood, which few may know was named for the Union colonel that led the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment in the Civil War.
“There are so many aspects of the National Park Service that are right here in the city,” Moresi says. “Whether it is a statue or some grounds. They are really great at providing labels to get you situated in the city.”
The best way to find the memorial is by Metro, with a stop conveniently named for it. As you exit the U Street/ African American Civil War Memorial/ Cardozo station, you can’t miss the “Spirit of Freedom” statue featuring a cluster of bronze soldiers surrounded by a plaza filled with the names of fallen soldiers.
Consider this the starting point of a walk into African-American history on U Street, once known as Black Broadway, where luminaries like Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday and Ella Fitzgerald performed in the nearby Lincoln Theater. Then complete your trip back in time in a truly local way — pull up a stool next to longtime D.C. residents at the Florida Avenue Grill for some good, old-fashioned soul food.