Experience Black History & Culture in the Capital Region

Walk in the footsteps of famous figures like Harriet Tubman and President Barack Obama, explore the impactful history of Black Americans and support Black-owned businesses on this tour of Washington, DC, Maryland, and Virginia.

Washington, DC

Start your tour at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the only national museum devoted to documenting African American life. Musical Crossroads is a must-see exhibit, detailing how music provided a voice for liberty, justice and social change at a time when it was needed most. To learn about the Reconstruction era — and its enduring legacies — the Make Good the Promises exhibit covers the struggles of freedom, citizenship and justice from 1865 to present. Be sure to stop into the museum’s Sweet Home Café to taste diverse African American regional fare like gumbo, catfish, macaroni and cheese, and collard greens. 

Take a post-lunch stroll to the National Mall to visit the memorials of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Lincoln. Standing at nearly 26 feet tall, Dr. King’s towering monument is the first federal memorial in honour of a man of colour and a non-president. An engraving at the column-bedecked Lincoln Memorial pays tribute to the spot where Dr. King gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.

In the evening, make your way to the U Street neighbourhood, known as “Black Broadway” from the 1920s to 1950s. While there, pop into Ben’s Chili Bowl, a favourite of locals, visitors and celebrities alike. The Chili Half-Smoke is a steamed bun packed with spicy regional sausage, covered in home-made beef chilli, mustard and onions. The community feel and rich history of the 1958 spot are bonuses. Afterwards, catch a show at the historic Lincoln Theatre. The ornate walls have hosted famous musicians like Duke Ellington (a DC native), Ella Fitzgerald, Lena Horne, Count Basie and Billie Holiday and brings phenomenal performers to the city to this day. At Akwaaba DC — a historical 19th-century town-house mansion — sleep in rooms that celebrate great authors like Zora Neal Hurston and Langston Hughes.

Maryland

Continue your tour by discovering the rich history of two of Maryland’s most famed African Americans, Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass. Begin in Baltimore, Maryland’s largest city, where the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum has waterfront views of the Patapsco River. This national heritage site recounts the story of the famed abolitionist as well as the founding of the Chesapeake Marine Railway and Dry Dock Company — America’s first African American-owned shipyard. Wander out back to see vintage vessels before your next stop. 

Marvel at more than 150 lifelike wax sculptures at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum or spot Civil-Rights-era campaign buttons at the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture. For dinner, grab a bite at one of the 100-plus Black-owned Baltimore restaurants, dishing up everything from Senegalese to Caribbean fare. Turn in for the night at The Ivy Hotel in the picturesque Mount Vernon neighbourhood. The property boasts 17 opulent rooms in a 19th-century mansion that dubs itself “Baltimore’s hidden gem.”

Maryland’s capital city of Annapolis is home to the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the state’s official museum of African American heritage. Tour the former red-brick church or opt for a two-hour African American Heritage walking tour. Sites include the Annapolis City Dock, where slave ships entered 300 years ago; the Kunta Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, where human spirit continues to triumph; and the Maryland State House and statue of Thurgood Marshall, the first Black Supreme Court Justice.

Continue across the Chesapeake Bay Bridge to Maryland’s Eastern Shore. This scenic area includes sites along the Frederick Douglass Driving Tour as well as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Scenic Byway. Highlights include the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park and the nearby Blackwater Wildlife Refuge, home to wetlands that protected freedom seekers.

End your day in one of the quaint and charming waterfront towns that dot the Eastern Shore. Find accommodations, dining and shopping in Cambridge, St. Michaels and Easton. 

Virginia

End your journey in the state that’s home to the longest continuous experience of Black life in the United States. Virginia was the site of the first English settlement in Jamestown, the capital of the Confederacy, and the centre of some of the hardest fought battles of the Civil Rights Movement. 

Start your exploration of Virginia’s African American history where it all began: Jamestown Settlement, the site of the first permanent English colony in the United States. Exhibits here describe the Powhatan Indian, English and West Central African cultures that converged in early Virginia. See the site of where some of the first enslaved peoples lived and worked. 

Nearby, Colonial Williamsburg’s year-round living-history programming, The African American Experience, examines the stories of enslaved and free Black people of the 18th century. Artefacts, exhibits, and films frame the story of the first Africans, the development of the transatlantic slave trade and African American culture. Mull over all that you’ve learned with mugs of ale at Chowning’s Tavern, an authentic pub.

Next, visit the homes of some of the country’s founding fathers. George Washington’s Mount Vernon in Fairfax County also includes collections and tours recounting the experiences of the enslaved people who lived and laboured on the estate. At James Madison’s Montpelier, The Mere Distinction of Colour display tells a holistic story of America’s past. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello in Charlottesville has The Life of Sally Hemings exhibit, where you'll learn about one of the most famous African American women in US history. 

The Jefferson School African American Heritage Center in Charlottesville features a permanent historical exhibit, a rotating contemporary art gallery, and hosts numerous events highlighting Charlottesville’s African American history and culture.

For dinner, relax with a comforting meal at Soul Food Joint or Mel’s Cafe, both locally owned and specialising in the traditional cuisine of America’s South.

Want more?

Take a civil rights tour of the Capital Region or explore America’s past with this four-day history itinerary.

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Scenic Drives
Outdoors & Nature
Tours & Trails
City Adventures
History & Culture
Attractions & Family Fun

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