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African-American Heritage Trail Highlights Another Facet of Washington DC - 2003-12-26

The capital city of the United States is also a capital of African-American culture and history, and that history is on display along the African American Heritage trail. It follows the footsteps of such legends as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar, musician Duke Ellington and singer Ella Fitzgerald along city streets, and into homes, churches and clubs.

Washington D.C. is one of the most visited cities in the Unites States. But according to Kathryn Smith, some visitors leave without discovering its hidden treasures. "We feel that people should not come here and see the wonderful things on the mall and not see the real city of Washington," she says. "Yes, we have beautiful monuments and want people to go to these monuments. But we want them to see the face behind these monuments." To make it possible for people to explore that other side of Washington, Ms. Smith's organization, Cultural Tourism D.C., published the city's first official trail guide to African-American historic sites. Ms. Smith points out that the trail winds through 15 neighborhoods, past 98 places connected to important events in black history, locations like the old City Hall.

"This is a place that witnessed the very first emancipation of enslaved people in the nation," she says. "Have you seen the office where Mary McLeod Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women and advisor to four U.S. presidents, carried out her great work on Vermont Avenue near Logan Circle? Did you know that there were more than 200,000 black soldiers in the Civil War and the only national monument to them is at 10th and U Street?"

Jazz great Duke Ellington spent his teenage years in Washington, D.C., before moving to New York in 1923 and becoming a hit in Harlem, with a band first called 'The Washingtonians.'

The Ellington home is one of the stops on the African-American Heritage Trail. Local historian Marya McQuirter says this is where he took his first step toward fame. "You can see where he lived and imagine him walking up the steps. Where he was born was his grandparents' home right below Dupont Circle. This house actually is no longer there," she explains. "There is a new building, but there is a plaque right on the building. There is the Howard Theater, which is at 7th and T, that Duke Ellington had concerts there in the 1930s. Right next to the Howard Theater was the Franks Billiard-Pool Room where Duke Ellington used to hang out."

When it opened in 1910, the Howard Theater was known as the "Theater for the People." According to historian McQuirter, the concerts, plays, and talent contests held there drew audiences and performers from around the city and across the nation, including some names you've probably heard of. "Ella Fizgerald won an early talent contest at the Howard Theater, and actually that contest helped to launch her career and helped her to become a national and international figure," she says.

Although his home isn't on the trail, Washington D.C. Mayor Anthony Williams is excited about Culture Tourism's new guide. He notes such tours are important, not only because they highlight the city's history and culture, but because they help its economic growth. "If you can get someone on a business trip to stay in our city, to come and bring their family, if we can get them to stay that additional day, that's worth millions of dollars for the city," he says. "There are jobs for people, cab drivers, and for the families. These revenues that city can use for schools, for parks, for all the things you want our city to do."

Mayor Williams says exploring the sites along the African-American Heritage trail is an opportunity to be inspired by the city's great past, and contribute to the community's future.