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The African American Heritage Trail of Washington DC

Yarrow Mamout, a devout Muslim, had a hauling business through the 1790’s. By 1800 he had earned enough to buy a house in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington DC.

From the get-go, African Americans have been a vital part of the life and growth of the nation’s capital.

When Mamout bought his house in 1800 over 25 percent of the population of Washington DC was black and 20 percent of that population were freemen and women. The number of free African Americans in the city continued to grow, building churches, hotels, educational institutions, businesses and demanding abolition.

(Check out this video reconstruction of Washington DC in 1814)

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Washington DC grew on me.

It wasn’t an instant love affair, I have to admit, but over the course of nearly two dozen visits it became, hands down, one of my favorite cities and I can’t wait to get back there.

Regular visitors to this site know, I’m a walker. I learn about places by exploring on foot and Washington DC is one of the most walkable cities. In my opinion, walking is the best way to experience some of the great things the American capitol has to offer. Over the course of my visits, I find the place I want to be in the city and then I come up with several of my own historically interesting walks.

Remember, Location, Location, Location.

National Geographic has a fabulous historical tour of Georgetown and DC Vacations offers their own multi-day self-guided tours that are excellent.

Perhaps my newest favorite walking tour is the African American Heritage Trail. Free, self-guided and well-designed. Many, but not all sites marked with a plaque.

African American Heritage Trail
“African American women and men joined the war effort working at hospitals, on the battlefield, and with relief organizations such as the United States Christian Commission. Their service was critical to the care and comfort of wounded soldiers.”
Courtesy Library of Congress

The trail gets to a rather impressive number of African American history highlights.

Did you know that in 1848, 77 free and enslaved adults and children attempted, unsuccessfully, the nation’s largest single slave escape aboard the schooner Pearl?  Did you know that Congress passed the District of Columbia Emancipation Act on April 16, 1862?  That act made Washington DC slaves the first freed in the nation, a full nine months before President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation.  Did you know that DC already had the first black municipal office holder in 1868?

By 1900, DC was the city with the largest percentage of African Americans in the country.

Because of segregation, the African American community in DC created an impressive and self-sufficient educational system. Howard University, which has been founded in 1867, became a magnet for African American thinkers and students, becoming the place for African American education in the nation by 1930.

african american heritage trail
“The Howard University Law School class of 1900 poses in front a store front. Howard was one of the premier black universities in the United States in the late 19th century. Representative John Langston, who served in the 51st Congress, served as the law school dean from 1869 to 1876.”
Courtesy Library of Congress

Businesses thrived too.

James Wormley opened the Wormley Hotel in 1871 at the corner of 15th & H NW.  The Wormley become the place to be for the up and coming and the movers and shakers of the community. Known for an impressive sea food menu, the hotel sported the first hotel elevator and telephone in the city.

The tragic 1919 mob attacks of whites on the African American residents of the city are also marked.

Cultural Tourism DC points out that:

“By 1975 African Americans were politically and culturally leading the city with more than 70 percent of the population. The Black Arts, Black Power, Women’s, and Statehood movements flowered here. Indeed, Marion Barry, who succeeded Washington as mayor, began his public life here as a leader of local justice movements. There were independent think tanks, schools, bookstores, and repertory companies. Go-go (DC’s home-grown version of funk) as well as jazz, blues, and salsa, resonated from clubs, parks, recreation centers, and car radios. With the uniting of political activism and creativity, African Americans were transforming the city once again.”

African American Heritage Trail
“DC Mayor Vincent Gray poses with fellow H Streeters Preston Herald, Jr., and Marquis Lyons at the unveiling of Hub, Home, Heart: Greater H Street NE Heritage Trail, September 15, 2012.”
Photo Courtesy

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From Benjamin Banneker, Fredrick Douglass, the great Martin Luther King Jr., to President Obama, the history of African Americans in the nation’s capital is rich.

The African American Heritage Trail is a “create your own” type of self-guided tour.  I have to admit, I haven’t done the whole thing.  Next time I’m in DC I’ll do another chunk.

african american heritage trail
One of the plaque’s on the trail.

With over 200 sites on the trail, you can search the online database  to either find a particular site or type of site such as architecture, cemeteries or Civil War. OR, you can click on one of the series of links on the database page to search by neighborhood.

Finally, you can download this free booklet that covers 98 of the most interesting sites, complete with maps and photos.

Copies of the booklet can also be found at:

Cultural Tourism DC, 1250 H Street, NW, Suite 1000, the African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, 1200 U Street, NW, or at the Frederick Douglass House, 1411 W Street, SE.

Walk on!





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