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Celebrate African American History Month

Marchers gather on the Mall to hear Martin Luther King speak.

This year's celebration of African American History Month comes on the heels of a milestone in African American history, the rise to the presidency of Barack Obama. As the eyes of the world turned to President Obama's inauguration on the steps of the U.S. Capitol, the record crowds on the National Mall evoked such historical moments as the Million Man March, Dr. King's speech to the March on Washington, and Marian Anderson's groundbreaking performance at the Lincoln Memorial.

African American history in the nation's capital is hardly limited to major events on the Mall. Home to luminaries from Frederick Douglass to Duke Ellington, Washington D.C. has long been a city with a large and vibrant African American citizenry. Government officials and industry leaders make their homes here, along with everyday people who do the city's work and give life to the city's culture.

Much of African American history in Washington D.C. can be learned from documentary evidence, but as we look back through time the limitations of such sources become more and more apparent: in the past, African Americans' lives were often poorly recorded. One way of learning more about African American history is through archeology.

Archeologists excavate the site of a former black neighborhood on the Mall.

Archeology tells about the lives of African Americans in 19th-century Washington neighborhoods. During the 1860s and 1870s, a working-class neighborhood of whites and blacks stood on the National Mall, where the National Museum of the American Indian is today. Poor African Americans and recent immigrants lived in small houses built in the alleys, similar to alley communities throughout the city. By 1892, a notorious former brothel was re-purposed as the Miner Institution, a school for African American Washingtonians, to teach necessary skills for economic independence. In 1910, the same building was rented to the Young Men's Christian Association as a YMCA for African Americans. Archeologists located the foundations of the building, ceramics, and food remains: all evidence for what life was like for African Americans in post-emancipation Washington, DC.

[photo by lonecellotheory]

Inaugural crowds walk past the White House, home and workplace of President Barack Obama.

There are African-American archeology sites throughout DC. Beyond the National Mall, head to 8th and L streets, where the Harleys and the Garrisons owned rowhouses as free people of color in the first half of the 19th century. The Union Benevolent Association purchased a small strip of land between Calvert Street and Adams Mill Road in 1870 for a 19th-century African-American and Quaker cemetery. The Association removed some of the human remains in 1890, but not all – bulldozers in the 1950s recovered additional bones and coffins. Today, the land is part of Walter Pierce Community Park.

In the future, archeology near the Capitol and the White House will investigate the Africans and African Americans who labored and lived at these iconic structures. Slavery in the District of Columbia continued until 1862. Enslaved laborers were hired out to build the Capitol and earned $5 per month for their labor. Learn more in a podcast, Built By Slaves. The White House was built by enslaved persons, and African Americans also have a long history of working inside the building. Listen to a former butler reflect on his experience.

Future archeology will testify to their roles in presidential life, even if detailed written records do not.

TSM/MJB