A Day in D.C. – The National Mall and the African American History Museum in Washington

In my experience, most national capital cities are interesting. There are normally a couple of good museums, some sort of public street art or statuesque monuments; the vibe is diverse and metropolitan. Washington D.C. takes the idea of a capital city to a whole new level. And while I may not have had long to explore D.C., I learned that you can pack in a ton of things to do in a short amount of time!

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In the days following the Women’s March on Washington, Mom and I stayed pretty close to my cousin Judy’s home in Northern Virginia. We went jean and bra shopping (#livingabroadproblems) and the three of us watched a lot of Rachel Maddow. On our last day in the area, the three of us headed into the city for a bit of exploring before Mom and I flew out the next day.

The good thing about Washington is that most of the sights are right around the National Mall. A designated National Park, the Mall is home to the biggest and most famous of all the national monuments, as well as the Capital Building, the White House, numerous Smithsonian Museums, and that famous scene in Forrest Gump (JENNY!).

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A trek around the Mall might take you a few hours, and you will put some mileage on your Fitbit, but even if you’re not American, you’ll likely get patriotic, nostalgic and probably end up wanting to read a past president’s biography.

Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial

We started at a couple of the newer’ish monuments on the Tidal Basin, slightly south of the Mall. First up was the Franklin D. Roosevelt Memorial, a sprawling and maze-like stone structure that weaves from his first to fourth term. A nod to Roosevelt’s disability, the monument is completely wheelchair accessible.  We started at the wrong end, so we went back in time, from the end of World War II through the New Deal and the Great Depression. During the summer, the entire memorial is a fountain with water running throughout, though in January, the National Park service wisely keeps the water in the pipes. The FDR monument opened in 1997 and I found some of FDR’s quotes that have been etched in stone especially striking in this political climate.

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Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

Equally formidable and stirring is the MLK Jr. Memorial, unveiled only in 2011. Gazing out at the Tidal Basin, a massive carving of MLK emerges from a broken ‘side of the mountain’. Surrounded by MLK quotes (again very poignant on a day that the American government is putting a Mexican Wall into action), the MLK memorial reminded me that his life and times were so incredibly recent, and that no liberties we have are all too stable unless we stand strong and continue to fight for them.

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Korean War Memorial

Moving towards the main body of the Mall and the Reflecting Pool, we stopped by the Korean War Memorial, a moving tribute to the men and women from both the US and the United Nations who fought in 1950-1953. The statues of very wet looking troops fighting their way through jungle brush are reflected against a shiny black marble wall upon which the faces of further troops are etched. We did have a quick talk about M.A.S.H. while we searched for the faces of medics and the women, who doesn’t like M.A.S.H?

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Lincoln Memorial

Perhaps the most famous and most important in the social history of the United States, the Lincoln Memorial marks the western end of the Mall. With its imposing Grecian columns and 57 stairs to climb, you can actually feel the history at the Lincoln Memorial. This is where MLK made his ‘I have a Dream Speech’ during the 1963 March on Washington. Countless other demonstrations, marches, protests and speeches have been made from the steps of the memorial; Lincoln really is where free speech comes home. One of my favorite events was in 1939 when woman of color and notable singer Marian Anderson was supposed to sing in Constitution Hall, but due to segregationist laws, the theatre owners (the DAR) blocked her from entering the building.  Instead, she sang publicly to 75,000 people from the steps of the Memorial and with the go ahead by FDR himself. 

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Inside the dominating structure is an equally imposing statue of Lincoln himself. Stoic as ever, as if gazing out onto the mall keeping an eye on all of those politicians. Carved on the inside walls of the cavernous temple are the transcripts from Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, which speaks of equality, the end of oppression, and opportunity for all. Hmmm…this day is taking a certain thematic focus…

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Albert Einstein Memorial

Just off the Mall, not too many people know about Einstein, much less visit him. This memorial is my Cousin Judy’s favourite, and for very good reason. Unadorned, humble, but robust with meaning, you can find Einstein just north of Lincoln in front of the National Academy of Sciences building. He is sitting, rather disheveled in his sandals, taking some notes and being more or less brilliant. Albert is casually chilling on oversized stone steps, surrounded by the cosmos map laid out on the ground. If you stand on a certain point on the map, Einstein appears to look you in the eye and your voice will bounce back to you.

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Vietnam War Memorial

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Not your average war memorial, huge controversy accompanied the design and construction of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Many didn’t want it erected at all due to the widespread unpopularity of the war. Then once the design was published, many felt it was not enough, that it did not properly exhibit the experience of the war. In my opinion, the memorial does exactly what a war memorial should do: focus on the men and women who sacrificed their lives to the cause.

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The memorial is a 90 degree wall, one end pointing to Lincoln and the other to the Washington Monument. The panels of the wall get taller as you descend towards the middle, and with each panel more and more names of fallen soldiers appear on the panels. Every name of every American who died in the Vietnam War appears on the wall, in the order in which they were lost. While you read the names, every so often your eyes will shift and see your own reflection, pointing to the ultimate gift the military of the past gives all of us to this day. To find a particular person, there are name books where you can figure out one which panel is that soldiers personal tribute.

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Adjacent to the wall are two other parts of the Memorial, the Vietnam Women’s Memorial and the Three Servicemen Statue. Both show scenes of the experience of war, and the action that was taken by different Americans.

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World War II Memorial

If the Vietnam Memorial is everything I think a tribute to fallen soldiers should be, the World War II memorial is the exact opposite. Located at the eastern end of the Reflecting Pool nearest to the Washington Monument, the World War II memorial is humongous, audacious, and screams brash patriotism.

Designed and erected right after 9/11, this Memorial is made up of massive columns representing all 50 states, circling an oval fountain. The columns are adorned with huge wreaths, while the tall cubes representing the Atlantic and Pacific theatres have rather savage looking eagles circling skyward.   I’m sure a lot of people think this memorial is suitable, it is a pretty classic representation of what a victor of war would see as emblematic to their success. Nevertheless, after the true tribute of the Vietnam Memorial, this one appears to be impersonal and overcompensating… My opinion.

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Washington Monument

The center of the Mall and really the key symbol of the city of Washington, D.C., the Washington Monument stands tall halfway between the Lincoln Memorial and the Capital. The construction of the massive obelisk actually began before the Civil War in 1848, but due to more pressing matters, namely ending slavery and uniting the country, it was put on ice. In 1877 construction recommenced, hence the slight difference in colored stone between the bottom third and the rest of the tower. Finally it was entirely completed in 1888.

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I actually went up the Monument 20 years back when my Mom brought me at the age of 12, but this time we stayed on firm ground. There is an elevator, so visitors looking for the view need not do the stairs, which is good, because the thing is 169 meters high.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

Newly opened in summer of 2015, the inclusion of this museum in our day shows how lucky we were. Tickets for this new Smithsonian Museum are sold out for months. Luckily, my Mom is great at Google and found out that there are two ways to get last minute entrance: 1) Go on the website at 6:30am and get leftover timed tickets for that day; or 2) Line up at the Museum at 12:30pm and hope to get rush tickets starting at 1pm. We tried the former, no dice. Then we tried the latter, and BOOM! Tickets in hand we were through security and exploring.

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Unfortunately, starting this museum at 1pm isn’t the greatest plan. The museum is huge, with so much to see, watch, and read even a full day wouldn’t really be enough to see it all. Because we were on a time crunch, we headed for the café (first things first, that café is fantastic by the way!) and then on to the Historical floors. We focused on the Reconstruction (post-Civil War) and segregation years, featuring the fight for civil rights until the 1970’s. The next floor up was the post-Jim Crow Era up until Obama himself. Despite my 4th year university African American History class, the museum showed so much more to learn it made me feel entirely uneducated.

National Museum of African American History & Culture

Even just those two floors took us 2 hours, and we were restraining ourselves from reading everything. I honestly think this museum could take 2 full days. So much of the content, presented in simultaneously beautiful and heart wrenching ways, brings you into that time, with voices of history reminding us once again how real the inequality was, and how oppression does indeed exist to this day.

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After the historical floors, we scooted up to the very top floor, which is focused on everything culture: music, food, art, style, theatre, dance, television, language, comedy, and film. Chuck Barry’s bright red Cadillac has a place of honor while dresses, films, movie posters, crafts, musical recordings and set recreations bring the many sides of African American culture to life. Again, it would take hours to actually get through everything on display in the Cultural exhibition, not to mention the Community exhibition on the next floor down. But we did what we could. I guess we are just going to have to go back!

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All in all, The Museum of African American History and Culture is truly spectacular. Though it could have easily become a museum of apology, this beautiful museum is of the utmost in historical significance, tribute, and memory. Often tragic and ugly, the Museum features the men and women who fought against oppression and hate, and who gave rise to the future of the movement that is today.

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Visit Washington D.C.’s National Mall

By the time we needed to get to our train, I was wiped out. My feet felt like they had ran another half-marathon, but that’s probably more because my sneakers are slightly too small. My fault.

I have been lucky enough to see the Mall a couple of times now, once when I was a kid and now twice as an adult, and I always enjoy wandering the memorials. Visiting the Museum was a massive win-the-lottery kind of opportunity and even though we needed far more time, I’m really glad I got to check it out.

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What is your favorite memorial on the Mall? Which Smithsonian should be next on my list?

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Spend a day exploring the National Mall in Washington D.C. and come face to face with memorable memorials and the brand new African American Museum

2 thoughts on “A Day in D.C. – The National Mall and the African American History Museum in Washington

  1. I won’t say that I hate the WW2 memorial, but I echo your sentiments. In comparison to the almost spiritual atmosphere of the Vietnam Veteran’s Memorial it is hopelessly brash and ugly.

    The Wall is definitely a favourite, but I think the nearby Lincoln Memorial presents much of the best of American ideals. The long flight of marble steps on an icy January day presented a little challenge, but I enjoyed the experience at the top.

    The best Smithsonian? Oh my! They are all superb in their own ways.

    1. Hi Pete!
      I definitely agree about your assessment of the Wall being ‘almost spiritual’! I have been to the Wall 3 times in my life now and every time it hits me and leaves me very moved. I’m a big fan of Lincoln as well, they have a great little museum area to the south of the staircase with some history, info on the construction and the importance it has played in social movements through the eras.

      Cheers,
      Emily

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