The Rhymes of History

Image: Marching to Black Lives Matter Plaza under Scott Circle

Two weeks ago, among the thousands who took to the streets to protest injustice and inequality, I was struck how Washington, D.C. can be so rich in history that many may not even realize it.

Those in the streets protesting under the banner of Black Lives Matter clearly recalls the Civil Rights Movement in the cause and the March on Washington in form.  Making Lafayette Square the focal point echoed hundreds of protest there over the years including those chanting and banging drums so LBJ would hear as they protested the Vietnam War.  The Lincoln Memorial is more iconic, but Lafayette Square always seems more democratic.

As D.C. residents flooded in masks down 16th Street, many of the signs from those coming from Logan Circle and Dupont referenced the Stonewall uprising that 50 years later still reverberates with this week’s Supreme Court ruling.  History’s long arc indeed.

If you walk a few more blocks up (and over) to U Street you get to Ben’s Chili Bowl, a restaurant that fed Marchers in 1963 and – at the request of Stokely Carmichael – remained opened during the unrest following Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s death in 1968.  Now, as the Corona virus hits minority communities hardest and the shutdown wrecks havoc on small businesses, Ben’s is hanging on by a thread but still part of history.

Unnoticed by most was the statue atop Scott Circle.  As the marchers came up and down 16th they passed under the memorial to Gen. Winfield Scott.  This is more on point than many may realize.  Scott was the commanding general of the U.S. Army when the civil war broke out.  Robert E. Lee was offered a command under Scott.  Lee declined the command in the U.S. Army and as a compromise offered to sit out the war rather than fight against Virginia.  Scott, a fellow Virginian, told him, “I have no place in my army for equivocal men.”  Lee did not ask to sit out the war when the Confederacy asked him to fight against what had been his army and country mere days before.  Scott would be sidelined by Lincoln by the end of 1861 and eclipsed by Grant as the most famous Union general.  Now, 160 years later, statues to Lee are finally being taken down.  Meanwhile, Scott sits as an overlooked bookend to the White House on 16th Street.

160 years later, the war fought for freedom is over, but the work remains unfinished, and as always the work falls to those in the trenches seen from above by those on horseback.  To see the history of the struggle for equality continuing is both inspiring and frustrating, and it resonates a little more deeply because this is where Marian Anderson sang,  where Josh Gibson swung his bat, where Howard Law School graduates strategized Brown v. Bd., where black-owned businesses charted their course against all odds, where one can stand near the White House and see across the river to what is now Arlington National Cemetery, but 160 years ago was the Lee estate.  To borrow from the Battle Hymn of the Republic (written here in 1861), those seeking to advance freedom are still marching on and consistent with Scott’s requirement they are not equivocal.

It is often said that history does not repeat itself, but it does sometime rhyme.  This is one of those moments.

Given all that, and looking through the prism of food and dining that we focus on, there are a few things we’d highlight if we somehow managed to stir your interest to trample out the vintage.

First, if you haven’t, support Bakers Against Racism.  This extraordinary, world-wide effort was begun by local pastry chefs here in D.C.

Second, check out Feed the Malik who has a running list of black-owned food businesses that are open.

Third, several area restaurants are doing specific fund-raising events.  Washingtonian has a list.

Fourth, as organized events build towards what will likely be a large march at the end of August, several area establishments will likely be accepting donations and supporting marchers.  Mola and Red Bear Brewing (working with Freedom Fighters DC) were both focal points on June 6th, so keep your eyes peeled for more.

Be safe.  Wear a mask.  Raise your voice because Black Lives do Matter.