Michelle Armstead enjoyed last year's African American Heritage Tour so much that she returned for this year's installment.
Once again, the Montgomery County resident said, the tour – sponsored by The Washington Informer – went well beyond what she expected.
"My expectations were very high and they were exceeded," said Armstead, who was one of 30 Kaiser Permanente employees and 250 area residents who participated in the tour. "I'm always curious to visit places I haven't seen before, especially in my hometown. I liked how well the African-American soldiers performed when they weren't expected to. I can't help but see the irony of treating people like chattel property."
Armstead was referring to a documentary DVD, Fight for Freedom, produced by the The African American Civil War Memorial and Museum, which was screened prior to the group's departure to several sites in the city, including to the museum. The program detailed the bravery, dedication and sacrifices by enslaved Africans and others who despite enjoying freedom joined Union forces to battle those who sought to keep them in chains.
The Feb. 18 tour coincides with the Sesquicentennial of the Civil War. One hundred and fifty years ago, said bus tour owner John Best, America was torn apart by the gravest crisis the country has ever faced.
"This company was started in 1979 with the sole purpose of promoting black history, to impart knowledge and show the dignity and magnificence of our history," Best said of his business, Capital Entertainment Services and Tours.
David Bowers, several mentors and other members of the 100 Black Men of Washington's Saturday Leadership Academy, brought a group of their charges to soak up the day's activities. He spoke of the importance of exposing young people to their history, culture and heritage.
"It's the first time we've done the tour. It was very good, great information, a nice mix – speakers, the tour, walking through the museum," said Bowers, vice president and Washington, D.C. impact market leader for Enterprise Community Partners, Inc. "It was a good day and good fun."
"I appreciate the emphasis of all the speakers of the necessity of people knowing their history and their culture. I was lifted up today with some pretty easy to digest information. I recently watched The Loving Story on HBO. It is a reminder of the legal and cultural barriers African-Americans continue to fight for – equal opportunity and justice. It is a reminder that people have had to give their lives so that America could become what its documents said it could be," Bowers said.
Guests gathered at The Town Hall Education Arts Recreation Center (THEARC) in Southeast for a continental breakfast, to register and watch the museum documentary.
This month, a sub-theme to Black History Month is a focus on black women and their leadership, particularly in politics and in the civic, social and economic life of this country.
D.C. Council Chairman Kwame R. Brown, after spending time greeting constituents, posing for pictures and encouraging the young people, reflected on that theme.
"Denise has done a phenomenal job," he said of the newspaper's publisher, Denise Rolark Barnes. "Black History Month should be every day. A strong black woman was dragged to the shoreline, dragged to a castle, dragged on a boat, saw people dying all around her. (Then when she got here), she picked cotton. But God is a good God. Mentally, a lot of people couldn't handle it. I thank God that she endured. It's because of that strong black woman why we're here."
Ron Burke, the Informer's advertising manager introduced Barnes and representatives of the event's sponsors. The sponsors were PEPCO, the D.C. Lottery and Kaiser Permanente.
" ... I see a lot of young people here and a lot of them are not connected to their roots," Burke said. "Yeah, they say we live in a post-racial world and everything, but no matter who you are, you need to stay connected to your culture and heritage."
Burke also pointed out the Informer's significance of being a woman-owned publication and lauded the sponsor representatives, all of whom were women. Participants won raffle prizes and others received gift bags from D.C. Lottery representative Angela Copeland after answering questions about the women who have served in District politics.
Other sponsors included Southwest Airlines and Verizon Wireless, who were both returning for the second year, along with Pepco and Kaiser Mid-Atlantic. All of the sponsors provided gift bag items and as a surprise for the attendees, Southwest Airlines gave away four roundtrip tickets to any of their destinations in the continental U.S.
On the bus ride to the Civil War Museum in Northwest, six bus loads of passengers passed through Historic Anacostia, gazed at the home of Frederick Douglass from a distance. The 21-room Victorian structure built in 1852 is also known as Cedar Hill. They also learned about Douglass, dubbed the Sage of Anacostia, whose skills and abilities included orator, author, publisher and diplomat. He escaped from slavery as a young man to become America's moral conscience and one of the country's staunchest defenders of freedom for his enslaved brothers and sisters.
Buses also slowed at Lincoln Park so that the riders could see the Emancipation statue of Abraham Lincoln freeing an enslaved man, and one of Mary McLeod Bethune, the most powerful black woman in the country, particularly during Franklin Roosevelt's presidency. She was an educator, philanthropist and mentor to generations of young black girls and women.
A close friend of Eleanor Roosevelt, Bethune founded the National Council of Negro Women in 1935 and Bethune-Cookman College in Daytona Beach, Fla. which she opened in 1904 as the Daytona Educational and Industrial Training School for Negro Girls. Bethune started with $1.50, faith in God that the institution would succeed and five girls for students. Hers is the second statue in the District to honor a woman, Tour Guide Tamika Harris explained.
Participants heard more about the American Civil War (1861-65) and Harris offered tidbits about Washington at war. For example, she said, the Anacostia River forms a natural defense against any attempts to invade Washington, D.C. Harris talked about the layout of the city and the roles of Benjamin Banneker and Major Pierre Charles L'Enfant. Banneker was appointed as a surveyor in 1791 by George Washington to assist L'Enfant, the chief architect of the project. It is said that L'Enfant could not control his temper and was fired. He left, taking all the plans with him, but Banneker saved the project by recreating the plans from memory.
Banneker was an astronomer, farmer, scientist, clockmaker, mathematician and writer whose sheer genius and versatility helped dispel the commonly held myth that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites.
After strolling through the museum and listening to remarks from museum Founder and Director Frank Smith, the group headed back to THEARC for lunch.
Margaret Dunnigan and her four grandchildren attended the tour. The Capital Heights, Md., resident said she had a ball on this her first tour, adding that she plans to return.
"I enjoyed it very much," said the 72-year-old retired postal employee. "I didn't have any expectations but I learned so much. I got to see a lot of D.C. I don't usually see. I would encourage everyone to come for themselves and take part in the tour."
Ibrahim Mumin agreed.
"It was excellent. In fact I was motivated after participating in the tour to do something like this in my neighborhood," said Mumin, an economic development specialist and Shaw resident. "I was happy to see that the attendees were intergenerational. There were grandmothers, parents and children. We're always looking for ways to pass on the culture and this is a great way."
"Mr. Best is a treasure. He is so knowledgeable. He's very special. Because we live in D.C., we take a lot for granted and don't realize that a lot of newcomers don't know anything, but we haven't done enough to make it clear to them what we have here."