Families Enjoyed Day Despite Heightened Security
The National Zoo's African-American Family Day has been a longstanding tradition for many, including Angeletta Paige of Oxon Hill, Md. She's attended the annual event with her son, Jeremy for the past 21 years and enjoys the panoply of sights and scenes associated with the day.
"I just like [coming] to these events and we always have a good time. We just have to keep it going," she said.
Paige and her family arrived 30 minutes before the first of many scheduled events got underway on Easter Monday and before the throng of school-aged children and teenagers from across the city converged on the zoo grounds.
Safety stayed at the forefront of Paige's mind.
"You always have to worry about innocent people like children and pregnant women," said Paige, 53. "When an incident happens, who's going to pay for that?"
At last year's African-American Family Day, it was less than 30 minutes after the Paige family left when a brawl ensued between a group of teenagers that put one in jail and another suffering from multiple stub wounds. As a result, the zoo was evacuated. A mob formed on Connecticut Avenue, causing a huge disturbance, helping themselves to merchandise from a store in the business district and forcing businesses to close early.
The incident came as no surprise to Paige.
"There's always something gang-related up here. We always try to leave before something happens," Paige said.
The incident caused D.C. Mayor Vincent Gray (D) to call for increased security and more coordination between District police and other various law enforcement agencies.
African-American Family Day has been a tradition for black families in the District since 1891 when they weren't allowed to participate in the annual Easter Egg Hunt at the White House. It has since then become a staple springtime event in the city that attracts thousands from all over the area and other parts of the country. Zoo officials said, approximately 25,000 visitors were expected to attend this year's events.
After a 10-year hiatus from the city, Amira James, 31, made the trip from Norfolk, Va., to attend family day at the zoo. There's something for everyone, she said.
"I like all of this because there's something for everyone to do. The little children, the big kids and the older people," she said, smiling.
In advance of the large influx of visitors, several Metro Transit police officers served as sentries outside the Woodley Park-Zoo/Adams Morgan Metro entrance. In addition, Metropolitan Police Department vehicles lined Connecticut Avenue between the Metro station and the main zoo entrance. Inside the zoo, Distict police and National Zoo officers patrolled the premises on foot and zipped among the crowd on Segways. Undercover officers were on the lookout for any signs of trouble, while, three first aid stations were set up throughout the zoo in case visitors required medical attention.
"When you have a crowd and you have teenagers and there are kids you need heightened security," said Linda St. Thomas, a spokesperson for the Smithsonian Institution. "Some people [attended] because they knew it was African-American Family Day and others knew nothing about it," she said.
Visitors quickly noted the heightened security at the zoo.
"[It's] 40 minutes into my visit and I have seen eight police officers," said Rio Taylor, 25 of Norfolk, Va. He and several of his classmates from Job Corps in Monroe, Va., drove up to attend African-American Family Day.
"[There are] all kinds of police officers. Even the ones on horses posted down by the Chinese alligators," Taylor said.
Children were among the few who didn't notice this year's changes. Adrain Miller, 38, watched her son Aaron Moorer, 12, play double-dutch along with other children in a jump rope activity hosted by the National Double-Dutch League. Miller said that she almost decided not to attend the event this year but the numerous activities available for her three children, three nephews, and their friend left her little choice.
"We came to see the pandas, and all the other animals," said Miller. "The plan was to come early before the bad stuff happened. We were going to the White House for the Easter Egg Roll but the kids don't want to leave."
Desa Foster, 37, recently moved to the District from Atlanta. She felt that African-American Family Day was the best place to take her son Ja-Kobe Wiggins, 13, and her father Leroy Foster, 65, who traveled from Atlanta for the Easter holiday.
"We came here because there were a lot of animals and it was free, unlike in Atlanta where it's $25 per head," Foster said.
Letonya Hocker, 38, from Bowling Green, Ky., also decided to bring her sons to D.C. during their Spring Break. She watched intently along with the rest of the crowd as her oldest tried to win a very close game of tug-of-war. It was Hocker's first visit to the District and to the National Zoo.
She said attending this year's African-American Family Day meant more to her than just having fun.
"We were looking for things to do. I knew I wanted to go because I like to [attend events] that feature African Americans," Hocker said.
Tug-of-war Referee Chereanne Johnson, 41, organizes the tug-of-war games on African-American Family Day for Ultimate Fun and Games, a business based in Montgomery County, Md. She said it's her fourth year refereeing and recalls mostly positive experiences during the annual event.
"Last year's situation was just wack so it's good that we can all have a good time," Johnson said.