Thank you to Grubhub for featuring Ben’s Chili Bowl in an exclusive video this Black History Month!
By 1955, DC became the first major American-city majority Black. Our city was an inviting destination for African Americans fleeing a hostile South during the Great Migration. By 1960, we became the first major American-city voting majority Black. There was no stopping Black progress by the early 1960s when civil rights leaders in The Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) and The Southern Christian Leader Conference (SCLC) had their offices across the street from Ben’s Chili Bowl and down the street, respectively. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. established his Poor People’s Campaign headquarters around the corner from Ben’s at 14th & T. Ben’s had already showed its commitment to the community by feeding organizers of the 1963 March on Washington, the civil right movement through the 60s and the Poor People’s Campaign in 1967-68. But then tragedy struck on April 4. The King of Peace was assassinated. All Hades broke loose. Ben’s was the only business permitted to stay open during four days of federally imposed curfew because community leaders and government officials jointly needed a place to eat, meet and quell the rebellion.
Fire, anger and death were loosened on America’s Black Mecca. Blocks were burned out along 14th, 7th, U Street and H St., NE. Darkness fell on the lights of the Black Broadway. It took years to clean up the ugly, smelly, charred mess. People and businesses fled. Few ventured on U Street thereafter. As if to pour salt on this open wound, drugs, crime and violence followed in the 80s. It was dark and dangerous just to walk down the street. But the late 80s proved even more devastating. Metro construction opened a 60 foot canyon along U Street for five long, dusty, dirty years. One could not even walk down U Street, literally. You had to enter Ben’s from the back alley. Still it stayed open.
Those once bustling Black businesses became shuttered. By mid-1990s, only five Black businesses survived the 1968 onslaught: The Prince Hall Black Masons, Industrial Bank, Lee’s Florist & Card Shop, The Howard Theatre (sporadically) and Ben’s. They stayed open heroically. They survived. Now they thrive. Today, those everyday-people who stayed and persevered struggle to stay in the Mecca they built. Honor them. Let us keep them here!
Read more about DC’s history in our special 60th Anniversary blog post “Ben’s Chili Bowl’s 60th is a Birthday For All DC”, written by Bernard Demczuk, Ph.D., Ben’s Historian and Chair of the Ben’s Chili Bowl Foundation.