After Six Decades, Ben’s Chili Bowl Faces Its Greatest Challenge Yet: CoronavirusBreaking News
tags: African American history, civil rights movement, Washington DC, restaurant
“Community” is a word Virginia says nearly two dozen times as we talk. The community, she says, welcomed the restaurant when it opened on Black Broadway — a fulcrum of African-American life in the city — with artists such as Duke Ellington, Sarah Vaughan and Johnny Mathis stopping by after performances at the nearby Howard Theatre or Lincoln Theatre ballroom. The restaurant fed attendees of the 1963 March on Washington. And the Alis were there on April 4, 1968, when someone ran into the shop to announce Martin Luther King Jr. had been shot.
“The tears were everywhere. Everybody’s crying. Everybody’s so sad. And just not able to comprehend what’s going on,” Virginia says. “Finally, that sadness turned into frustration. And the frustration turned to anger. And the uprising began.”
Ben’s stayed open and unharmed during the unrest that tore through the neighborhood over the next four days. Stokely Carmichael, head of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, requested that the Chili Bowl remain open and serve food past the city-mandated curfew. The city obliged, Virginia says.
“We were the safe place for the first responders, for the police officers, the firemen and even the activists — everybody felt safe coming into the Chili Bowl,” Virginia says. “That was stressful, to just say the least. It was very stressful to see your neighborhood going up in flames.”
While the restaurant had no “official” role as a center for community-organizing during the civil rights struggles of the 1960s, it did serve as an informal gathering place, says John DeFerrari, author of Historic Restaurants of Washington D.C.: Capital Eats. Carmichael regularly had meetings there.
“It was a place that everyone knew. Everyone loved the food there, and people did meet there,” DeFerrari says. “Ben and Virginia Ali were definitely very connected with the community. So Ben’s definitely served as a kind of social glue for the African-American community in those years.”