Witnessing history

Published 11:21 pm Saturday, January 3, 2009

WASHINGTON — Presidents are “in” again, and that means Washington is a hot spot.

With Barack Obama moving into the White House next month and the ongoing celebration of Abraham Lincoln’s life, the nation’s capital and its many tourism sites have been thrust into the spotlight.

As the nation installs its first black president, dozens of exhibits and attractions in early 2009 are touching on the inauguration, the nation’s political and social history and its progress from the struggle for civil rights.

Obama will be inaugurated as the 44th president one day after the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday and a few weeks before the 200-year anniversary of Honest Abe’s birth on Feb. 12, 1809. The symbolism and power of history could draw millions of people to the inaugural and in the weeks that follow. For the city’s museums and memorials, this is a key moment.

Some unique sites are in the middle of Washington yet off the beaten path for most tourists. One example, the Decatur House museum, was the first neighbor of the White House built on Lafayette Square in 1818. The house, once an unofficial residence for secretaries of state, includes slave quarters within steps of the White House — though they usually go unnoticed amid the hustle of the city.

“It’s a sensitive subject. It’s an important subject, though,” museum director Cindi Malinick said of an exhibit on black history in the White House neighborhood. “The more we discuss it and discuss … how these people lived and worked and got through their lives, I think the better off we all will be as a society.”

Decatur House, now administered by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, holds one of the few remaining examples of what urban slavery was like in 19th century America, Malinick said.

It was there that 15 members of the King and Williams families lived together in three rooms on the second floor of a building located behind the red-brick house. They were considered the property of John Gadsby, owner of the National Hotel in the 1800s. Gadsby was said to have made a fortune in the slave trade.

A 2002 renovation uncovered the original floor, walls and fireplaces of the slave quarters, which are on view in the exhibit, “The Half Had Not Been Told Me: African Americans on Lafayette Square.” The title of the exhibit is drawn from a Frederick Douglass quote; the show remains on view through at least March. Reservations are recommended for the $5 tour. “Certainly, given the magnitude of the new president that’s coming, this is a really special place,” Malinick said.

Other attractions include the National Museum of American History, Lincoln Bicentennial, the Civil Rights exhibit and Inaugural Balls.