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The iconic D.C. restaurant that fed activists during the 1968 riots sparked by MLK’s death

February 17, 2019 at 10:00 am | Foodie Friday

Francis Akhalbey

Francis Akhalbey | Staff Writer

February 17, 2019 at 10:00 am | Foodie Friday

Left Photo: Founder's of Ben's Chili Bowl, Ben and Virginia Ali -- Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

To mark Black History Month, Face2Face Africa will be highlighting popular eateries/restaurants that are etched in black history and the roles their owners played to make them havens for African-Americans during the Civil Rights Movement and even before.

On today’s instalment, we spotlight a Washington landmark, Ben’s Chili Bowl, which is located at the popular U Street Corridor in Washington, D.C.

Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

Opened on August 22, 1958, by Trinidadian-American Ben Ali and his then-fiancée Virginia Rollins, whom he married two months later, the restaurant, which is famous for its signature half-smokes, chilli dogs and milkshakes is also historically known for the indispensable role it played during the 1968 Washington, D.C. riots which were fueled by Martin Luther King Jr.’s assassination.

A wedding photo of Ben and Virginia Ali — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

Prior to MLK’s assassination, he often visited the restaurant.

After his assassination on April 4, 1968, riots broke out across several cities in the United States with Washington being one of the most affected. Despite the dangers involved with working past curfew hours during the riots, Ben’s remained open on the request of Stokely Carmichael (Kwame Ture), who was then leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.

Ben’s in 1960 — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

After Carmichael obtained special permission to keep the eatery running after curfew, Ben’s provided food and shelter to black activists. It also opened its doors to policemen and firemen working to bring back order to the neighbourhood after the riots.

One very important thing to note about this historic restaurant is that it rose above all obstacles and remained open despite several businesses around the U Street closing down due to lack of patronization as a result of some notable incidents – the 1968 riots and the construction of the U Street-Cardozo Green Line station which began in 1987.

According to Ben’s, throughout the construction, Virginia Ali and an associate frequently kept the restaurant running.

Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

Ben’s has hosted several prominent personalities. When the U Street Corridor was known as Black Broadway,” legendary jazz musicians including Duke Ellington, Miles Davis, Ella Fitzgerald, and Nat King Cole often passed by.

U Street in the 1950s — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

The restaurant was also frequently visited by Bill Cosby and hosted then president-elect Barack Obama.

Barack Obama at Ben’s — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com

Two alleys next to the restaurant have been renamed Ben Ali Way and Virginia Ali Way respectively in the couple’s honour. Ben and Viginia have also been inducted into the D.C. Hall of Fame. Ben passed away on October 7, 2009.

Dave Chappelle at a mural unveiling at the Ben Ali Way

With other branches opened, the business is currently managed by Ben and Virginia’s sons, Kamal and Nizam Ali.

Virginia Ali — Photo Credit: Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com
Ben’s 50th Anniversary celebration — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com
Larry King at Ben’s — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com
Reverend Jesse Jackson with Virginia Ali — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com
Barack Obama at Ben’s — Photo Credit: benschilibowl.com
Ben’s — Photo via benseverything on Instagram
Ben’s — Photo via benseverything on Instagram
Ben’s — Photo via benseverything on Instagram

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