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.
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.
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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.
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.
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.
The restaurant was also frequently visited by Bill Cosby and hosted then president-elect Barack Obama.
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.
With other branches opened, the business is currently managed by Ben and Virginia’s sons, Kamal and Nizam Ali.