During the nineteeth century, Washington, D.C. was considered so unbearably warm and humid during the summer months that foreign diplomats received hardship pay for serving there. Now, the district holds a worldwide reputation as a cosmopolitan city rich in museums, monuments, culture and political power. From the hill where the U.S. Capital sites, to Embassy Row, home to much of the foreign diplomatic corps in Washington, the wide avenues chum with the business of America. With more than 2,000 foreign diplomats posted to Washington, the city exudes an international flavor. But Washington, D.C. is also a city of contradictions. Although it serves as the seat of the federal government, it was also the nation's "murder capital" in the 1990s, with the highest homicide rate in the country: 45.8 murders per 100,000 residents in 2002. Just blocks away from the affluence of the Capital district are some of the country's poorest neighborhoods, such as the Shaw East neighborhood or Anacostia which lies across the Potomac. It is these contraditions that we will try to capture this year as we explore our nation's seat of history. 

Urban and Regional History

Founded on July 16, 1790, Washington, D.C. is unique among American cities because it was established by the Constitution of the United States to serve as the nation's capital. You can read the actual line at the National Archives. The city increased dramatically as a result of the Civil War and post-war Washington experienced substantial expansion, eventually absorbing nearby Georgetown and surrounding rural areas beyond L'Enfant's original plans. In 1901, the city proposed the McMillan Plan, which set out to fully complete L'Enfant's original designs. This included a redesign and expansion of the National Mall, now the crown jewel of DC. 

Today, it remains a vibrant and culturally diverse city today. The city is rich with international cultures, African American heritage and culture and it's also one of America's most gay-friendly cities. In fact, DC recognized same-sex marriage in 2010, before the Supreme Court, nearby, ruled that it was a right in 2015. After more than 200 years as the nation's capital, Washington has developed as a complex and layered city, with a distinctive character: both a town for locals, an international center of power and an amazing place to visit.

Public History

Washington DC's place as the center of political power and site of significant historical events has also made it dense with museums and historical sites telling these stories. Millions of people, from familiesto serious researchers consume history some 40 museums and more than 150 historical sites--most of them free of charge. The Library of Congress is the nation's oldest federal cultural institution and serves as the research arm of Congress. It is also the largest library in the world, with onver 142 million items and a permanent staff of more than 3,600 employees. Any visit to Washington usually includes the Mall, the long strip of open park land between Capital Hill and the Lincoln Memorial which is surrounded by memorials and flanked by the campus of Smithsonian Museums which interpret nearly every facet of American history and culture -- from the African American experince to the study of the nation's flora. The National Archives displays copies of the Declaration of Independence, the U.S. Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, plus other key documents in U.S. history.

LGBTQ+ History

Washington, D.C. has a vibrant gay history that dates back more than a hundred years. Since the late nineteenth century, a planned park system provided relatively safe spaces in which both Black and white men could pursue same-sex relationships. One earliest documented drag events in the United States occurred in the capital in 1892. Since the early twentieth century, numerous bars and restaurants attract a mostly gay, and exclusively white, patrons. Because of racial segregation, African Americans socialized primarily within the city's Black neighborhoods and developed a rich tradition of gathering in domestic spaces that continued even after the creation of more public social spaces such as Nob Hill. When the iconic landmark closed in 2004, the Kenyon Street bar was oldest Black gay institution in the country.

African American History

Washington also presents a unique chance to consider the lives of African Americans within a large, southern Black community and segregated environment that still exists today. Washington is much more than the nation's capital, devoid of any regional affiliation. For decades, the district's location and its population-a majority of whom had resettled from southern states- situated D.C. firmly in the South. In fact, because of the termendous influx of southern migrants, the capital had the largest Black population of any major U.S. city int he late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, with substantial Black communities in all four sections of the city. This rich African-American legacy can be found all over the nation's capital. Historic Anacostia, contains some of the oldest of the city's black history landmarks. But the imprint of African Americans on the district can be seen along U Street, near the Shaw neighborhood, and on the Mall itself.

Travel Expedition:

Here's a preview of the people and places that some of our students will see on the travel expedition.

African Americans in the Nation's Capital

The Frederick Douglass National Historic Site preserves and interprets Cedar Hill, where Frederick Douglass lived from 1877 until his death in 1895. Our students will visit the site Douglas family's historic house, which sits on top of a 50-foot hill and eight acres of the original estate. Restored to its 1895 appearance, the house is furnished with original objects that belonged to Frederick Douglass and other household members which we will see as part of our guided tour by the National Park Service.


In its early years, Georgetown was an independent tobacco and shipping port that received large shipments of Maryland's tobacco crop. Slave trading was banned in the federal district in the mid-nineteenth century, but the lucrative practive continued in Georgetown. From 1900 to 1910, federal employees began to settle in Georgetown. Housing became more competitive and expensive which drove out many lower earning African Americans who had been living in the area. When we visit Georgetown, students will learn of the diverse history of one of DC's most interesting neighborhoods with a tour of historic Dumbarton, the Exorcist steps, and what is believed to be one of the District oldest structures.

Library of Congress

The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center collects, preserves, and makes accessible the personal accounts of American veterans so that future generations may hear directly from veterans and better understand the realities of war. During the winter 2018 semester, students enrolled in introduction to Public Hisotry will interview student veterans at the University of Michigan-Flint. When we visit Washington, we will take those interview to the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress where they will reside with the rest of their collection. During our visit, we will be treated to a special tour of the Library of Congress where students will get their own Library of Congress Library Card.