[Note: This is a guest post contributed by JoAnn Hill, a DC area educator and author of the book “Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.” ]
A carousel’s connection to the Civil Rights Movement, an accidental shooting by the US army, an anti-dancing law that rivals the injustices of Footloose, world-renowned graffiti, and a science-touting statue that just might make you smarter… these lesser-known, feel-good, and bizarre stories are just waiting to be explored on and around the infamous National Mall.
Below are five fascinating stories to uncover at familiar sites on your explorations around the National Mall. Check out local DC author JoAnn Hill’s book Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure to learn more about the hidden histories below as well as to discover dozens of additional gems and off-the-beaten path locales in and around the Washington, DC area.
Carousel on the National Mall
“Round and Round: A Carousel Takes a Turn into the Civil Rights Movement”
For decades, the National Mall’s iconic carousel has been a prominent fixture on the city’s most popular strip of grassy land. The carousel, however, is much more than an exuberant ride; it also serves as a hopeful window into the Civil Rights Movement.
On August 28, 1963, Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. delivered his powerful “I Have a Dream” speech before a crowd of some 250,000 people during the March on Washington. On that same day, about 45 miles away outside of Baltimore, Gwynn Oak Amusement Park discontinued segregation. An 11-month-old baby named Sharon Langley was the first African American child to go on a ride there and rode the classic carousel, which was originally located in the park, along with two white children. The three children riding the carousel together exemplified King’s message of integration and racial harmony.
In 1981, the famous carousel made its way to its new home on the National Mall when a Smithsonian concessionaire purchased it, unaware of its historical significance. Seven years later, Donna and Stan Hunter purchased the special carousel and have owned and operated it ever since.
Read All About It: Learn more about how the beloved carousel reflects Civil Rights history on pages 74-75 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Thing to Know: Unfortunately, the Carousel is currently closed due to Covid.
Where: The Carousel is located on the National Mall: Jefferson Drive SW.
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“Oops! We Didn’t Mean to Shoot, Mr. President!”
The Lincoln Memorial is a national treasure, commemorating one of America’s most revered presidents, Abraham Lincoln. What many may be surprised to learn is that nearly 80 years ago, it was also the site of an accidental shooting by the US Army.
In 1942, as part of World War II defenses, an anti-aircraft gun was installed atop the US Department of Interior. The gun was positioned near a local bridge to protect the city against an air attack. On September 3, at 10am, a US Army soldier accidentally released a round of ammunition at the Lincoln Memorial. The accidental firing left its mark on the east side of the memorial. Bullets struck the structure’s frieze and damaged three of the 36 states’ names: Connecticut, Maryland, and Texas.
It is certainly safe to say that the Lincoln Memorial may just be the one US structure attacked by its own country.
Read All About It: Learn more about the US Army accidental shooting on the Lincoln Memorial on pages 186-187 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: A baseball-size indentation was imprinted into the marble of the memorial’s outer wall. The gouge has been fixed before, but the patchwork has fallen out. There are no plans to refill or fix the hole.
Where: The Lincoln Memorial is located at 2 Lincoln Memorial Circle NW.
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“Leave Those Dancing Shoes at Home”
There may be a time and place to dance like no one’s watching, but dance enthusiasts should beware of adding the Jefferson Memorial to their lists of dance venues.
On May 17, 2011, a federal appeals court in Washington, DC, declared expressive dancing as prohibited inside the Jefferson Memorial. The US Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit stated that expressive dancing “falls into the spectrum” of prohibited activities, including picketing, demonstrations, and speechmaking, at the memorial. The rules are intended to ban conduct that has the propensity to attract spectators while detracting from the dignified and ceremonious setting of the national memorial.
The court’s ruling was in response to the 2008 arrest of several individuals silently dancing to commemorate Thomas Jefferson’s 265th birthday. The dancers’ expressive performance was deemed as unlawful. The court viewed the performance as a distraction to fellow visitors, as well as an attraction to onlookers.
While some of the laws passed in our nation’s capital have caused many to scratch their heads, this one may just be among the strangest and surprising of them all.
Read All About It: Learn more about this bizarre law at the Jefferson Memorial on pages 2-3 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The Jefferson Memorial is open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.
Where: The Jefferson Memorial is located at 16 E. Basin Drive SW.
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World War II Memorial
“Bald-Headed and a Little Bit of Comfort”
Wandering around the World War II Memorial evokes numerous emotions: feelings of sorrow, honor, remembrance, and respect, just to name a few. Individuals walking near the Pennsylvania pillar, however, may find themselves feeling additional emotions of surprise and bewilderment.
During World War II, various drawings of a large-nosed, bald man peering over a fence next to the words, “Kilroy was here” popped up all over the globe wherever battles were being fought. The mysterious sketches were proof that an American comrade had previously been there, providing comfort and reassurance to many anxious soldiers. The identity of the artist behind the graffiti was unknown, resulting in many to be confused by these peculiar drawings.
While the popularity surrounding ‘Kilroy was here” eventually dwindled, the widely recognized graffiti symbol can still be seen around the world, causing some to fondly remember its historical meaning and others to scratch their own heads in bemusement.
Read All About It: Learn more about the worldwide “Kilroy Was Here” WWII drawings on pages 80-81 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: The “Kilroy Was Here” graffiti sketch is located behind the golden gate next to the Pennsylvania pillar.
Where: The World War II Memorial is located at 1750 Independence Avenue SW.
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Albert Einstein Bronze Statue
“Save a Seat for Science”
Many of the capital city’s monuments ask visitors to quietly reflect when visiting, creating tranquil and sometimes even somber memorial site settings. One lesser-known monument, however, has chosen to take a quite different approach; visitors coming to pay tribute to one of the world’s most famous scientists are encouraged not only to sit on his statue, but also to climb upon it.
Standing twelve feet tall and weighing approximately four tons, a bronze statue honoring physicist Albert Einstein is situated near the southwest corner of the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) grounds. In 1979, the NAS unveiled the sizable statue to commemorate the centennial of Einstein’s birthday. The famous physicist appears relaxed, leisurely sitting on a three-step bench made of white granite.
The statue’s base is characterized by a star map—a 28-foot expanse of emerald pearl granite that’s embellished with more than 2,700 metal studs representing the sun, moon, stars, planets, and other astronomical objects precisely placed by astronomers from the US Naval Observatory as they were on the centennial date.
Read All About It: Learn more about this this bronze tribute to science on pages 184-185 of Secret Washington, DC: A Guide to the Weird, Wonderful, and Obscure.
Go and Explore: Legend has it that if you rub Einstein’s nose, some of his genius will rub off on you!
Where: The Albert Einstein Statue is located at 2101 Constitution Avenue NW.
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JoAnn Hill has lived in Washington, DC, with her husband Thalamus and dog Jackson for over 19 years. An avid traveler and foodie, JoAnn writes about their DC living and dining experiences, as well as their global travel adventures, on her blog dcglobejotters.org. Her writing has been published in BELLA Magazine, Escape Artist, and Triptipedia. JoAnn served as a DC Public Schools teacher for 17 years before co-founding Capitol Teachers, a tutoring company servicing the greater DC area. This is her first book.