The More Things Change...
The U Street Corridor is considered one of the richest cultural and historical areas in Washington, DC. Originally the site of agricultural fields that became three major encampments during the Civil War, the U Street Corridor saw a steady transformation into the early 20th century, becoming the city's most important concentration of businesses and entertainment facilities owned and operated by African Americans.
Ben's Chili Bowl opened August 22, 1958, tapping into the hustle and bustle of U Street, dubbed the "Black Broadway." It did not take long for the reputation of Ben's Chili Bowl to grow. People knew it as a happening place. Open late, Ben's offered the chance to mix with celebrities and neighborhood folk and to eat delicious, spicy food. Employees quickly became adoptees in the extended family of Ben and Virginia. Whether it was Howard students taking a study break, Count Basie's rhythm section wolfing down half-smokes between sets, the restaurant was abuzz with the sounds of laughter, food being prepared, orders being taken, plates and utensils clinking and Virginia floating around the restaurant floor, checking up on everyone and everything.
U Street was not immune to the growing social unrest of the 1960s. The day that Martin Luther King Jr. was shot 10 years after of [sic] the opening of Ben's, there was chaos in the streets. Ground zero of the D.C. riots was at the Peoples Drug store at 14th and U Streets, two blocks away from Ben's Chili Bowl. Virginia Ali remembers Stokely Carmichael, leader of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee -- its headquarters located across the street from Ben's -- coming into the restaurant and insisting that they defy the imposed curfew to feed the firemen and policemen working throughout the night to restore order. When the fires had been extinguished and the broken glass swept up, the neighborhood was in ruins, but Ben's Chili Bowl remained untouched.