From Black Broadway to Black Power: How Ben’s Chili Bowl survived the 1968 riots to become a DC landmark

Co-owner Virginia Ali's landmark restaurant, Ben's Chili Bowl, marks its 60th anniversary Wednesday, and the party will close streets and impact parking on U Street. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, file)(AP/Jacquelyn Martin)

This story is part of the WTOP series “DC Uprising: Voices from the 1968 Riots.” Each day this week, we’ll tell the stories of the upheaval and tumult 50 years ago through the eyes of those who experienced it.

Video produced by Omama Altaleb

WASHINGTON — Ben’s Chili Bowl, which has anchored D.C.’s famed U Street for 60 years, has long been the city’s favorite spot to score some half-smokes after a night out on the town. But there’s a lot of history in those celebrity-photo-bedecked walls and unassuming Formica countertops.

The restaurant was the favored place to grab a quick bite to eat back when U Street was Black Broadway, drawing glittering entertainers to one of three major theaters in the area.

Later, in the 1960s, when major civil rights organizations set up their Washington offices a block away, Ben’s became an informal meeting place for leaders of the movement, including Stokely Carmichael, the brash — yet visionary — militant who led the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee and coined the phrase “Black Power.”

During the riots, Carmichael helped secure special permission for Ben’s to stay open to feed activists and police alike. Ben’s would ultimately survive the post-riot decline and decay that plagued U Street in the 1970s and 1980s to become the D.C. landmark it is today.

More from the series, “DC Uprising: Voices from the 1968 Riots.”

Jack Moore

Jack Moore joined as a digital writer/editor in July 2016. Previous to his current role, he covered federal government management and technology as the news editor at, part of Government Executive Media Group.

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