Ben’s Chili Bowl has seen trying times before
This stalwart of the Black community in D.C. survived the 1968 riots. The pandemic might be harder.
By Virginia Ali, as told to Abdallah Fayyad
When my husband, Ben, and I first fell in love, he used to talk about being an independent businessperson. He had worked his way through college — first at the University of Nebraska, then at Howard — working in restaurants, and picked up skills that would be helpful in the industry. I had come to Washington, D.C., in 1952 from rural Virginia, and I was working at our local bank, an African American family-owned bank that’s still there today.
D.C. was still a segregated city at the time. We had our own community in Shaw, where U Street itself was known as Black Broadway because it served as the entertainment center for African Americans. And we wanted to find the ideal location for our business, and thought if we could find anything on Black Broadway, we could make it work. Luckily we did.
Ben had this special chili recipe, and he thought it would be wonderful to serve up the old American hot dog with chili. So we built the Ben’s Chili Bowl and opened it on Aug. 22, 1958. It eventually became that meeting place, where people would just stop in just to say hello or stop in and meet friends. But 10 years later, when Dr. King was assassinated, everything changed.
I remember that night so vividly. Someone just rushed into the door and said, “Dr. King has just been shot.” We were simply not willing to believe that; it just couldn’t be. But when we got the news that he was gone, we all cried. As time passed, that sadness turned to frustration and that frustration turned to anger and the uprising began. For three nights, the National Guard was all over the city. The mayor put a city-wide curfew in place, but allowed us to remain open.
Other businesses were being destroyed, but the protesters said, “Oh no don’t you touch Ben’s,” because we had become so deeply embedded in the community and the civil rights movement. We served people food at the March on Washington, and always helped people in need. Dr. King would even come to the Chili Bowl on occasion when he came into town, and I was lucky to have a moment to sit with him and hear him speak of his dream.
In the end, we survived the riots in 1968 because the community we served cared about us.
The pandemic is a whole different thing, though, because it makes people sick. So we have to be careful and make sure our guests and team members are safe. And we’re hanging in there. Like other restaurants, our business suffered and we thought we might have to close for good. But, just as in 1968, our community showed up to help us. When we didn’t get our first loan from the Paycheck Protection Program, the outpouring of love and support from our community was overwhelming and it was just the most beautiful thing. People were calling and sending so many donations that we were able to give back to the community by serving lunches to the medical staff at Howard University Hospital and serving the protesters the last few Saturdays.
And so we’re doing the best we can and taking it one day at a time. I’m still concerned about what’s ahead and I don’t know what the new norm will look like. But I’m not too worried, because as long as we have our community, they will have our little Chili Bowl.
Virginia Ali owns Ben’s Chili Bowl, which now has several locations in the Washington area.