BY MELISSA NOEL
When the White House began hosting its annual Easter egg roll in 1878, Black people were not allowed to attend.
Beginning in 1891, many African American families began to gather at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Zoo the Monday after Easter. The practice, known as Easter Monday, started as a pseudo-holiday for Black domestic workers who were barred from attending the traditional White House Easter Egg Roll due to segregation and many of whom typically had to work during the holiday weekend.
Easter Monday at the National Zoo quickly became a staple for African American families. In 1919, attendance reached nearly 55,000 people. According to the Smithsonian, crowds spent the day viewing the animals, picnicking, and, especially popular with children, participating in the Annual Easter Egg Roll on what’s known as Lion and Tiger Hill at the zoo.
In more recent years, highlights of this ongoing tradition have included African storytelling and performances by an acapella gospel quintet, a reggae band, a steel-drum band, a dance team, and a double-dutch jump rope team.
In a commentary about the annual Easter Monday tradition, the President and CEO of Greater Washington Urban League recalled his memories of celebrating this Black family holiday with his brother and mother, a domestic worker.
“I have fond personal memories of Easter Monday at the National Zoo. My mother, a domestic servant and single mother of two boys, looked forward to the event every year for the opportunity to catch up with her friends from the church after a long weekend of work,” said George H. Lambert Jr. in his commentary, featured in the Afro News in 2015.
“The fun started on the chartered bus to the zoo and continued into the evening. It was a wonderful day of good food, socializing, and the much-anticipated highlight of the day, the egg hunt. My brother and I may have grumbled about having to wear our good clothes and uncomfortable shoes, but with each year, the tradition acquired greater significance. We knew that the zoo was a landmark for the city as well as the nation, but once a year, it belonged to us locals and to our community,” he added.
The Easter Monday tradition in America has continued to the present day, particularly as a celebration for many African American families.