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How Easter Monday at Smithsonian National Zoo became a tradition for Black families

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

Yesterday, the Easter Bunny may have paid a visit to a celebration near you, but today, the Easter Panda is likely to appear at the Smithsonian National Zoo in Washington, D.C.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Yeah. The zoo's Easter Monday celebration dates back to the 1890s, and it's a tradition for generations of African American families.

DOMINIC DONGILLI: There's a really lovely 1936 photograph of children that are gathered and kind of dressed to their nines in double-breasted suits and dresses and wool overcoats and bows and ties and hats.

MARTIN: That's Dominic Dongilli, a Ph.D. student at the University of Iowa. He says the origins of celebrating Easter Monday at the zoo are actually a little murky.

DONGILLI: Some attribute the origins of the celebration to the fact that the White House Easter egg hunt began in 1878 and was de facto segregated.

MARTÍNEZ: Others say that it was because many Black people were required to work on Easter Sunday, so Monday was chosen to celebrate with family.

DONGILLI: And that celebration became significant and meaningful, and it was a holiday that then would become shared across generations.

MARTIN: By the early 20th century, the event was well-established. In 1914, the zoo reported that Easter Monday was its busiest day of the year, with nearly 57,000 visitors. In 2011, the zoo partnered with the National Museum of African American History and Culture to honor the tradition.

DONGILLI: And in addition to the more, kind of, traditional activities, like picnicking and the Easter Egg Roll, they also included programming that highlighted many different facets of Black and African American culture in North America.

MARTÍNEZ: Now, this year, the event is billed by the Smithsonian as a Washington family tradition, complete with an Easter scavenger hunt and special animal demonstrations.

MARTIN: So if you do make it to the zoo today, keep an eye out for a panda with bunny ears.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Michel Martin is the weekend host of All Things Considered, where she draws on her deep reporting and interviewing experience to dig in to the week's news. Outside the studio, she has also hosted "Michel Martin: Going There," an ambitious live event series in collaboration with Member Stations.
A Martínez is one of the hosts of Morning Edition and Up First. He came to NPR in 2021 and is based out of NPR West.