Easter Monday celebration at National Zoo stirs mixed feelings

Easter Monday at the Smithsonian National Zoo has been called an “African-American family tradition” since 1891. The day marks a time when African-Americans were discouraged from attending the White House Easter Egg Roll, until the Eisenhower administration became the first to welcome them to the South Lawn.

Every spring, locals and zoo officials celebrate the day with family activities such as an Easter egg hunt, egg roll and animal demonstrations given by zoo employees. For one D.C. official, however, the day that memorializes a time of segregation has become “exclusionary” itself.

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“This is a day in history that I don’t believe is meant to be celebrated,” said Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.). “I endorse that the day no longer be called an African-American day. It’s not very inviting to those who are not African-American. For various reasons, the great majority of Washingtonians will not be able to go.”

Norton believes that because the day is advertised as an “African-American family tradition,” it discourages local families of other races from attending the free event.

“I relish the notion that we celebrate African-American history. I don’t have any problem with that,” said Norton. “My problem is with a logo that says to half of the citizens that this is not an event for you. Now I know that’s not the intent, but it is the effect.”

Officials with the Smithsonian National Zoological Park would disagree.

“Definitely within the African-American community in D.C, it’s known on Easter Monday that this is a place African-American families go and we still get many, many, many African-American families,” said Pamela Baker-Masson with the Office of Communications at the National Zoo. “But When I think about the last few years, it’s much broader.”

Norton wants to see the celebration educate the community on why they are there on the Monday following Easter in the first place.  

“The zoo may be reconsidering how they market the day, and I think that would be a good thing,” she said. “The zoo is not intending to recreate a segregated holiday, but it should be open to all. You can celebrate this history and still have fun.”

According to the zoo, that very suggestion has been attempted in the past but failed to gather a significant amount of participation.

“In 2007, we invited the general public to come and bring photos of themselves and their families visiting. To see if anyone had any archival material that reflected family visits to the zoo on Easter Monday,” said Baker-Masson. “I think we had two people show up with photographs.” 

In recent years, the zoo has struggled to maintain the celebration’s family-friendly atmosphere after a shooting outside the park in 2001 and a series of fights and a stabbing back in 2011. These events have left some community members apprehensive.

"I used to bring my kids,” said Vanessa Collins, a 20-year District resident. “I would never bring my grandkids, though.”