Carter Barron Amphitheater: A Local and National Treasure

Merilee Janssen and Jan Solomon

Do you have memories of attending concerts, plays, or The Shakespeare Theater Free for All at the Carter Barron Amphitheater? Watching affordable performances by Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Diana Ross, Bruce Springsteen, Stevie Wonder or Ray Charles? Or perhaps you were one of the lucky ones to snatch a $3 ticket to the iconic Earth, Wind & Fire concert? From 1950 to 2017, the 4,200-seat outdoor amphitheater located in Rock Creek Park brought diverse communities together to celebrate the confluence of urban outdoors, nature and the performing arts.

As a federally owned and operated venue, the amphitheater was fully integrated in the 1950’s, unlike other concert venues in DC that remained segregated. As part of NNV’s Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) initiative, our DEI Working Group, in collaboration with our Program Working Group, recently featured Tony Richardson as a speaker in our Virtual Speaker Series. Tony is the Senior Manager of Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion initiatives at the Rock Creek Conservancy, which is tasked with protecting Rock Creek and the entirety of Rock Creek National Park. Born and raised in DC, Tony shared personal stories of his childhood visits to Carter Barron as well as the history, present, and future of the Amphitheater.

From its early days as one of the few racially integrated facilities in the District, and later through financially accessible and diverse programming, the Amphitheater offered a place where people of all races and backgrounds could come together around a shared appreciation of the arts. The magical setting under the stars, the green canopy of trees, and the top performers brought sell out audiences to a natural setting where everyone felt welcome.

Unfortunately, the Amphitheater was closed in 2017, after an inspection by the National Park Service (NPS) found that the stage’s substructure was not strong enough to handle the weight of performers and equipment and would need to be entirely rebuilt. In 2021, the NPS announced plans to invest in the reopening of the Amphitheater. Major renovations will include a new edifice and stage with state-of-the-art equipment and infrastructure, and also bring the venue up to code including universal accessibility and other 21st century needs.

In August 2022, the Rock Creek Conservancy launched the Carter Barron Alliance, a network of arts, parks, historic preservation, philanthropic, and community groups that are working together to support the revitalization of the Amphitheater. The goal of the Alliance is to continue the tradition of providing affordable and diverse performances, community engagement events, and educational programming for all Washingtonians and visitors to the nation’s capital.

Click here to watch a recording of Tony’s presentation
Click here to view NNV’s full list of videos, including recordings of other speakers who spoke about the history of the Black experience in DC and beyond, including Dr. Andrew Billingsley, who spoke about his book Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina; Kitty Eisele who discussed Missing History: Slavery in Washington and Our Visual Memory; Ralph Buglass’ talk on the Stevens School: DC’s Little Known Educational Landmark, which was the first public school for Black children; Hank Klibanoff’s talk on The Past is Never Dead: What We Learn from Civil Rights Cold Cases; and Jerry Mitchell, who spoke about his book, Race Against Time, and his reporting on unsolved murder cases of the Civil Rights era.

We hope you will join our upcoming virtual talk on April 13 to hear Jenny Masur share stories from her book, Maryland Freedom Seekers on the Underground Railroad. Click here to learn more or to sign up.

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