Monday, April 17, 2006

A crowd of about 2,500 people yesterday braved chilly weather and drizzling rain to take part in the African-American Family Celebration Day at the National Zoo, an Easter Monday tradition for black families from the D.C. area.

“It’s one of the higher-profile things for African-Americans to do around the holiday,” said Jeff Pinder, 33, who brought his 9-year-old son, Orlando, to the zoo yesterday. “It’s also a reminder that things weren’t always the same for blacks as whites.”

The National Zoo has been hosting the unofficial holiday for more than 100 years. Black children initially were not allowed to participate in the White House Easter Egg Roll, so black families flocked to the zoo to hold their own celebrations since the 1890s.

“We go every year up here to relax and hang out,” said Veronica Fields, 23, whose daughter Alicia colored a tribal mask and waited to take part in a nearby Easter egg hunt. “It’s a family tradition. I’ve been coming every year since she’s been little and since I’ve been a kid.”

“You gotta find eggs,” said an excited Alicia, 9. “It’s the same thing we do at my grandfather’s house.”

The event drew up to 20,000 people in the past, but bad weather has decreased those numbers in recent years.

According to the National Weather Service, rain has fallen in the area on five of the last six Easter Mondays. Last year, 1.5 inches of rain soaked the region and forced zoo officials to cancel the event at about noon.

Event organizers estimated that about 2,500 people showed up yesterday, with the crowd increasing as the day wore on and as the weather improved.

“It’s really difficult to tell about attendance because the weather’s been so terrible the last two years,” said Matt Olear, a spokesman for Friends of the National Zoo, which helped put on yesterday’s event. “This year has probably been the best since [2003].”

In 2000, a shooting outside the zoo on Connecticut Avenue prompted officials to step up security at subsequent celebrations. Mr. Olear said D.C. police provided some additional security at yesterday’s event.

“Pretty much every year since the shooting, we’ve had some additional support,” he said.

During the celebration, grinning parents holding umbrellas watched as their children dove into a bed of hay to search for hidden Easter eggs.

“It’s fun for the kids,” said Sheila Ross, who watched as her son and nephew — both 4 years old and clad in matching SpongeBob SquarePants rain ponchos — did their best to fill their baskets with the colorful, plastic eggs.

“It’s a win-win for the kids,” said Mrs. Ross, who is from the District but now lives in Delaware. “You have a little fun with the Easter stuff and also get to see the animals. We’ll just do a little sun dance next time.”

Children also listened to Baba C. — a griot, or West African storyteller — as he told them tales related to West African tradition, while others wandered to nearby exhibits to see some of the zoo’s more than 2,400 animals.

The event also featured a ventriloquist, an arts and crafts booth and hands-on educational exhibits manned by members of various departments at the zoo.

“I came for the food, the free stuff and just to spend time with my family,” said Karen Dickens, 13, who walked through the reptile house with her mother, younger sister and two younger brothers. To “see my brothers look at the animals … it’s kind of funny.”

The celebration also included people of other races.

“It’s for the African-Americans, but it’s all races here,” said Barbie Thompkins, 55, who brought her 8-year-old grandson, Kevin Harris, to the celebration. “Everyone is taking part, and that’s what I like. It’s real diverse.”

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