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Ben's Chili Bowl has rich, personal history in its 60 years

D.C. Police shut down U St. outside of Ben's Chili Bowl for a block party marking 60-years since Ben's Chili Bowl first opened in Washington D.C.

WASHINGTON -- By D.C. Council Proclamation, Wednesday officially became “Ben’s Chili Bowl Day” in Washington D.C.

D.C.'s mayor, police chief, city council leaders and even a prominent Civil Rights leader helped kick-off a celebration honoring the 60th Anniversary of Ben’s Chili Bowl on the U. Street corridor.

WUSA9 went inside after the festivities and sat at a booth.

“How long have you been coming to Ben’s,” WUSA9 asked one customer. “Ever since it opened in 1958,” he replied.

Tim Hicks said he remembers his dad when he comes to the restaurant.

RELATED: The history behind 60 years of Ben's Chili Bowl

“He drove me in an ice storm once to come to Ben’s Chili Bowl, slipping and sliding. Luckily, I’m here to tell the story,” said Hicks.

“I actually met my wife here. So this place is always going to be dear to my heart,” said Maurice Harcum.

This booth is exactly “it” – that feeling or atmosphere of family. That’s what the three men said when they came to celebrate as Ben’s Chili Bowl marks its 60th year in the District.

If you’re not from the area, the iconic restaurant has been an anchor in D.C.’s history.

In the late 50s, an immigrant from Trinidad, the late Ben Ali, and his wife Virginia opened the “Home of the half-smoke.”

The half-smoke is their signature dish.

A decade later, the black-owned small business faced its neighborhood on fire. Riots broke out just outside of Ben’s in response to Dr. Martin Luther King’s Assassination.

Ben’s was asked to stay open as the only location there where both protesters and police could sit-down and share a warm meal.

RELATED: Holy smokes! You don't know what a half-smoke is?!

It’s known as a small business that’s been supporting its community in a big way.

“I think what a lot of people don’t realize is that it’s still very hard. We’re celebrating today – the 60-years. But of course, we went through the riots of ’68. We went through the horrible drugs, the violence, the murders on U St. in this area. We went through the subway construction. We’ve been through a lot and people think now life is just great. You know, but costs are increasing, this city is changing. There’s so much more competition. So we celebrate and we’re thankful every day but there’s no guarantee unless people patronize our local businesses,” said one of the owner’s son’s, Nizam Ali.

Rev. Jesse Jackson’s face is one of the newest artworks to appear on the famous Ben’s Chili Bowl wall. Jackson helped mark the occasion with the Ali family.

“It’s a testament of survival against the odds,” the Civil Rights icon told WUSA9.

Maurice Harcum said the Ali family gave him a shot. They let him run the business for several years. The lesson he learned:

“Love, treat each and every person all the same. All walks of life the same," said Harcum.

Ben’s is still contributing to D.C. in a very different ways.

One of them has to do with police training. Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of the stops on a new DC Police Diversity Training program.

“They learn specifically about policing in Washington, D.C. and some of the things that we did wrong and how we can do better as a police department. So you talk about something that’s critical to the agency, and Ben’s Chili Bowl is one of those places,” said DC Police Chief Peter Newsham.

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