Virginia Ali has forever left her mark on Washington, DC. In 1958 Ali and her husband Ben opened Ben’s Chili Bowl, a U Street institution that’s played host to the likes of Duke Ellington, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Barack Obama, and became a crucial gathering spot during the rebellion following King’s assassination in 1968. While Ben Ali passed away in 2009, Virginia has remained a prominent fixture at the restaurant’s original U Street location, and has overseen their recent expansion into other areas of the city.
In this edition of Lessons in Leadership, Jermaine Johnson, Regional President Greater Washington at PNC Bank, will sit down with Virginia to discuss her upbringing, the prominent role Ben’s Chili Bowl has played in the District’s Civil Rights history, and how their expansion has brought the restaurant – and the Ali family – to brand new corners of Washington, DC.
Stay after the discussion for catered lunch from Ben’s Chili Bowl!
10:30-11:00: Registration and Networking
Virginia Ali was born on December 17, 1933, and is of African American and Native American descent. She was raised in rural Virginia and was educated in a segregated school system. She moved with her family to Washington, D.C., in the 1950s
After moving to Washington, Ali worked as a teller at Industrial Bank, a historic Black-owned business. It was there that she met husband Ben Ali when he visited the bank to deposit money from a local restaurant where he worked.
Ali and Ben opened Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street in Washington, D.C., on August 22, 1958. Many famous entertainers frequented the family-run restaurant, in the heart of the Shaw neighborhood. The restaurant became a favorite late-night gathering place for the likes of Duke Ellington, Dinah Washington and Redd Foxx. Martin Luther King Jr., Jesse Jackson, and Stokely Carmichael often ate together at the Chili Bowl.
During the 1968 Washington, D.C., rebellion after the death of King, Ali kept the Chili Bowl open at the request of Stokely Carmichael. Ali has served on the boards of several organizations, including For Love of Children.
Ali and her husband were inducted into the DC Hall of Fame in 2002. She and Ben received the Key to the City from mayor Adrian Fenty in honor of the restaurant’s 50th anniversary in 2008.
Virginia and Ben Ali were married on October 10, 1958; together they had three sons. Each of their children were given the middle name Ben in case they took over the restaurant. All three eventually became involved in running the restaurant after Ben's death.