Civic News

2 local high schoolers launched the DC Civil Rights Tour App to educate residents

After realizing what was missing from their high school curricula, Eliza and Lily Dorton built an app to help people living in or visiting the area learn about the district's civil rights sites. 

A sign marking Black Lives Matter Plaza along a stretch of DC's 16th Street NW.

(Photo by Flickr user Joe Flood, used via a Creative Commons license)

After realizing all the local Black community history they didn’t know, two local high schoolers used tech in the hopes of teaching tourists and residents alike about the stories of the district’s civil rights movement.

Eliza and Lily Dorton — a sophomore and senior, respectively, at Holton-Arms School in Bethesda, Maryland — are the creators of the DC Civil Rights Tour, an app and website that hosts a tour of local historical sites. The app features 17 locations across the district, including some more well-known ones and others that might be new to users. At each location, app users can listen to a three-minute-long audio recording or read a text, and there’s a map of all the sites. The app launched in September for both Android and iOS users.

But the inspiration for the app goes back much further than this fall. Seeing how the Black Lives Matter movement responded to George Floyd’s death in 2020, Lily Dorton said they both wanted to learn more about DC’s civil rights history that they hadn’t learned in school. As they educated themselves about the local history, they wanted to share it with others, too.

“We wanted to not only support and be an ally to the movement, but we actually wanted to do something take action, educate ourselves,” Lily Dorton told Technical.ly. “That’s when we started to try to learn more about the civil rights history of one of those powerful cities in the world.”

Eliza and Lily Dorton stand in front of the True Reformer Building on U Street.

Eliza (left) and Lily Dorton stand before the True Reformer Building on U Street. (Courtesy photo)

With the civil rights tour, the sisters wanted to showcase more unknown or off-the-regular-tourist-path locations. Sites include the Lincoln Theater, the first Black YMCA building, the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House, DC’s U Street neighborhood and Black Lives Matter Plaza.

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Eliza Dorton said they began working on the app in the fall of 2020, initially starting with the idea of a website and approximately 25 local landmarks. They narrowed it down to 17 (all located in DC) to start, but hope to add sites in nearby Maryland and Virginia in the near future.

Eventually, they chose to create an app due to its portability. The pair connected with an app developer to build the technology, but did all the research and fact-checking for the tour’s information — all outside of school hours.

“We don’t learn about any of this information in our history textbooks and in our school curriculum,” Lily Dorton said. “So hopefully, one day, some of this history will be incorporated in — especially with schools in the DC area that should include a lot of this history.”

For now, the sisters say the app is just a passion project and they do not intend to monetize it or create a full-blown startup. But they hope that it will offer those both living in and visiting the DMV a chance for a deeper understanding of the area’s history.

“There’s a lot more to DC than just the big monuments and memorials, and learning about the people that maybe aren’t as famous but had a really big impact is important,” Eliza Dorton said.

“It’s very important to understand the full history of where you live and where you come from, and the beginning of this country,” Lily Dorton added. “I think this is important to understand and educate yourself and other people on the history of Washington because, in order to fully embrace the ideals of liberty and equality, we have to fully understand the history and the background of all of this.”

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