Explore historic sites, institutions and Black culture destinations where Black lives matter. These destinations will fuel fascinating conversations about race and justice that too few travelers engage in.
Highlights of African American culture are sure to enrich your urban travels in Virginia, Massachusetts, Indiana, New York, Missouri, Tennessee and Washington DC.
Road Trip Along the Civil Rights Trail
Additionally, the U.S. Civil Rights Trail leads the way to more than 100 of the country’s most important Civil Rights landmarks. Instead of limiting yourself to a city visit, plan a road trip across these 14 states. Drive to the monuments of this profound human rights struggle. Pause at the churches, courthouses, schools, museums and other landmarks, primarily in the Southern states. Each site explores the activists who challenged segregation in the 1950s and 1960s to advance social justice.
The Civil Rights Trail designates Top 10 destinations in order of historic importance to the movement. These include Memphis (see below); Atlanta, Georgia; Birmingham, Selma and Montgomery, Alabama; Washington DC (included below); Greensboro, North Carolina; Jackson, Mississippi; Little Rock, Arkansas; and Nashville, Tennessee. Whether your family is searching for history, context or museums, it’s time to honor the battles fought by the oppressed.
Specific landmarks and wider regions have stories to tell about the American Civil Rights movement if we stop and listen.
Jamestown-Yorktown, Virginia Explore Where Slavery Started
Explore the lives of colonists, soldiers, slaves and other members of America’s first settlement in Virginia. The “Historic Triangle” comprises Jamestown, Yorktown and Colonial Williamsburg. America’s first indentured servants arrived at Jamestown Settlement in 1619. Are you familiar with the “1619 Project” undertaken in 2019 and the upcoming streaming TV series? Jamestown’s living history site and museum explore how the Powhatan Indian, English and west central African cultures converged in the 17th century.
The multimedia American Revolution Museum is in Yorktown. It examines how the Revolutionary War and the 1781 Battle of Yorktown impacted everyone in the colonies. This Black culture destination looks at settlers, indigenous tribes, and enslaved and free African Americans. All fought on both sides of the American Revolution and made contributions to establish the nation.
Boston, Massachusetts, Where Free Blacks Fought for Freedom
Thanks to a long and illustrious history, Boston’s appreciation of African American culture goes way back to pre-Revolutionary times. Start your tour on Beacon Hill. Look for the Museum of African American History and the African Meeting House (1806), America’s oldest Black church. Explore the 1.6-mile-long Black Heritage Trail of pre-Civil War homes, churches, businesses and schools. Don’t miss the exhibits at the restored ca. 1835 Abiel Smith School owned by free Blacks and abolitionists in this very posh neighborhood – before the 1% moved in.
Join one of the fascinating, free 90-minute tours led by National Park Rangers. The Boston Massacre site outside the State House is where, on March 5, 1770, the free Black Crispus Attucks — credited by some as sparking the American Revolution — was the first to die in opposition to British injustice. Re-enactments of the Massacre that killed five colonists take place outside the State House on the Freedom Trail during March.
Plan a weekend at the beach to tour the African American History Museum campus on Nantucket. This Black cultural destination is comprised of a nine-stop Black Heritage Trail that features a ca. 1774 home owned by the freed slave, Seneca Boston.
Indianapolis, Indiana Makes a Commitment to Black Culture and Social Justice
Indianapolis is a socially conscious city. Even the Childrens Museum, founded in 1925, empowers all ages to question and act upon social injustice. “The Power of Children,” for example, is a permanent exhibit showcasing three kids who fought the challenges of their time. Each tackled the Holocaust, racism, or living with HIV/Aids in a powerful way. This is a very thoughtful space for adults to engage children on these complex issues.
The busy Madame Walker Theatre Center is at the site of the cosmetics and hair-care empire founded by Madame CJ Walker. One of the earliest Black business successes, she was daughter of Louisiana slaves who relocated in 1910 to Indianapolis. Take a tour of the facility to see the stage where megastars like Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, and Gladys Knight performed. Guides share more about one of the country’s first female entrepreneurs and an active philanthropist for African American causes.
Niagara Falls Champions The Underground Railroad
Although New York abolished slavery by 1799, out-of-state travelers could keep slaves up to nine months while vacationing at the famous Niagara Falls . Thousands of 18th and 19th-century visitors -– many from the South -– actually did. At the Cataract Hotel and other tourist spots, sympathetic staff would help guests’ slaves. The Cataract Hotel celebrates those who escaped by boat or on foot to Canada while their masters slept.
The small port along the Niagara River became a final stop for freedome seekers because Canada was just a ¼-mile away. Blacks who could get away paid 25 cents for ferries heading to Ontario. Some freedom seekers lost their lives trying to swim across. A footbridge (now destroyed) at the site of today’s Whirlpool Bridge allowed Harriet Tubman to walk to freedom.
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center recounts this history and more, with a focus on what the local citizenry did. The tiny space is not much bigger than the barns with false floors and homes with hidden doors that sheltered so many along the Underground Railroad. Yet the museum effectively conveys Niagara Falls’ outsized impact on the movement and makes it a worthwhile Black culture destination.
North Carolina Celebrates a Rosenwald School & Black Culture
For those who don’t know, Julius Rosenwald (1862-1932) was a German-Jewish immigrant who made his fortune as president of Sears Roebuck. After helping to fund YMCAs for African-American communities in Alabama, in 1911 he met Booker T. Washington (1856-1915), a Black educator who founded the Tuskegee Institute. They discussed educational projects for young Black children and in 1913, opened the first Rosenwald school.
The schools used a successful formula — matching Rosenwald’s money with local government and community funds — to foster collaboration in each community. By 1932, more than 5,350 Rosenwald schools, teachers’ housing and workshops had opened in 15 states.
With 813, North Carolina had more Rosenwald facilities than any other state. After the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in 1957 outlawed segregation, many fell into ruin. An estimated 60 buildings are said to survive. The Panther Branch Rosenwald School, designed by America’s first accredited Black architect, Robert R. Taylor, served grades kindergarten through six from 1926-1957. Today, the Wake County community of Juniper Level in partnership with the local Baptist Church and the Juniper Level Botanic Garden, is restoring it to its original design.
Kansas City, Missouri Honors Past & Present African American Heritage
Black lives and legacy are stored at the Black Archives of Mid-America. Black culture is woven into the rich cultural fabric of Kansas City, one of the nation’s largest railway hubs and a Midwest melting pot. Ease into city life with a slab of barbecue ribs and burnt ends at Arthur Bryant’s. The fluorescent-lit space has fed the hungry, presidents, and celebrities since 1940. Bryant is considered the scion of the “low and slow” method of grilling.
Around the corner at 18th and Vine is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, where guides bring the story of segregation to life. Kids love the replica baseball field inside with life-size statues of the greatest players. The adjacent American Jazz Museum is packed with memorabilia and listening booths. Pause to appreciate Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Count Basie and Charlie Parker, among others. Check the schedule at the Blue Room, a family-friendly jazz club attached to the museum.
Don’t miss the World War I Museum, the nation’s most complete collection of that era, with some mementoes from the 371st Infantry Regiment, part of the Colored Infantry that served in the war.
Memphis, Tennessee Chronicles Black Culture & Civil Rights Movement
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968 in Memphis while making a speech in support of fair wages for Black workers. The site of his death, the Lorraine Motel, now houses the comprehensive National Civil Rights Museum. Their collection includes a segregated bus, a lunch counter and other painful symbols of the Civil Rights movement. This must-see museum includes dozens of new films and interactive displays, making it even more engaging for young visitors.
Start a Memphis musical tour at the W.C. Handy Memphis Museum, home of the celebrated African American composer known as “father of The Blues.” Head past the clubs on Beale Street to see a century of music history at the Rock ‘N’ Soul Museum. The Stax Museum of American Soul Music is named for the Stax studio where the masters of soul recorded their hits. Every beat brings you a little closer to rock ‘n’ roll, the sound popularized by the famous shaking hips of Elvis Presley, whose home at Graceland is one of the city’s top attractions.
Washington, DC Explores African Americans and Black Culture
Did you know Washington DC was the first major city run by an African-American mayor (Walter Washington in 1967)? Of course, it’s also the former home of arguably the most powerful Black man in the country, President Obama. The $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial to the Civil Rights leader is the first D.C. memorial dedicated to a person of color. Sites that celebrate the contributions of African Americans to this country abound.
Foremost is the National Museum of African American History and Culture, an incredibly rich collection about the African American experience. Dive deep into Black culture from slavery through the Civil War, to Reconstruction, the Civil Rights Movement and up through recent times. Get free timed-entry tickets online for same day entry on weekdays, or see if any walkup tickets are available.
Cultural Tourism DC’s “Civil War to Civil Rights” is the first of three audio tours available online. Begin at the luxurious Willard-Intercontinental Hotel, where Lincoln stayed prior to his inauguration. Dr. King wrote his “I Have a Dream” speech in the lobby. Use their comprehensive African-American Heritage Trail guide to explore more of Washington’s Black culture.
When it’s Black Culture, Washington DC Sites Abound
Ipend an afternoon at the African American Civil War Museum. This is the place to learn how the war shaped the lives of free blacks who served in the Union Army. Pause for a hot dog at Ben’s Chili Bowl U Street location. It is a favorite of President Obama and the site of many civil rights protests. Nearby is the museum home of the famous abolitionist Frederick Douglass. View the original Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives.
Catch a show at the Howard Theatre. It was built in 1910 along DC’s “Black Broadway” to showcase vaudeville stars, musicians and the Howard University Players. Recently renovated, the theatre attracts The Roots, Mos Def, Esperanza Spalding and others to its famous stage.
Spend a day in the countryside at Mt. Vernon, George Washington’s home. Examine the lifestyle of his 316 slaves and their role at his estate. The first President’s will proclaimed that all his slaves should be freed after his wife Martha’s death. It never happened, but you’ll learn why at Mt. Vernon.
That gesture, nevertheless, was a first for the Founding Fathers, a sign that Black lives mattered to the new nation.
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