Making Our Travels More Meaningful - My Family Travels

Isolated by the pandemic, angered by economic inequality, moved by social injustice — powerful forces are persuading many families to commit to more meaningful travel when they begin to travel again.

Ad for slaves being sold at the Forks in the Road Market; property of Mississippi History Now
This advertisement for slaves being sold at the Forks in the Road Market is part of the collection of Mississippi History Now.

Meaningful travel doesn’t have to be far away or expensive. On the contrary, noted Elaine Glusac in her presentation “The Year of the Travel Reset” at the Global Wellness Summit. For many, reconnecting with family, friends, heritage and passions such as conservation and social justice will motivate future travels.

Any thoughtful trip that celebrates Black history, indigenous peoples, resistance movements and the human spirit can have an enormous impact on participants and make travel more meaningful.

You can start by exploring parks, monuments and the more than 95,000 places on the National Register of Historic Places. The National Park Service Black history conservation programs preserve powerful sights ranging from the homes of suffragists to dive sites of shipwrecked slave ships.

Winter Brings Black History Month

Rosa Parks statue stands waiting for the bus at Dexter Street in Montgomery, Alabama.
A lifesize statue of Rosa Parks stands waiting for the bus on Dexter Street in Montgomery, Alabama.

Thanks to Carter G. Woodson and colleagues at the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History, the achievements of Black Americans were first celebrated the second week in February 1926 during Negro History Week. Over time, one week became a month-long study of African American history nationwide, and Woodson’s home in Washington DC became a National Park Service site.

Today, some destinations highlight local attractions about Black culture for families to explore and learn from. Others, like Montgomery, Alabama, focus on a cruel racist past and invite visitors to acknowledge it, reflect and begin to heal the wounds that are a legacy of racism.

Given the growing interest in meaningful travel, some of the major programs designed to commemorate Black History Month for 2021 will likely become permanent attractions for the next generation of visitors.

Marching Again in The March on Washington

If you’re not ready to travel yet, there are very powerful American history virtual tours online to share with your family. Or, remain seated and make future travel more meaningful with “The March on Washington: Keepers of the Dream.” Featuring the experiences of those fighting for racial equality, the TV special is produced by National Geographic with The Undefeated, ESPN’s content initiative exploring the intersection of sports, race and culture.

The documentary (on Hulu) explores how events of the Civil Rights Movement led to the worldwide unrest of 2020 and shines a light on places of historical importance.

The Green Book Yesterday and Today

Three covers of the Negro Travelers' Green Book from the years 1947, 1948 and 1955 at the New York Public Library
Three covers of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book from the years 1947, 1948 and 1955 at the New York Public Library

When postal worker Victor Green decided to publish his Green Book travel directories for other Negroes, little did he know they would become indispensable in keeping Black travelers safe for more than 30 years. In his first edition (1936) Green noted, “it has been our idea to give the Negro traveler information that will keep him from running into difficulties, embarrassments and to make his trips more enjoyable.”

Green’s listings included hotels, restaurants, bars and even beauty parlors that welcomed people of color. Today, a digital version of the Negro Travelers’ Green Book at the NY Public Library allows you to map out a safe trip across America and feel what it was like to be afraid of stopping because of the color of your skin.

Natchez, Mississippi and “Gone with the Wind”

Two men walking along the Natchez waterfront.
The waterfront along the Mississippi River in Natchez is the heart of this historic town. Photo courtesy

Your crew may have expressed interest in visiting Natchez, Mississippi, because one of its many historic homes – Linden – is said to be the inspiration for Tara, the southern estate in “Gone with the Wind.” Instead of empathizing with Scarlett O’Hara, however, use your visit to follow in the footsteps of workers who supported her lifestyle.

This picturesque Mississippi riverfront town is full of history and graceful Southern architecture, with many historic BnBs recalling the era when plantations ruled. One of its major Black history sites is the Forks of the Road Slave Market. The Forks, an intersection of roads leading from Natchez to Alabama, Tennessee or Georgia, was long an important trade route. In 1833, slave traders opened a business there to sell Northern slaves to the Deep South’s growing cotton plantations at a big profit. In its heyday, Forks was one of the largest slave markets in the country. Today, it is just a commemorative sign but provides a very important teachable moment.

The Underground Railroad Surfaces

Tour group wearing Backroads athletic jerseys
Backroads and OutdoorAfro will run a multi-sport tour that follows the route of the Underground Railroad through Georgia and South Carolina. Photo c. Backroads.

The ideals of self-determination and freedom from oppression attracted many brave people of different races and faiths to participate in the Underground Railroad, the secret movement of enslaved peoples to areas of the country and Canada where they would find freedom.

Their legacy lives on at several National Park Service sites compiled into the Network to Freedom program. While some sites are closed due to the pandemic, the NPS website features videos and virtual tours to help you connect to this crucial part of American history.

As part of the movement to make travel more meaningful, the active multi-sport tour company Backroads is running a new Historic Underground Railroad Multi-Adventure Tour in Georgia and South Carolina. This tour is organized in conjunction with Outdoor Afro, a not for profit network of recreation leaders in 30 states who connect people of color to the outdoors and promote inclusion. The trip, scheduled for Oct. 3-8, 2021, travels Underground Railroad sites of the Southeast while hiking, biking and kayaking through the lush landscapes surrounding Savannah and Charleston. 

The Early Black History of Providence, Rhode Island 

Rhode Island is evaluating monuments to Black history in terms of their power to teach and foster reconciliation. To meet this goal, Providence has produced a self-guided walking tour, the Early Black History Tour.

Covering the city during the years 1636-1865, it includes stops at burial grounds, churches, schools and Snowtown, one of the predominantly Black neighborhoods that sprung up after the Gradual Emancipation Act of 1784. Snowtown, consistently oppressed by white society, was the site of two riots (1824 and 1831) in which white mobs terrorized and killed Black, indigenous and poor residents.

Another important historical site in Rhode Island is God’s Little Acre, a notable cemetery in Newport for Africans and African Americans. The large collection of grave markers, some dating back to the 1600s, reflects the importance of that community to the prosperous colonial seaport of Newport.

Kentucky, Where Louisville Steps up to the Plate

Louisville Kentucky features many virtual experiences that promote its Black heritage.
Louisville, Kentucky features many virtual experiences that promote local Black culture and heritage as well as real life adventures.

One of the city’s top attractions and home of the baseball bat is the Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory. A new interactive show follows the discovery of a Black baseball team which had fallen between the cracks of history. Explore the museum’s journey from receiving rare photos of the mysterious team, to identifying a long-gone bourbon factory behind their playing field, to learning that, in 1908, the Louisville Courier-Journal called the team — known as the Louisville Unions — the “best colored team in the South.” Tour the exhibit and learn more about Black teams by reserving advance tickets to the museum.

Louisville is also well known for another sport, horse racing. Located by the famous Churchill Downs race course, the Kentucky Derby Museum has told the story of Black Americans’ role in horse racing since 1993. This year, the exhibit “African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing” will be enlarged and updated. Don’t miss the live tour, “Proud of My Calling,” that explores the careers of trainers and jockeys of colors.

Louisville Tourism is coordinating these new Black history attractions into three visitor itineraries for those who have 24 to 72 hours to experience Bourbon City’s Black heritage.

The Amistad in Connecticut

Watch the 1997 Steven Spielberg film “Amistad” before heading to New Haven, where a replica of the infamous slave ship is moored. The original Spanish slave ship known as La Amistad was sailing to Cuba in 1839 with 53 kidnapped Africans aboard, when they mutinied and changed course to freedom. The ship was captured off the coast of New Haven, where the slaves were imprisoned on charges of mutiny, murder and piracy.

After several legal battles, former President John Quincy Adams argued their case before the Supreme Court and won their freedom. The Amistad Memorial is one of the few stops in New Haven from the CT Freedom Trail. The Amistad replica, built at the Mystic Seaport Museum, is used for educational programming and spends summers at Mystic Seaport, where it can be toured.

Arts and Resistance in St. Louis

Sterling K.Brown talks about The Lou.

Cultural and arts institutions around the country have used the pandemic pause to reinterpret artworks and artifacts in their collections. The St. Louis Art Museum, for example, is featuring “Nubia: Treasures of Ancient Africa” from Apr. 18-Aug. 22. This show reexamines the culture of Sudan’s Nile Valley and its Kush or Nubian kingdoms which date back several millennia.

At the Contemporary Art Museum St. Louis, from Mar. 12- Aug. 15, tune into “Stories of Resistance” which includes videos, paintings, sculptures and multimedia installations by artists around the world who amplify messages of resistance.

St. Louis, known as The Lou to locals, has also reimagined its tourism approach, with curated itineraries developed by notable residents. Discover unexpected family activities and one of our favorite hotels, The Last Hotel. Creatively converted from the ca. 1909 International Shoe Company building which employed so many immigrants, it is now a posh yet affordable Hyatt. The hotel is a good base to walk or bike to the Gateway Arch (monument to the Westward Expansion of the US under President Thomas Jefferson) and several of the city’s top attractions.

Traveling While Black in Tennessee

Cover of "Bessie's Front Porch," a reading by artists from the Bessie Smtih Cultural Center for Black History Month.
Cover of “Bessie’s Front Porch,” a reading by artists from the Bessie Smtih Cultural Center for Black History Month.

An important part of Chattanooga’s Black history is the Big Nine, the Black downtown neighborhood packed with music clubs, shops and restaurants. When 9th Street was renamed Martin Luther King Blvd. it became the MLK District; a new mural at the site is intended to spur revitalization.

Among the many Big9 performers who appeared along 9th Street was the newcomer and later Blues star, Bessie Smith. As part of the Center’s renovation, families will find the “Bessie Smith: Empress of the Blues” exhibit augmented with new displays about other Chattanoogan stars like Usher, Samuel L. Jackson and Russell Goode.

Across town, visitors can pay their respects at the Ed Johnson Memorial beside the foot of the Walnut Street pedestrian bridge. Say his name at the site where Johnson was lynched in 1906. Chattanooga will not forget his murder nor the role he played in the US Supreme Court case that established federal oversight of state-level civil rights issues.

Guidance and More Ideas

For more meaningful travel, commit to learning about a destination’s history. Explore ways to give back locally. Shop Black-owned businesses wherever you travel in an effort to level the playing field. Leave generous gratuities with a thank you note from the kids when you stay at hotels; it’s likely that a minority community member is working in that job. Contribute in ways big and small to righting issues of social injustice.

You can do it on your own or with the help of tour companies. For example, expert guidance is already available from The Travel Corporation, whose tours include “Make Travel Matter Experiences” and partnerships with their not-for-profit The TreadRight Foundation. For 2021, Contiki Tours calling on New York and Los Angeles will visit TreadRight partners who support marginalized communities and fight food insecurity by growing fresh produce.

Every family will define more meaningful travel in their own way.

Just remember that travel anywhere has the power to be personally transformative and, yes, one step can change the world.

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