Education and travel are intrinsically connected. Travel helps to bring history to life, by adding context and texture that can’t be found in the pages of textbooks.
As a history wonk and scholar of African American studies, I know that when it comes to the subject of Black history, you don’t have to go far to learn a lot. After all, Black history is American history, and there are so many cities across America that have done a great job of preserving history and celebrating the lives and achievements of African Americans.
The following is my list (in alpha order) of the 10 Best US Cities to learn about Black History:
Annapolis, Maryland’s capital, is mostly known as the home of the US Naval Academy and for its lively sailing scene. But this waterfront town, not far from the Nation’s Capital, was one of the region’s earliest slave ports.
The Annapolis City Dock was designated by UNESCO as a “Site of Memory”. One of the enslaved men brought into this port was an enslaved Gambian man by the name of Kunte Kinte whose life story was written by Alex Haley in the book Roots. When in Annapolis, visit the Kunte Kinte-Alex Haley Memorial, which portrays Haley reading to a group of children at the dock.
After seeing the memorial, drive about a 15-minute to the Historic London Town & Gardens. This beautifully preserved 23-acre historical park is associated with the UNESCO Slave Route Project. Hundreds or perhaps thousands of enslaved people, from West Africa, were sold at this between 1708 and 1760.
As the hometown of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. it’s not surprising that Atlanta is filled with great sites to learn about Black history. When in the ATL visit the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park, which includes King’s childhood home, church, and tomb. Next, head over to the National Center for Civil and Human Rights to learn more about the Civil Rights Movements here in the states and internationally.
While in the city, explore some historically Black colleges and universities in the area, including Dr. King’s alma mater, Morehouse College, and others like Clark Atlanta University and Spellman College.
Baltimore is so much more than its popular Inner Harbor. This old port city is a treasure trove of Black history. Home to legal giant Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall and You can walk in the footsteps of Frederick Douglass, and learn about his life as a young, enslaved man working on the Baltimore docks as a ship caulker. Learn about the lives of other enslaved and free shipyard workers at the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum.
Visit the Reginal F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture has more than 11,000 artifacts about the lives of Black Marylanders. There are a number of other notable places to visit while in Baltimore like the Lillie Carroll Jackson Civil Rights Museum which houses six galleries of photographs, letters, paintings, and historic documents related to the Civil Rights Movement.
Just an hour’s drive from Montgomery is Birmingham. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute exhibits feature Selma-to-Montgomery marches the 16th Street Baptist Church bombing and more. This city has dedicated four city blocks to the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. This monument is located across the street from the 16th Street Baptist Church, the site of the 1963 bombing that killed four little girls. The deaths of those children served as a major catalyst to the signing of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
To learn about Tuskegee Airmen and their contributions to World War I, head over to the Southern Museum of Flight.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston is another old American city with rich African American history and culture. McCloud Plantation Historic Site is a 37-acre Gullah-Geechee heritage site that pays tribute to the Africans who lived and worked on the plantation. Guests tour the preserved dwelling areas of the enslaved families and owners which provides insight into what day-to-day life was like on the plantation.
Next, head over to Charleston’s French Quarter for the Old Slave Mart Museum. Charleston was considered the hub of the slave trade in the United States. As many as 35-40% of enslaved people who entered the United States did so through Charleston. This museum is on the National Register of Historic Places and is one of the last slave auction facilities in the state. Finally, visit the Charleston City Market to get a sweetgrass basket. These baskets are an art form indigenous to Africa and are part of the Gullah traditions. If you’re interested in learning more about Gullah language and culture, sign up for Gullah Tours while in Charleston.
Take a walking tour of the historically Black neighborhood of Bronzeville. Stroll down the Bronzeville Walk of Fame, a path that honors the more than 100 residents who made significant cultural contributions including journalist and civil rights activist Ida B Wells, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and musicians Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong. Chicago is also home to the DuSable Museum of African American History, the country’s first independent museum dedicated to the history of African and African American culture.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee is built around the site where Dr. King was assassinated. The museum has been built around the Green Book Motel, which was where Dr. King was staying when he was killed. The audio tour features first-hand accounts of what life was like under Jim Crow laws and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts, Freedom Rides and the Memphis Sanitation Workers Strike of 1968, which is what brought King to Memphis.
Across the street from the Lorraine is another portion of the museum. The boarding house and bathroom where James Earl Ray shot Dr. King. The museum provides a timeline of the days leading up to the assassination.
If you want to experience some Memphis sound, head over to the Stax Museum of American Soul, which is housed on the original site where several Black artists launched their careers, like Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes.
If you’re searching for a city filled with Black history, Montgomery, Alabama is the perfect destination. The capital city is often called the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement and is synonymous with Rosa Parks and the Montgomery Bus Boycotts. While there, learn all you can about the Rosa Parks Museum at Troy University.
Next, visit the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, also known as the “Lynching Memorial. The six-acre site is the first memorial dedicated to the history of racial injustice in the United States. The sobering memorial is a square structure filled with more than 800 six-foot monuments. Each one represents one county and state where lynching took place. The names of the victims are engraved on them.
Less than an hour from New Orleans is the Whitney Plantation. This former sugarcane plantation is now a museum that focuses on the lives of enslaved people. The tour which goes through the original slave cabins, the freedman’s church, and the “big house” shows visitors a bit of what life might have been like for the enslaved people that lived on the property for a century. “The Wall of Honor” is a granite slab engraved with the names and other information of individuals who were enslaved on the Whitney Plantation. The plantation also honors the more than 100,000 people held in bondage in the state of Louisiana.
Washington, DC is filled with so much Black History in Washington, DC that I have a whole blog post dedicated to it. DC is not only the seat of the government, but this gorgeous city filled with monuments and memorials was one of the first places to free its enslaved population. DC’s Compensation Emancipation Act freed about 3,000 people, a full eight months before Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. While in DC you can visit the National Museum of African American History and Culture, National Frederick Douglass Historic Site, National Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, to name a few.
5 More Great Cities to learn about Black History:
- Cincinnati, Ohio. Home to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center.
- Coastal Mississippi. Between 1959 and 1963, locals staged the Biloxi wade-ins to desegregate the beaches along Coastal Mississippi. There is a historic marker for the Civil Rights Wade-ins at Biloxi Beach.
- Kansas City, Missouri. Visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum.
- Oak Bluffs, Massachusetts. Oak Bluffs is a well-known summer vacation spot for affluent African Americans. It was the only town on Martha’s Vineyard that welcomed Black tourists until the 1960s. Check out the African American Heritage Trail on Martha’s Vineyard.
- Upstate New York. The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center can be found in upstate New York. Along with the home of Harriett Tubman which is in the Finger Lakes region of Auburn, New York.
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