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5 Places to Experience African American History and Culture
Black History Month by exploring impressive museums and memorials across the country.
From Boston to Memphis, Tennessee, these five cities are filled with treasured historical sites and memorials honoring African American history and culture. (Getty Images)
Established by historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, "Negro History Week" was launched in February 1926 to raise awareness of African Americans' contributions to civilization. It grew in popularity and political importance for decades, until it was expanded to Black History Month in 1976; today, February is officially National African-American History Month. And at this time each year, we honor the contributions and sacrifices of African Americans throughout our history, and commemorate five cities where black lives not only matter – they define our historical and cultural landscape.
Boston's recognition of black culture dates to March 5, 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a free black, was the first of five colonists to die in opposition to British injustice. Re-enactments of the Boston Massacre – an event credited with inspiring the American Revolution – take place outside the Old State House on the Freedom Trail each March. Families can drop by the Museum of African American History on Beacon Hill to pick up the Museum's Black Heritage Trivia Kit or join a free ranger-led tour of Beantown's 1.6-mile-long Black Heritage Trail, which includes America's oldest black church, the African Meeting House and more than 20 pre-Civil War homes, churches, businesses and schools.
Indianapolis, home to electric car-sharing stations as well as extensive bike paths, is at the forefront of many social issues. At the famous Children's Museum of Indianapolis, the largest in the United States, "The Power of Children" exhibit features the stories of Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White – kids who fought the prejudices of the Holocaust, racism and living with HIV/Aids – in a thoughtfully designed space that engages visitors of all ages. The tiny town of Newport (Fountain City) is considered the "Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad" because the home of abolitionist Levi Coffin – a Quaker who had been persecuted for his religion – sheltered thousands of slaves escaping across the Ohio River. You can role play a runaway slave at the Conner Prairie Interactive History Park, where the interactive experience "Follow the North Star" is led by costumed re-enactors several evenings each April and November for visitors 12 and older.
Kansas City, Missouri
As the nation's second-largest railway hub, Kansas City has always been a Midwest melting pot. The first Africans to settle here in 1719 were French slaves from Haiti, but free blacks also found their way to Missouri according to the Black Archives of Mid-America, a research institution based in Kansas City. The black migration continued with Exodusters (freed slaves escaping the South after the Civil War). By 1900, a black merchant class that included 85 tailors and seven nightclubs among other businesses, blossomed in the 18th and Vine Jazz District, now home to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. At each of these remarkable institutions, guides bring to life the story of segregation – black teams played for white audiences, just as the greats of jazz and blues music did. And in 1930, sweet and spicy versions of a distinctive barbecue sauce came from the kitchen of what would become Arthur Bryant's, a funky joint that would garner attention from barbecue enthusiasts, celebrities and presidents.
On April 4, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated while getting some fresh air on the balcony of his room at the Lorraine Motel. A Memphis landmark dating back to 1925 (Cab Calloway, Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Aretha Franklin all graced its halls), it now houses the National Civil Rights Museum. With decades of memorabilia, exhibits on equal rights around the world, an extensive film collection and new interactive displays, it's easy to devote an entire day here. But don't miss a chance to savor Memphis's world-renowned musical scene. The WC Handy Memphis Museum is often called the "Father of the Blues" home. Meanwhile, the Memphis Rock 'n' Soul Museum and Stax Museum of American Soul Music track the rise of soul music in popular culture. Plus, the movement inspired Memphis's favorite son, Elvis Presley, whose home at Graceland is one of this city's top attractions.
Washington, District of Columbia
The nation's capital is a city of multicultural firsts that are fun and free to explore. Start off your visit with the Cultural Tourism DC's "Civil War to Civil Rights" walking map at The Willard Intercontinental Hotel, where Lincoln spent the night before his inauguration, and Dr. King wrote his "I Have a Dream" speech. Then, explore top African-American cultural sites, like the 30-foot-tall, $120 million Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial along the Tidal Basin, the first D.C. monument dedicated to a person of color, and the African American Civil War Museum. Other can't-miss activities include viewing the original Emancipation Proclamation at the National Archives, exploring Frederick Douglass's home and relaxing over a chili dog at Ben's Chili Bowl, a landmark known for its storied roots and famous clientele, including iconic performers such as Nat King Cole and Ella Fitzgerald.
About En Route
Practical advice on the art of traveling smarter with tips, tricks and intel from En Route's panel of experts.
Contributors have experience in areas ranging from family travel, adventure travel, experiential travel and budget travel to hotels, cruises and travel rewards and include Amy Whitley, Claire Volkman, Holly Johnson, Marsha Dubrow, Lyn Mettler, Sery Kim, Kyle McCarthy, Erica Lamberg, Jess Moss, Sheryl Nance-Nash, Sherry Laskin, Katie Jackson, Erin Gifford, Roger Sands, Steve Larese, Gwen Pratesi, Erin Block, Dave Parfitt, Kacey Mya, Kimberly Wilson, Susan Portnoy, Donna Tabbert Long and Kitty Bean Yancey.
Edited by Liz Weiss.
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