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5 Unexpected Monuments to Celebrate African American History

Discover notable attractions paying homage to African American heritage beyond well-known landmarks.

U.S. News & World Report

5 Unexpected Monuments to Celebrate African American History

Learn about African American history and culture at these significant spots.(Getty Images)

So many powerful, illuminating and emotionally stirring moments in American history have been about race that Black History Month, which began in 1926, is a time to highlight surprising historical monuments. The Smithsonian's new National Museum of African American History and Culture in the District of Columbia, which features unique exhibitions honoring significant moments and figures in African American history, including a lace shawl given by Queen Victoria to abolitionist Harriet Tubman, is an ideal place to start your tour. Here are five other monuments – each compelling and unexpected – to learn about black culture and history in America.

The Neon Museum
Las Vegas

When Nevada's segregation laws were in effect, African Americans who performed at Las Vegas' famous clubs and casinos were prohibited from spending the night in them. That changed in May 1955 when the Moulin Rouge Hotel, which billed itself as "the nation's first major inter-racial hotel," opened with heavyweight champion Joe Louis introducing stars such as Pearl Bailey, Harry Belafonte, Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole. The wildly successful Moulin Rouge shut down under mysterious circumstances in just five months, but its impact was so far-reaching that civil rights activists planned a march at the site of the property in 1960. Damaged by fires in 2003 and 2009, Moulin Rouge was demolished in 2010. Only its elegant, red cursive sign remains. See the signage at the Neon Museum's two-acre, outdoor campus known as the Boneyard among more than 200 other neon sculptures. Meanwhile, at the visitor's center, you learn more about designer Betty Willis, the noted artisan credited with the famous "Welcome to Fabulous Las Vegas Nevada" sign – a National Historic Landmark that has been the city's unofficial logo since being installed on the Strip in 1959.

Oakland Museum of California
Oakland, California

Oakland is marking the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale by taking a closer look at the Black Power movement and its part in the revolution across the Bay. The Oakland Museum of California's groundbreaking multimedia overview, "All Power to the People: Black Panthers at 50" (through Feb. 26), explores the lasting impact of their radical political platform and community service. The Panther's children's breakfast program became the national standard in public education; their children's school, food banks, senior safety, cultural and free health programs were imitated in more than 20 cities during the '60s. From the museum's terraced roof gardens, visitors can look out over Lake Merritt and downtown Oakland at landmarks of the Black Power movement, including the Alameda County Courthouse, where Huey Newton was on trial from 1967-1970 (he was acquitted) and the spot on Lake Merritt where Marlon Brando addressed supporters after the April 1968 funeral of 17-year-old Bobby Hutton. This engaging museum and garden is at the heart of Oakland's renaissance as the civic-minded city prepares to receive the next wave of startups fleeing Silicon Valley rents.

Levi and Katherine Coffin State Historical Site
Fountain City, Indiana

The former red brick home of Levi and Catharine Coffin, built in 1839 to be a safe haven for runaway slaves, has a moving story to tell. Narrow, twisting stairs lead to the second floor, where a door behind a bedframe hid one sanctuary of many, including a buggy with a false bottom where Levi hid slaves he found while transporting goods. The Coffins' Quaker neighbors all supported them as conductors in what was called "The Grand Central Station of the Underground Railroad." As a powerful businessman in southern Indiana, Coffin was comfortable boasting his work, and became friendly with Henry Ward Beecher and Frederick Douglass. In December 2016, an Interpretive Center opened next door to the Coffin State Historical site; the center uses videos and displays to tell their story in the context of slavery and abolitionism. Historians believe each of the 1,000 or more slaves they assisted between 1827-1847 achieved freedom.

Center for Civil and Human Rights

A 1950s replica of a Woolworth's lunch counter is one of the most impactful monuments paying homage to African American culture at Atlanta's highly acclaimed Center for Civil and Human Rights. Inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s commitment to freedom "until Justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream," visionary playwright and film director George C. Wolfe uses state-of-the-art multimedia installations to engage visitors in human rights issues around the world. Grab a stool at "Lunch Counter," put on a headset and rest your hands on the countertop waiting to order. Suddenly, each ear is filled with angry voices shouting the kind of hate speech heard by African Americans protesting segregation. Docents stand by the exhibit with boxes of tissue so shaken visitors can continue their museum tour, ascend the staircase from the Lorraine Motel or read about the work of John Lewis and other activists. The museum, built on land donated by Coca-Cola next to the renowned Georgia Aquarium in downtown Atlanta, is among the five attractions available to Atlanta CityPASS holders at a steep discount.

Frederic Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum

Baltimore has long been central in discussions of race, and this year's Black History Month celebrations culminate on Feb. 18, when re-enactors and storytellers entertain families at all the major tourist attractions. Learn how the USS Constellation, on display in Baltimore Harbor, fought the international slave trade prior to the Civil War, and rescued more than 700 Africans when it captured the slave ship Cora. Explore Baltimore's rich African American history year round at the first black-owned shipyard, now the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park. The Legends and Legacy Heritage Pass offers a 20 percent discount to this site, as well as the National Great Blacks In Wax Museum, featuring the casts of more than 100 prominent citizens as well as a replica slave ship, and the Reginald F. Lewis Museum.

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Edited by Liz Weiss.

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