During February, Black History Month recognizes the struggles and celebrates the achievements of black Americans. Here are six must-see destinations to learn about black history year-round.
Along with Washington’s Birthday and Columbus Day, I long considered Martin Luther King Jr. Day to be just another day when:
- kids were out of school,
- the post office was closed, and
- I had to go to work.
Don’t get me wrong. I deeply admire Martin Luther King Jr.’s peaceful leadership during the American civil rights movement. It takes far more courage and effort to use nonviolent resistance as a tool for change than violent measures. But although I respect Martin Luther King Jr. I simply didn’t give the relatively new federal holiday honoring the civil rights leader much thought.
My eyes were opened a few years ago when I noticed a growing number of colleagues taking Martin Luther King Jr. Day off from work. Some co-workers took family field trips to the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. An hour west of Kansas City, their children experienced first-hand what segregation felt like before a historic Supreme Court decision positively changed our nation. Other officemates spent the day honoring Martin Luther King Jr. by serving others. During a day of service, they volunteered at homeless shelters, served in food kitchens, and performed other acts of kindness.
This year marks the 50th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr’s assassination in Memphis, Tennessee. Instead of using the day to binge watch Netflix or shop for MLK Day bargains, I hope more people will pause for at least a moment and consider the positive changes the civil rights movement made in our country. And throughout the year — beginning with Martin Luther King Jr. Day, during Black History Month, and beyond — I hope my fellow Americans will come together to make Dr. King’s dream a reality.
Did you know? George Washington is the only other American whose birthday is recognized by a federal holiday in the United States.
As a starting point, here are six must-see destinations to learn about black history, from the first Africans plucked from their homes and forced into slavery to the present day:
1 – National Museum of African American History (NMAAHC)
Recommended by Ruth Mendes of Have Kiddos Will Travel
I took my kids to the NMAAHC and can’t stress enough the variety of exhibits and historical collection housed in this Smithsonian Museum in Washington, DC! We are a family of history lovers. As a result, I attempt to find sensitive and age-appropriate ways to introduce the difficult aspects of American history to our children. We took several family trips to Washington, DC during the construction of the NMAAHC, and I was biding my time for the perfect opportunity to visit this amazing collection with my children.
Did you know? The NMAAHC’s first exhibition was “Let Your Motto Be Resistance” and featured photographs of nonviolent resistance during the American civil rights movement.
We’re avid travelers and have visited many black history sites in the USA. By far, the NMAAHC incorporated the largest selection of black historical artifacts (over 37,000) in one location. As you can imagine, a collection of this magnitude draws huge crowds and so free timed-entry tickets are needed in order to visit the museum. At this time, the available tickets are for several months from now. Same day tickets are released online beginning at 6:00 am on weekdays. See how my family scored these hard-to-come-by passes and get additional inspiration to plan your trip to the NMAAHC here.
Pro Tip: Download the free NMAAHC mobile app to enrich your visit.
2 – McLeod Plantation
Recommended by Gretchen Holcombe from Boxy Colonial on the Road
You can’t throw a stick without hitting a plantation in Charleston, South Carolina, and visiting these old estates is a huge part of the tourism industry in the city. But the McLeod Plantation is the only site with the express purpose of telling the story of the enslaved men, women, and children who built these houses and worked the land.
The admission price includes a fascinating guided tour of the grounds and outbuildings and a self-guided tour of the house. McLeod isn’t the most beautiful plantation in Charleston. It doesn’t come with the bells and whistles of boat rides and petting zoos that others plantations have, but it’s a must-see destination to understand Charleston’s complicated, and often dark, history.
3 – Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site
Recommended by Theresa Goodrich, Author of Two Lane Gems
On May 17, 1954, the Supreme Court of the United States of America declared that separate but equal was not. Monroe Elementary School had been one of four segregated sites in Topeka, and Oliver L. Brown was a father who wanted his daughter to attend the school that was seven blocks from their home, instead of the segregated black school – Monroe – that was a mile away. He and twelve other plaintiffs took the school district to court in 1951 and lost. But they appealed, and the Supreme Court combined their case with four others from around the country. What should have been obvious overturn was delayed for another year because the court couldn’t state what was logical and right, but finally, finally in 1954 they came to the unanimous decision that the doctrine of separate but equal was unconstitutional.
Brown v. Board National Historic Site is a difficult place to visit. One of the former classrooms displayed videos of adults yelling at schoolchildren as they walked towards their school, just because their skin was a darker shade.
How does a grown person ever, EVER think that’s OK?
It was hard to watch, but I can’t even imagine what it was like to experience. And because that can never happen again, we did watch. We listened. We learned. We cried. And we hoped.
Read more about Theresa’s visit to the Brown v. Board National Historic Site in her new book, “Two Lane Gems, Vol. 1: Turkeys are Jerks and Other Observations from an American Road Trip.”
Related Article: A Visit to the Martin Luther King Jr National Historic Site
4 – Rosa Parks Bus
Recommended by Richard Christensen of Wagon Pilot Adventures
The Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan is chock full of mechanical artifacts from the past century, but it’s one of the newer exhibits that has caught my attention recently. With Liberty & Justice for All details the struggle for freedom and equality in America going back to the days of the Revolutionary War. A tour through the hallways of the exhibit begins on a high note with a copy of the Declaration of Independence and other early American items. But the gravity of the surroundings soon feels heavy as you move into areas occupied by the chair where President Lincoln was shot, a white KKK costume, and a pair of segregated water fountains distinctly side by side on the wall. Our history is not always as inspiring as we wish and sometimes we need a shock of reality to keep moving forward.
Pressing forward the mood lightens as we see the progress of the Women’s Suffrage movement and then, around the corner, you see it. Glistening in neon yellow, green, and white is a ray of hope: the Rosa Parks bus. On December 1, 1955 Rosa Parks, an African-American woman in Alabama, refused to give up her seat to a white man and was arrested. Joining the rising tide of individuals resisting segregation laws, her quiet act of bravery helped to further the burgeoning civil rights movement. Shortly afterward she moved to Detroit, where she spent the rest of her days.
Did you know? Rosa Parks did not give up her seat because her feet were tired after a day at work. In her autobiography, she wrote, “I was not tired physically, or no more tired than I usually was at the end of a working day. I was not old, although some people have an image of me as being old then. I was forty-two. No, the only tired I was, was tired of giving in.”
The Henry Ford Museum acquired the bus in 2001 and restored it after decades of neglect. It is much more than a typical museum piece though. Guests can actually sit inside the bus and take a moment to imagine the time and place where Rosa Parks made her decision to resist. Being able to interact with such an important artifact of American history makes this one of my favorite exhibits. You can read more about the Henry Ford Museum and adjoining Greenfield Village on at WagonPilot.com.
Related Article: A Visit to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
5 – Selma, Alabama
Recommended by Michelle Marine from Simplify, Live, Love
On March 7, 1965 — a day since known as Bloody Sunday — 600 nonviolent protesters walked across the Edmund Pettus Bridge toward the state capital of Montgomery. In their march to protest unfair voting practices aimed at black citizens, the protesters were blocked by Alabama State troopers and local police. When they refused to turn around as ordered, the peaceful protesters were beaten with billy clubs and sickened with tear gas. Over 50 people ended up in the hospital. When Americans saw the violent conclusion of the peaceful march on television, it was a turning point in the civil rights movement and a significant moment in black history. The outrage expressed by many Americans from coast-to-coast helped the Voting Rights Act of 1965 pass.
6 – The National Civil Rights Museum
Recommended by Emily Kammerlohr from She’s a Trip
The National Civil Rights Museum shares the struggle for progress and prosperity with meaningful context and integrity. The museum follows the story of African Americans from the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the American civil rights movement to #BlackLivesMatter without shying away from just how ugly white supremacy is and how institutionalized racism was, and still is, woven into the fabric our country’s government and culture. As I walked through the museum, I found myself taking photos of the exhibits and wall placards because it was the first time the true cause and effect of certain events truly clicked for me, and I wanted to make sure I had access to the information later.
After my visit, I realized how glossed over the Civil Rights Movement was during my formal education. How much I didn’t know. And now, in these ever-turbulent times, the “education” I received during my morning at the museum is more important than ever.
Related Article: The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee