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While they don't get the credit that is deserved, much of the United States was built on the backs of enslaved black Americans. From the horrific slave pens where enslaved people were held to the Woolworth lunch counter at the center of a peaceful protest, these are the best places to learn about black history in the South.
When I first visited the larger-than-live stone carving of Martin Luther King, Jr, standing on the bank of the tidal basin in Washington, DC, I followed his gaze. With his arms crossed across his chest, he stares across the smooth water and looks directly at Thomas Jefferson’s Memorial.
I’m not sure if this was done intentionally, but I love the symbolism. The great civil rights leader will forever stand head and shoulders above the Founding Father who owned more than 600 slaves, staring him down defiantly. (Ah, if only POTUS #3 knew that POTUS #44 would be a black American. Mind blown!)
From the nation’s capital to the deep south, these are the top must-see destinations to learn about black history in America.
Looking for more ways to learn about black history in America? Check out these black history experiences in the North.
National Museum of African American History (NMAAHC) in DC
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.
Related Article: 23 Helpful Tips for Visiting the Smithsonian Museums
U Street Neighborhood in Washington, DC
Until 1920, Washington, D.C. had the largest urban African American population in the country, and the U Street corridor was the heartbeat of the black community in the city. Home to poets, doctors, musicians, authors, professors, and historians, it was a place where African American families built a vibrant, flourishing community. U Street became a “city within a city” and was even known as the Black Broadway, full of restaurants, clubs, and entertainment.
You can explore the U Street neighborhood on a free walking audio tour from Cultural Tourism DC, which is narrated by NPR journalist Korva Coleman. The tour brings the streets and buildings alive with audio clips from longtime U Street residents, and it pulls you into the history of the neighborhood with fascinating stories.
A few sites you’ll see along the way: the famous club where jazz legends like Count Basie and Duke Ellington played, the iconic Ben’s Chili Bowl, the African American Civil War Memorial that honors the 200,000 black servicemen who fought for the Union in the Civil War, and the oldest black Catholic church in Washington.
While U Street has seen glory days, the audio tour also discusses the pain the community experienced in the wake of Dr. King’s assassination, as well as how the neighborhood has changed throughout the last century.
Arlington House and Arlington National Cemetery in Northern Virginia
Recommended by Sage Scott, the Everyday Wanderer
The commanding building that looks like a Greek temple standing high on a hill just above John F. Kennedy’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery is Arlington House, the former home of General Lee. You may be surprised to see the former home of the commander of the Confederate States Army during the Civil War on this list of important destinations to learn about black history.
Let me explain…
Built by slaves at the direction of George Washington’s grandson, the property was confiscated by the US Government when Lee left the Union Army to command the Confederate Army during the Civil War. As slaves were freed during the Civil War via President Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation, Freedman’s Village was established on the Arlington property. With housing, schools, and a hospital, the community was designed to help newly freed slaves transition to freedom.
Like many historic structures in the nation’s capital (including the White House), Arlington House was built on the backs of enslaved workers. It’s easy to understand why abolitionists were excited to establish Freedman’s Village on the Confederate Army leader’s property. But however noble that may seem, Freedman’s Village was more about black Americans to one community than it was helping them integrate into a free society. And, unfortunately, life in Freedman’s Village was only a hair better than life as a slave on a southern plantation.
Pro Tip: When you visit Arlington House, take the time to find the grave of James Parks. Born enslaved to Robert E. Lee’s family on the Arlington Estate in the mid-1800s, James Parks is the only civilian buried at Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Although he never donned a military uniform, he was so honored for digging many of the first graves and caring for the nation’s cemetery for more than 60 years.
Charles H. Wright Museum Of African American History in Detroit
For more than 50 years, the Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan, was the largest museum in the US dedicated to black Americans. And although the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History has demoted the Wright Museum to second place, it remains a must-see destination to learn about black history in America.
Detroit physician Charles H. Wright developed the concept of the museum after visiting a World War II memorial in Denmark. Inside the glass rotunda-topped building in Detroit’s Midtown neighborhood, visitors can explore thousands of artifacts in several permanent and temporary exhibits.
The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
The National Civil Rights Museum is one of the most moving and historic Memphis museums. It 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.
International Civil Rights Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina
On February 1, 1960, four young black college students conducted a peaceful sit-in at a Woolworth lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina. They protested the general store’s segregation policy by taking a seat at the counter reserved for whites and ordering a cup of coffee and other items like all other patrons. Joined by more students, the peaceful sit-in continued while the store’s segregationist policy was enforced. The students organized themselves in shifts, taking seats at the counter, where they tried to study while others shouted words of encouragement or, more often, hate. As news of the sit-in spread, it sparked more peaceful sit-ins across the state and the nation.
The students’ peaceful demonstrations lasted until July 25, 1960, when the Woolworth counter became integrated. The International Civil Rights Center and Museum keeps alive both the memory of that sit-in and advances the fight to continue to break down barriers.
The original Woolworth counter is certainly the main attraction. Other memorabilia and exhibits show what it was like to live in the South during the time of the Jim Crow laws. The guided tours led by passionate historians engage the visitor so that two nearly two hours flew by. Don’t miss this facility on the Civil Rights Trail if you’re in North Carolina.
McLeod Plantation in Charleston, South Carolina
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. The McLeod Plantation 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.
Old Slave Mart in Charleston, South Carolina
The Old Slave Mart Museum is located in the French quarter of the historic downtown precinct of Charleston, South Carolina. The original Slave Mart formed a trading post for African American slaves in the mid to late 1800’s. When a ban was placed on public slave auctions in 1856, facilities such as these were created to take trade behind closed doors.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is a compact two-story memorial to the men, women, and children who were subject to this horrific method of human trafficking. One exhibit includes audio from freed slaves explaining what they experienced that is played while you stand in the very room where they were paraded in front of plantation owners. The museum also provides a wealth of information on the slave trade in general from its beginnings to the eventual outlawing of slavery following the American Civil War.
The museum is self-guided, and the only drawback is that the information is not presented in any real chronological order. It is best to read as much as you can about the Old Slave Mart on the ground floor and get an overview of the history of the international and domestic slave trade on the top floor.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, Georgia
Just east of downtown Atlanta sits one the most important sites to learn about American black history — The Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site. Born in Atlanta, you can tour Dr. King’s birth home, just a short walk from the Visitor’s Center. The MLK National Historic Site is completely free and tells the story of this great civil rights leader from his time growing up in the segregated South to his death in 1968.
The wonderful thing about this experience is that you can come here several times and learn something completely new on each visit. I’ve lived in Atlanta for nearly 20 years, and I’ve visited the MLK National Historic Site at least 10-15 times. From movies to exhibits to Park Rangers who can answer all of your questions, the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site is a place you’ll remember for a long time. It’s easy to spend an entire day here.
When you visit, learn about black history by also exploring the Ebenezer Baptist Church, Fire Station #6, The King Center, and the World Peace Rose Garden.
Port of Entry in Savannah, Georgia
Savannah, Georgia, is a beautiful city. Rich with history, it’s filled with gorgeous homes from the 1700s and 1800s on tree-lined cobblestone streets. Restaurants offer delicious southern food, and the city has many unique shops. However, there is a very sobering fact about this city. You cannot help but feel it as you walk through the streets, for it hangs in the air.
You soon recognize a feeling of repentance for the slave trade that took place between 1750 and 1758. Savannah was one of the three ports of entry for the Atlantic slave trade. The men, woman, and children from Western Africa were unloaded at the river after their disgusting accommodations and inhumane treatment as they crossed the Atlantic Ocean on slave ships.
Disembarking from the ships, the people who survived the voyage were led to the area called the slave barracoon. In fact, the repulsive racial slur “coon” comes from the word barracoon. It means that the person is not good enough for anything but to be a slave. This barracoon in an area in Savannah is located on a cobblestone ramp-like area from River Street to Bay Street. Each slave dungeon is a sparse brick room with a tall arched entry. The slaves were kept here until they were either sold in auctions on the riverfront or until they succumbed to the terrible conditions and died.
The Town of Selma, Alabama
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.
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson
Every single American needs to visit the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum in Jackson, Mississippi. This collection of eight interactive galleries is not only a powerful introduction to the history of civil rights – and lack thereof – in the United States, it’s also a testament to hope and our capacity for growth.
The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum begins with panels depicting slave ships and the number of captives who boarded, as well as the number who arrived. The discrepancy is stark, and the flippant accounting of those losses is horrifying. There are lists of lynchings, galleries illustrating the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, and a poignant banner proclaiming “Why We March.” It is profound, and the museum does an impressive job of detailing the setbacks and the successes that our society has experienced in its efforts to become more civilized and equal. The galleries culminate in the center of this museum with a circular room filled with light. This Little Light of Mine is meant to be a beacon, to show that it does, it can, and it should get better. Mississippi Civil Rights Museum
New Orleans Jazz Museum
The New Orleans Jazz Museum is one of the more unique places to visit during the Black History Month. The museum has many exhibits explaining the history of jazz and its evolution from improvisational performances during slave gatherings in Congo Square, New Orleans, to one of America’s most popular music genres.
The “blues” notes of jazz are irrevocably linked to the pain, longing, and injustice experienced by the enslaved people; the genre is strongly influenced by African tribal music heritage. The New Orleans Jazz Museum pays homage to the roots of jazz among the free people of color and also has many exhibits on famous jazz musicians including Louis Armstrong and artifacts owned by them. A section of the museum features notable women jazz musicians and their contributions. The museum also has a performance venue on the third floor where visitors can also listen to local musicians.
Tremé, a Neighborhood in New Orleans
Made famous by the critically acclaimed HBO series of the same name, Tremé is a small (.69 square miles) New Orleans neighborhood northwest of the French Quarter that has made a remarkably huge impact on modern American culture. Originally known as the Faubourg Tremé and named after real estate developer Claude Tremé, the neighborhood is the oldest community of free black people in the United States.
At its southern end is historic Congo Square (known as the Place des Nègres when Louisiana was under French rule), the only place in America where African and Afro-Caribbean people were allowed to preserve their cultural traditions for over a century. When these traditions blended with those of the European colonialists, it gave birth to a distinctly American fusion that continues to define our nation today.
On the eastern side of Tremé was a red-light district known as Storyville, which was created by the New Orleans City Council in 1897 in order to regulate prostitution. Storyville’s brothels became increasingly popular with travelers, many of whom heard jazz for the first time performed by guys like Jelly Roll Morton, King Oliver, and Buddy Bolden.
Within Tremé’s boundaries today you’ll find St. Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic parish in the nation; Dooky Chase’s Restaurant, home to legendary Creole chef Leah Chase and a regular meeting place for MLK and local freedom fighters during the Civil Rights era; and the Backstreet Cultural Museum, which is dedicated to the history of the Mardi Gras Indian tradition. There’s even a laundromat across from Congo Square where you’ll find a tribute to J & M Studio, where seminal rock ‘n’ roll hits by Fats Domino and Little Richard were recorded.
Gentrification is threatening to erase much of the community’s historic appeal, so make sure to visit Tremé the next time you’re in New Orleans.
Voodoo in New Orleans
Hands up if you think Voodoo is black magic for evil hexes, zombies and doll stabbing, then join the queue. Unfortunately, this is how Voodoo has long been misrepresented on TV and in movies and very few people know much else about it. However, Voodoo in New Orleans is a rare example of the preservation of spiritual beliefs and culture brought to the USA from Africa through the Transatlantic Slave Trade.
It is a fusion of the 6,000-year-old Western African religion of Vodun and Catholicism that was developed and practiced by the African slave population during the 1700s in Congo Square, New Orleans. Slaves were governed by Code Noir, a French ruling that stated all slaves were to be Roman Catholic and attend Sunday services. It was also illegal for any work to be conducted on Sundays, including chores performed by slaves.
So after church, slaves met for social gatherings outside the city walls at Congo Square. No other colony in the US had this opportunity. Slaves celebrated their moments of freedom by singing, dancing, and practicing their homeland religion in secret. Over the years, it became blended with Catholicism.
Voodoo is an oral religion. There are no books or Bibles as it stems from people who were illiterate. The Voodoo customs and traditions are passed down verbally over time. Today, Voodoo is a recognized religion in Louisiana with 4,000 registered followers. That’s just 1% of the population, and the numbers are dwindling. There is a sculpture at Congo Square in Armstrong Park that captures the essence of these slave get-togethers.
What Places Have You Visited to Learn About Black History in America?