Black history and culture are woven into every fiber of the American tapestry. Through compelling museums, towering monuments, robust historic trails, and immersive experiences, groups can learn more about and appreciate African American history exactly where it happened—uncovering powerful stories and the uncomfortable, yet necessary truths that accompany them. Destinations across the United States shed light on all aspects of African American history—from historic events and time periods to rich culture and traditions.
Historic trails help string together individual sites of significance, making them stronger as a collective whole, and the U.S. Civil Rights Trail is a powerful example of this. The collection of more than 130 churches, courthouses, schools, museums, and other landmarks spans over 15 states (primarily in the South) where activists challenged segregation in the 1950s and 1960s to advance civil rights and social justice. Groups can use the trail’s official website (civilrightstrail.com) as a resource for building itineraries.
In Boston, groups are probably familiar with The Freedom Trail full of Revolutionary War-era sites, but they might not know about The Black Heritage Trail, a 1.6-mile route with 10 sites throughout the Beacon Hill neighborhood, once home to the city’s largest community of African Americans, prior to the Civil War. Groups can join a park ranger from the National Park Service on a 90-minute tour to explore the trail. Although many sites on the tour are private residences, the final stops—the Abiel Smith School and the African Meeting House—are part of the Museum of African American History. The two buildings have deep historic roots—the Abiel Smith School is the oldest public school in the U.S. built for the sole purpose of educating African American children, and the African Meeting House is the oldest existing Black church building in the nation.
Museums throughout the country help preserve the African American story and legacy. Although they might range in size, scope, and theme, each one illuminates a different part of Black history. While some focus on African American identity and culture, others zero-in on topics like civil rights, slavery, and exemplary leaders. Some reside in centuries-old buildings where historic events occurred, while others were built for the sole purpose of sharing the struggles and triumphs of Black Americans.
At the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina, visitors step into history at the actual spot where the sit-in movement began more than 50 years ago. See the preserved “whites-only” lunch counter where four teenagers (known as the A&T Four) sparked a nationwide push for equality and justice. The museum’s 35,000 square feet of exhibit space features original artifacts, interactive exhibits, and powerful narratives. Another museum tied to a historic event, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, Tennessee, is located at the former Lorraine Motel, the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Chronicling the Civil Rights Movement and sharing the ongoing struggle for human rights, the interactive museum is rich in compelling storytelling, evoking emotion at every turn. The museum experience ends with a view inside the actual Room 306 where King spent his final hours.
In Jackson, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum shares the state’s impact on the Civil Rights Movement throughout eight galleries. In the third gallery, visitors find a central space lit by a dramatic light sculpture playing the museum’s theme song, “This Little Light of Mine,” which pays tribute to those who laid down their lives for the Civil Rights Movement. Meanwhile, in Atlanta, Georgia, the National Center for Civil and Human Rights is both a museum and human rights organization that inspires people to tap into their own power to change the world. The center’s exhibits feature the papers and artifacts of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., the history of the U.S. Civil Rights Movement, and stories from human rights struggles around the world. Groups can participate in a lunch counter sit-in simulation, view portraits of prominent human rights defenders, and see a large-scale art installation featuring King’s handwriting, illuminated through etched metal.
For a comprehensive look at African American resilience, “And Still We Rise,” is a must-see exhibit at The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan. As the museum’s central experience, “And Still We Rise” contains more than 20 galleries that take guests through time and across geographic boundaries. Walk through lifelike settings, such as a Middle Passage slave ship, and hear firsthand accounts of tragedies endured and battles won by African Americans.
Just four hours south in Cincinnati, Ohio, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center shares the stories of freedom’s heroes, from the era of the Underground Railroad to contemporary times. The museum is located just steps from the banks of the Ohio River—the natural barrier that separated slave states from free states. Exhibit topics range from slavery’s three centuries of history in America, the existence of modern slavery, and how to recognize and address implicit bias. In Memphis, Tennessee, groups can explore a stop along the Underground Railroad at Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, an antebellum home near the Mississippi River that once housed fugitive slaves seeking freedom. On tours, visitors descend the stairs into the dark, damp cellar to see trapdoors and hidden passages where slaves once sought refuge. Tours also teach groups about the slave trade, secret messages used to communicate along the Underground Railroad, and travel patterns of slaves escaping to freedom.
African American heritage adds a rich vibrancy to the United States’ cultural landscape. So much of what defines America today can be traced back to African roots. Music is just one example. The National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee, is the only museum dedicated to preserving and celebrating the many music genres created, influenced, and inspired by African Americans. The highly immersive museum showcases more than 50 genres and subgenres, and dives into how today’s artists are connected to the traditions born out of the African American experience. Groups can enhance their visit by purchasing an RFID bracelet to save playlists, videos, and more, as they explore the interactive exhibits. Also in Tennessee, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis is the world’s only museum dedicated to preserving and promoting the legacy of Stax Records and American soul music. The museum is located at the original site of Stax Records studio in the neighborhood known as “Soulsville”—one of the most talent-packed neighborhoods in the world and home to the likes of Aretha Franklin, Memphis Slim, and Booker T. Jones. Interactive exhibits, films, stage costumes, instruments, and vintage recording equipment are just some of the museum highlights.
In Washington, D.C., the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture is the nation’s largest and most comprehensive cultural destination devoted to exploring, documenting, and showcasing the African American story and its impact. Exhibits explore African American visual artists, athletes, activists, and visionaries in its 400,000 square feet of space.
Across the country in San Francisco, California, Museum of the African Diaspora is a contemporary art museum that ignites challenging conversations and celebrates Black culture through permanent and rotating exhibits. Meanwhile, in Kansas City, Kansas, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum hits a home run for groups. The museum is one of a kind in its dedication to preserving the rich history of African American baseball and giving a voice to a once forgotten chapter of baseball and American history.
Main Image: National Museum of African American History & Culture; Credit: Alan Karchmer