7 destinations to visit in the US to learn about Black history
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- One of the first steps to combating racial injustice is learning and understanding Black history.
- We’re highlighting great US destinations to learn about the contributions of Black Americans.
- From museums and cultural sites to Black-owned hotels, here’s what to see and where to stay.
February is Black History Month in the United States, marking an annual celebration of the achievements and influences of African Americans on United States history and culture. It was officially designated in 1976 by President Gerald Ford, who hoped it would “honor the too-often neglected accomplishments of Black Americans in every area of endeavor throughout our history.”
Black History Month evolved from Negro History Week, founded in 1926 by historian Carter G. Woodson and minister Jesse E. Moorland and their Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). They chose the second week of February as it coincided with the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass.
Black history in the United States is American history, so while February is Black History Month, think about it as a month that gives you an excuse and ample resources to dive deeper into American history.
Every year the ASALH chooses a theme. The theme for Black History Month 2021 is “Black Family: Representation, Identity and Diversity.” This explores the African diaspora and the spread of Black families throughout the United States from slavery to The Great Migration to present day.
With travelers looking for more local options within the United States, this creates a unique opportunity to support Black businesses and explore previously overlooked locales in the US that go beyond well-known Black-history rich destinations, such as D.C. or Atlanta.
As the country is still in the grips of COVID-19, be aware that there’s no guarantee when it comes to safety and travel right now. We always recommend following guidelines from the CDC, social distancing, wearing masks in public areas, and washing hands frequently.
That said, we hope you use this as inspiration to explore and to learn about the beautiful, and not-so-beautiful, history of our country. From colorful beach communities you didn’t know had a Black history to majority Black cities making a comeback as small businesses thrive, we’ve rounded up great destinations that highlight the historical and present-day contributions of African Americans in the US.
We’re rounding out our recommendations with Black-owned hotels, shops, and eateries not to miss.
Read on for 7 destinations in the US to learn about Black history.
The port city of Baltimore is in the middle of a rebirth. And with colorful row houses, murals depicting legends, and historical sites like the Royal Theatre, Baltimore’s nickname of Charm City is quite fitting.
With a population that is 60% Black, Baltimore’s African American history runs deep. Famed sons and daughters of Baltimore include Jazz great Billie Holiday, the first Black Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, and US Congressman and Civil Rights activist Elijah E. Cummings.
The city was also once home to abolitionist and adviser to President Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, who spent his youth an enslaved young man in the shipyards of Baltimore. Later, he returned to Baltimore, now as a free man and the highest-ranking Black man in the US, and built five homes on Strawberry Alley (now known as Dallas Street).
You can learn more about his legacy at Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum, and there are several sites throughout the city of Baltimore that pay homage to Douglass’ journey. Stop by the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, a Smithsonian affiliate, to see an autographed photograph of Frederick Douglass and a first edition of his autobiography.
It would not be a trip to Baltimore without trying crabs or crab cakes, and checking out Baltimore’s Black culinary scene is a must. Head to Ida B’s Table for a culinary trip through Black history. Ida B. Wells was an activist and journalist in the south covering Southern issues of race and politics in the reconstruction period. As forward-thinking and boundary-pushing as its namesake, Ida B’s Table serves modern, farm-to-table soul food. Chef Thomas even sources from one of the few African American farms remaining in the country: Gaithers Gardens, which dates back 138 years and is family run.
Where to stay: For an oasis in downtown Baltimore, book the Black-owned luxury hotel The Ivy Hotel & Spa. This gorgeous and lauded property is a 10-room, eight-suite Relais & Chateaux property housed in a historical 1880s mansion in the Mount Vernon neighborhood of Baltimore. On-site amenities include a spa and the fine dining bistro, Magdalena. Rates start at $395 per night. The hotel is currently opening and accepting guests with new COVID-19 protocols in place.
If you’ve already been on the classic historical family trip to Williamsburg, Virginia, consider a visit to the state’s capital. Richmond is a destination deeply important to Black American history as it was once the center of the domestic slave trade in North America. One of America’s oldest cities, this spot on the James River has a history that is at times painful. However, that only cements the vital importance of a visit here.
The Richmond Slave Trail is a walking trail that chronicles the history of the trade of enslaved Africans from Africa to Virginia until 1775, and away from Virginia to other locations in the Americas until 1865. The route begins at the Manchester Docks and goes through sites like the slave market of Richmond and the First African Baptist Church, a center of African American life in pre-Civil War Richmond.
Richmond also served as the home of Jefferson Davis’ Confederacy and Richmond’s American Civil War Museum & The Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia explores the Black Virginian experience from the Emancipation to the Civil Rights Movement of the 60s.
In more recent times, you may have seen Richmond and the captivating photos of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the city, as well as the removal of the statue of Confederate General Robert E. Lee. Activists have transformed the base of the sculpture, covering it with names of victims of police violence, calls for peace, as well as light projections, murals, and other artworks, transforming it into an influential work of art. Additionally, many public spaces, including the Marcus-David Peters Circle, are dedicated to art that highlights Black history and culture in Richmond.
Don’t miss the Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia in Richmond’s historic African American Jackson Ward. While you’re there, have a taste of diverse Richmond at the Black-owned Soul Taco, a restaurant blending traditional Latin American flavors with soul food.
Where to stay: Currently, there are no Black-owned hotels in Richmond, so opt to stay at The Graduate, which is inspired by hometown hero and tennis legend Arthur Ashe. The pet-friendly hotel has a collegiate vibe with quirky tennis-inspired decor and is located near Virginia Commonwealth University. Rates begin at $160 per night. The hotel is open with new COVID-19 protocols in place.
Oak Bluffs, Martha's Vineyard, Massachusetts
If you’re planning a visit to Massachusetts’ beautiful island of Martha’s Vineyard, be sure to explore the well-known summer destination’s deep African American roots. Photos of the Obamas vacationing there may have announced Martha’s Vineyard as a playground for the country’s Black elite to those who weren’t already in the know. But long before that, Martin Luther King Jr. vacationed in Oak Bluffs, as did Joe Louis, Harry Belafonte, and Dorothy West. Maya Angelou also once described Oak Bluffs as “a safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”
Located on the north shore of the island, the town of Oak Bluffs and its eye-catching gingerbread houses have been attracting tourists for generations. Since the 1920s, it’s been a safe haven for Black Americans in search of sea, sun, and respite from beaches that were historically deemed “Whites Only.”
The first Black Americans on Martha’s Vineyard came before that though. They were freemen whalers, indentured slaves, and runaways that sought a livelihood in Martha’s Vineyard whale oil economy. By the 1950s, Oak Bluffs was attracting Black doctors, lawyers, and executives, along with storied figures of the Harlem Renaissance. Places like Shearer Cottage, founded by Charles and Henrietta Shearer in 1912 as a summer inn, were one of the first of these establishments that catered specifically to African Americans.
Visit beautiful and lively Inkwell Beach, the Oak Bluffs town beach. Origin stories of the name differ on if it was a pejorative by nearby segregated white beachgoers in reference to the Black population or — the story I like to go with — it was a reference to the Harlem Renaissance writers and poets that found inspiration and camaraderie in the Oak Bluffs community. Washington DC’s National Museum of African American History includes Oak Bluffs in their permanent exhibition, “Power of Place,” such is its place of importance to the Black American community. Enjoy film festivals, book clubs, historical Black churches, and The African-American Heritage Trail of Martha’s Vineyard for more in-depth history during your visit.
Where to stay: Five minutes away from the beach, homey yet chic The Oak Bluffs Inn has attracted guests from director Spike Lee to jazz musician Wynton Marsalis, who once serenaded guests with his trumpet during an impromptu concert in the living room. The inn has nine uniquely decorated rooms, plus a stunning penthouse. Rates start at $155 per night. The Oak Bluffs Inn is currently open with new COVID-19 procedures in place.
Prefer to rent a home? Consider rental company Getaway Society owned by HBCU Hampton University grads Carrington M. Carter and Calvin L. Butts, Jr. Rates start at $461 per night for a three-bedroom cottage.
Houston, Texas is one of the country’s most diverse cities and has included a large Black population of freemen and majority slaves since its founding in the 1830s. Post slavery, African Americans from other Southern cities migrated to Houston for job opportunities. Houston also attracted Buffalo Soldiers (Black cavalry during the Indian Wars and American Civil War). They protected mail, escorted stagecoaches, and even guarded the Mexican-American border. Learn more about them and Black cowboys at Houston’s Buffalo Soldiers National Museum and Taylor-Stevenson Ranch.
In the summer, visit the celebration at Houston’s Emancipation Park for Juneteenth. President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation and published it on January 1, 1863, but it didn’t reach Galveston, Texas until June 19, 1865. The park was established in 1872 when former slaves formed the Colored People’s Festival and Emancipation Park Association for 10 acres in Houston.
While spending time in Third Ward, the Black heart of Houston, know that you’re in the home of some of Houston’s most important hometown heroes, including Beyonce, Solange, Phylicia Rashad, and Debbie Allen. Though currently closed due to COVID-19, during non-pandemic times a visit to Project Row Houses is well worth it. The shotgun houses of newly freed slaves have been converted into art installations primarily designed by African American artists.
Nicknamed Space City, check out the recent movie “Hidden Figures” before visiting the Houston Space Center for historical context on Black contributions to the US space program. After, sink your teeth into some of that famed Texas barbecue at Black-owned Ray’s BBQ. Co-owner and official pitmaster Ray Busch is a native Houstonian who started his own barbecue food truck in 1985 before eventually joining forces with his longtime friend Maxine Davis and opening Ray’s BBQ Shack, the brick and mortar location specializing in hickory-smoked meats and plenty of soul food with Cajun influences.
Where to stay: Black-owned bed and breakfast La Maison Midtown prides itself on European flavor in the heart of Texas. Houston attorney Genora Boykins and her business partner, Sharon Owen opened the urban bed and breakfast in 2010. The seven-room establishment offers guests private spa baths, soaking tubs, rain showers, and that unrivaled Texas hospitality. Rates start at $169 per night and new COVID-19 procedures are in place.
Charleston, South Carolina
Charleston, South Carolina is another old American city that is rich with Black history. African heritage helped shape the low country culture. In 2018, the city of Charleston finally passed a resolution acknowledging that the city profited greatly from slave labor and extended an apology.
Start your day with a delicious Lowcountry breakfast from Hannibal’s Kitchen, which has been serving Charleston unique dishes like shark and grits for over 40 years. The Africans brought to the Carolina Colony used the similarities between the agricultural environments of the Lowcountry and Africa’s West Coast, and you will see this same tasty tradition in Gullah cuisine.
The Gullah/Geechees have been said to have preserved their history more than any African American community in the United States. They are descendants of Central and West Africans and were enslaved together on the isolated islands which stretch along the US coastline from North Carolina down to St. Johns, Florida. To learn more about this history, book a tour of the Black history of Charleston with native Gullah Charlestonian Alphonso Brown of Gullah Tours.
A visit to the McLeod Plantation Historic site is also in order. The plantation is a 37-acre Gullah-Geechee heritage site that pays tribute to the enslaved Africans who lived and worked on the sea-island cotton plantation from the 1800s. Guests can learn about daily plantation life and tour the preserved dwellings of both the owners and enslaved families. The grounds include a riverside outdoor pavilion, a sweeping oak allée, and the McLeod Oak, which is thought to be more than 600 years old.
An equally important place to spend an afternoon is the Slave Mart Museum. At one point, 40% of the slaves in the United States came through the port of Charleston and this museum stands on the site of one of the last existing slave “showrooms” in the city in Charleston’s French Quarter. Many of the museum’s docents can trace their family history to slaves from the area.
Opera fan? Head over to Cabbage Row on Charleston’s Church Street where you’ll find Revolutionary War-era houses once home to the families of freed slaves. Black residents would sell cabbages from their window at one point, giving the area its name. Charleston native Dubose Heyward used Cabbage Row as his setting for his 1925 novel “Porgy” which was the basis of George Gershwin’s opera “Porgy & Bess.”
Round out the day with a stop at the Mother Emanuel AME Church, the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, founded in 1816. This is the church’s third incarnation. The first was burned by local whites in 1822 and the second was destroyed in an earthquake. The church has hosted notable Civil Rights figures like Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. and Booker T. Washington. Pay your respects and acknowledge recent turbulent history at the Emanuel 9 Memorial, which was constructed following the devastating murders of Cynthia Marie Graham Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lee Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Reverand Celementa C. Pinckney, Tywanza Sanders, Reverand Daniel Simmons, Reverand Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, and Myra Thompson on June 17, 2015.
Where to stay: Consider a stay at the Black-owned, five-star luxury Hotel Bennett. A nod to the city’s refined European elegance, BET co-founder Sheila Johnson’s Hotel Bennett has been considered one of the best new hotels in the world thanks to impeccable decor and service. There are also two opulent bars and a patisserie, plus a rooftop pool, a gym, and a spa. Rates start at $220 per night and new COVID-19 health and safety protocols are in place.
To many, Mississippi conjures up ideas of the deep South at its worst and most racist (see the recent debacle over Martin Luther King Day just a few years ago in Biloxi, Mississippi). But it would be wrong to ignore the great influence and continued presence of Black Americans in the state.
Explore the Biloxi Visitors Center to learn about the African American cultural influence in the state, but more importantly, venture across the street to the beach. A commemorative plaque will tell you that this was the site of the Biloxi wade-ins, which were conducted by local African Americans from 1959 to 1963 to desegregate the beaches of coastal Mississippi. Following what The New York Times described as the worst racial riot in Mississippi history and protests following the assassination of the NAACP field secretary of Mississippi Medgar Evers, the 26-mile long beachfront was finally opened to all races.
For blues fans, a visit to The 100 Men Hall is a must. A longtime center of African American social life and entertainment since it was built in 1922, it has brought in countless blues, rhythm & blues, and jazz acts. Local residents have been treated to performances by Etta James, Big Joe Turner, Guitar Slim, Irma Thomas, Professor Longhair, Ernie K-Doe, Deacon John, Earl King, and numerous others here.
Where to stay: Stay at the Black-owned-and-operated Almanett Hotel & Bistro in Gulfport. Steps away from the beach, this oceanfront property personifies Southern Charm. With art from local artists and rooms named after family members, this hotel makes a serious effort to feel like a home away from home. Rates start at $129 per night and new COVID-19 protocols are in place.
Upstate New York
With a renewed interest in the wine scene and thriving arts community, the Hudson River Valley and upstate New York have attracted major tourism in the last few years. During vineyard crawls and fall foliage getaways, take some time to learn about the Black history of the region. New York state played an important role in the Underground Railroad, which helped tens of thousands of freedom seekers escape enslavement.
Opened in 2018, the Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center tells the stories of freedom seekers who risked their lives to escape slavery and oppression by journeying north to Niagara Falls as one of their final stops and border crossing to Canada. Virtual Freedom Conversation Tours are also available twice a week. John Brown, known for his raid on Harper’s Ferry in 1859, maintained a home near Lake Placid that was a key stop on the Underground Railroad, which is now also a site you can visit. You can also stop at the home of Harriet Tubman in the Finger Lakes region of Auburn, New York.
Honor the role Black soldiers played in the Revolutionary war with a visit to Saratoga National Historical Park. At the Battle of Saratoga in 1777, 400 Black soldiers fought along white soldiers in a pivotal battle during the Revolutionary war that resulted in the British Army’s first surrender.
The history of Black people in this area can be traced pre-Revolutionary War though. The two biggest slave markets in the country before the American Revolution were in New York City and Albany. Fans of Hamilton can visit the St. Agnes Cemetery, an African burial site discovered on the grounds of Schuyler Mansion, where they’ll learn that yes, Eliiiiiiiiiza’s father was a slaveholder.
In Buffalo, grab a drink and listen to live music at The Colored Musicians Club. Formed in 1917 due to discrimination from an all-white club, the Colored Musicians Club was the only operating African American jazz club in the United States and was a place where Black musicians were welcomed to socialize, play music, and rehearse. Famous musicians who have performed here include Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, and Duke Ellington. The first floor of the building serves as a multimedia museum where guests can interact and listen to jazz and enjoy historic memorabilia.
Where to stay: Stay at Chautauqua Harbor Hotel, a lakefront luxury hotel and a great base from which to explore the region. The property includes indoor and outdoor pools, an on-site restaurant, and magical lakeside sunsets. Rates start at $119 and new COVID-19 protocols are in place.
Due to the global pandemic, many wonderful destinations for learning about Black history are closed. Additionally, not everyone is feeling safe enough to venture out on a trip right now. Luckily, there are also plenty of virtual opportunities available.
Washington D.C.’s Smithsonian National Museum of African American History & Culture is currently closed but they offer virtual exhibits and online collections for your learning pleasure — without the lengthy waitlist for tickets you’d have in person.
In honor of Black History Month, New York City’s Museum of Food and Drink is offering a series of online Zoom programming highlighting themes from the postponed exhibition “African / American: Making the Nation’s Table,” and featuring talks by culinary historians, cook-along sessions with chefs, and other deliciously informative courses.
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