Want to delve into some black American history? Want your kids to know more about it? You’ve got the perfect excuse for an all-American road trip!
See if one of these describes you:
* You’ve already done the beaches, the amusement parks, the shopping malls, the club scene, and you’re ready to devote a slice of your vacation to something a little more meaningful.
* You figure black history merits your attention beyond the month of February, but you’re not quite sure where to go or what to do about it.
* You don’t really know what “black history” is, but you’re curious.
* You want your kids to know that black history did not begin with Martin Luther King nor end with Barack Obama, and that the word “diaspora” does not refer to an Italian sports car.
If any of this even comes close to describing you, then you are on the trail of America’s black heritage — and you can pick up that trail at museums and memorial centers all across the United States.
Sound like a good pretext for a road trip? Yeah, I think so, too! In fact, the pursuit of black American history could form the basis for one of the Great American Road Trips of all time.
Especially if you’re one of those 75 percent of Americans who doesn’t have a passport yet.
TOO MANY TO LIST
There’s scarcely a state or a major city — north, south, east or west — that doesn’t feature some sort of memorial or exhibit dedicated to the history, achievements and sacrifices of African slaves and their American descendants.
I’d actually thought to list them all here — until saw how many there were.
So instead of me trying to get encyclopedic about this, I’ll mention just a few that jumped out at me while I was scouring cyberspace.
The two black history centers that fall mostly heavily under the category of “usual suspects” both focus on Martin Luther King, Jr. One is the King Center in Atlanta, dedicated to his life and work.
The other is the National Civil Rights Museum, which is housed by the former Lorraine Motel in Memphis, the same place where a sniper assassinated the Rev. Dr. King in 1968.
But there’s also a museum in New York City dedicated to Malcolm X, a man whose legacy as a black American leader is at least on a par with King’s in the minds of many.
Whenever someone raises the subject of black history, somebody invariably throws up some sarcastic comment along the lines of “How come we can’t have a White History Month?” and so on. The short, angry answer, oft repeated, is: You do — the other 11 months of the year.
The full answer is this: There would be no such thing as black history, even in concept, had that history been included from the start in the greater American story. It wasn’t.
The nation’s concerted effort to fill in the those historical gaps is a relatively recent effort — and remains very much an unfinished work.
There are multiple museums back east devoted to the Underground Railroad and the brave souls, black and white, who ran the clandestine network that took escaped slaves to freedom. This one is in Cincinnati.
If you’re one of those who likes to “think outside the box” — or you wish your children did — there are museums dedicated to the accomplishments of African-Americans in fields that don’t involve a ball, a hoop or spitting rhymes into a microphone.
Next time your kids balk at doing their math and science homework, and try to tell you that such fields have no relevance to “us,” take them to any museum dedicated to George Washington Carver — one of the greatest scientists and inventors this nation has ever produced.
You’ll find one in Austin, TX.
KEEPING IT REAL
For a lot of young blacks today, slavery is a vague, abstract concept at best. Places like South Carolina’s Slave Relics Museum will make that history real for them — and perhaps you, too.
The same could be said of the old federal courthouse in St. Louis, where Dred Scott was informed by the U.S. Supreme Court that a black man had no rights “which a white man was bound to respect.”
It’s still there.
To get to the front end of that history, the enslavement and forced importation of Africans to the Americas, you can visit San Francisco, which is home to the Museum of the African Diaspora.
(That San Francisco should house such a museum is more than slightly ironic, given the current exodus of African-American residents from The City.)
You may be familiar with used to be called the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery. Now, it’s known simply as the Tomb of the Unknowns, a solemn reminder of the price paid in blood to make this nation what it is.
A similar reminder exists at St. Augustine Catholic Church in the Tremé distrrict of New Orleans, much smaller, not nearly as ornate, but every bit as solemn — The Tomb of the Unknown Slave.
(And for the record, some of the nameless slaves buried there are Native Americans as well as Africans.)
If you’re into scuba, the trail of black heritage can even make you to the ocean depths. There are sites off the African coast where you can dive on the wrecks of sunken slave ships.
If, like me, you grew up watching Saturday morning Western movies on TV, you could be forgiven for thinking that there was never such a thing as a black cowboy in the Old West. There’s a museum in Fort Worth, TX that will straighten you out on that.
BLOOD, SOUND AND WAX
A lot of black American history is bound up in the history of America’s wars. There’s a National Historic Site in Alabama dedicated to the Tuskegee Airmen. Houston is home to one of several museums around the western United States dedicated to the Buffalo Soldiers. There’s one that details the role of black soldiers in the Civil War. It’s in Washington DC.
And in Vermont, there’s one that chronicles the roles of African-American servicemen in World War II, roles that went beyond the elite fighter pilots from Tuskegee.
Music also has a prominent place in black history. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is a well-known center of black sports history in the 18th & Vine District of Kansas City. Less well known is that the American Jazz Museum shares the same building.
Rhythm & blues has a shrine of its own, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music in Memphis.
There’s even a wax museum devoted to famous figures in black history.
Odds are, you can find a center devoted to some aspect of black history and culture no more than a day’s travel from where you live. Indeed, a good number of them may be located in your own hometown or nearby.
So why bother going on the road at all?
Well, in addition to all that history and culture, there are the beaches, the amusement parks, the shopping malls, the club scenes…
Who says history can’t be fun?
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