February 1st marked the beginning of Black History Month, a month to celebrate the gains, wins, and history of the Black community. Although I subscribe to the mantra of "Black History 24/7", I wanted to share some great travel destinations for a lesson in Black History.
This list is just a small selection of some of the historic sites you can visit while traveling to US cities. This list is in no way exhaustive, but a great place to start.
Lorraine Motel and the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum
The Lorraine Motel is famously known as the location of the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in April of 1968. King was on the second floor balcony outside his room when he was killed by a bullet shot from the building across the street. The motel and shooters building were later purchased as a part of the Memphis National Civil Rights Museum. After the purchase, the room King stayed in was set up the way it was when he was assassinated, and visitors are encouraged to walk the balcony. The adjacent museum takes you through the civil rights movement and allows you to visit the room the fatal shot was fired from, which has also been kept as it was in April of '68.
When I visited I was unsure if I would feel comfortable walking on the balcony that I considered hallowed ground, but once there I felt transformed to 1968 and felt more connected to a movement I had only learned about from stories and schoolbooks. The museum complex can be found in Memphis, Tennessee.
National Museum of African-American Culture and History
Opened in September 2016 on the National Mall of Washington, DC, this 350,000 square foot museum houses an array of Black history. When I visited I immediately felt overwhelmed. Unlike other museums around The Mall I wan't quite sure where to go first, and started in the basement based on a recommendation of a staff member. The basement is set up chronologically and moves from slavery to the civil rights movement, and more. One of the most memorable parts for me was when I saw the casket of Emmitt Till. Again, like the Lorraine Motel, I wasn't sure if I could actually enter the room to see it until I was there, but I am very happy I did.
The museum is VERY large, and I recommend taking two days, or a full 8 hours to take in the whole thing. I still have not seen the full museum, but have gone through the basement levels. If you plan on visiting you will need a timed entry pass prior to arrival, but the advanced planning is well worth it.
Located in the heart of Detroit, Michigan is this Motown lovers dream. The original home of Motown Records, purchased by the labels founder, Barry Gordy, this historic location is home to the creation and recording of many hit songs. The main gallery has a bi-annual rotation to keep things fresh for repeat visitors, but the museum hosts memorabilia from Motown greats like Marvin Gaye, Diana Ross and the Supremes, The Jackson 5 and more.
The Motown Museum also hosts local music programs and events for music lovers of varied ages. If you love Motown, like I do, make sure you head to the museum next time you're in Detroit (and make sue you check out Bucharest Grill which I will discuss in a future post).
Speaking of music, you have got to check out Beale Street - the home of the blues - next time you're in Memphis. Beale Street, located not far from the Lorraine Motel, is a street full of music, food, and entertainment in the heart of downtown Memphis, Tennessee. Not only can you listen to great jazz music seven days a week, you can immerse yourself in the history of the street. Before the Civil War Beale Avenue (as it was called at the time) was full of Black owned shops and suburban homes, with traveling Black musicians often visiting the area.
In the 1920's Beale Street made it's name as a jazz and blues capital and musicians like B.B. King and Louise Armstrong flocked to Memphis to play on Beale Street. Unfortunately, in the 1960's Beale Street was plagued with closing businesses and ultimately came into disrepair before being built into the tourist area you'll see today in the 1990's. Although the revitalization isn't exactly what it was like in the 1950's, the city did a great job at maintaining the blues hub that it once was.
I didn't get to spend as much time as I would have liked on Beale Street when I visited last, but I was able to hear music and see some street performers. Next time I'm in the city I plan on grabbing a drink or two and listening to some blues at B.B. Kings.
The Lincoln Memorial is my favorite monument in Washington, D.C., and anyone who has been there, especially at night, may agree. But that's not why it made the list. The Lincoln Memorial is bathed in political and activist history. Some of the most memorable historic events include Martin Luther King, Jr.'s March on Washington where his I Have A Dream speech was given on the steps of the Memorial. Another memory of mine at the monument, since I wasn't alive to see King's speech, was during the Inauguration of President Barack Obama when he stood on the steps addressing attendees at an event the Sunday before his historic first Inauguration. It was freezing cold, but you could barely feel it because there were people EVERYWHERE crammed together keeping each other warm (something that makes me cringe in the current days of COVID).
If you are in D.C. you should head to the Lincoln Memorial after the African American Museum of History and Culture, maybe even pack a lunch and have a picnic with a view. You can even walk across the street to view the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial at the Tidal Basin next to the FDR memorial.
If someone had told me last year that I'd be putting a plantation on a list of must visit Black history locations while traveling I would have said you were crazy. Personally, I have never wanted to see a plantation, let alone set foot on one. So what changed, you may ask? I found the Whitney Plantation. Not only have they refused to host weddings on their property (I have never understood how anyone who knows the history of plantations would want to marry there in the first place), but they also lead tours from the perspective of the slaves who lived there.
If you are interested in finding out more about the lives of Southern slaves and what their lives were like on a plantation I would recommend the Whitney Plantation when you visit New Orleans, Louisiana. I have not yet been, but when I work up the nerve to actually visit a plantation this will be the one I visit.
These are only a few of countless places you can visit to be steeped in Black history, but I hope you take some time to check these spots out when you visit D.C., Memphis, New Orleans, or Detroit,
Am I missing a great Black history location that should be on the list? Let me know in the comments.