Yeah, we know, you’re broke. We all are. But that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to endure another summer stay-cation. Even with gas prices inching back up, road trips make great penny-pinching getaways. Add a little black history, and you can patch together a trip that is both economical and enriching.
The best thing about planning a black history vacation is that a lot of the best places to stop are in relatively inexpensive parts of the country. Sure, if you want to spend big you can head to New York and visit Harlem’s iconic Apollo Theater. But that means you have to pay to sleep and eat in New York. If you’re just dying for a city vacation, why not give the Michigan economy some much-needed love and check out Detroit’s Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, billed as the "world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience." And you can have just as good a time in cities like Memphis, Tenn., Tuskegee, Ala., and Topeka, Kan.
If it’s a choice between the mortgage payment and a long weekend away this summer, then, please, stay at home! But if you’ve got a little wiggle room, here are The Root’s picks for great black history road trips. Unless otherwise indicated, admission is free.
23 Montgomery St.
Guided tours Monday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
First African Baptist in Savannah makes a strong case for being the country’s oldest African-American church. The congregation was organized in 1777 as First Colored Church by George Leile, a former slave who had been ordained two years earlier. The present name was adopted in 1822. In the 1970s, the church opened its museum, which has artifacts going back two centuries. If you take the tour, look down at holes in the floor. Those decorations were based on Congolese spiritual symbols and served a dual purpose: providing ventilation and spiritual protection for escaped slaves hiding under the floorboards.
Then look at the ceiling. Those white tin tiles, which resemble the nine-patch quilt pattern, are believed to have signaled that the church was a stop on the underground railroad. To learn more about the church, watch this short documentary on YouTube.
The Brown v. Board of Education National Historical Site
1515 SE Monroe St.
Guided tours daily, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; site is closed on major holidays
The 1954 Brown v. Board of Education ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court did more than sound the death knell for segregation. It reshaped American society in ways that, arguably, led more than 50 years later to the election of an African-American president. That’s why a stop at one of the schools involved in the case is a must-see on any black history itinerary.
Monroe Elementary School, now the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, was one of four schools reserved for black students in Topeka, Kan. Linda Brown walked seven blocks to get to the school, which had educated black residents since the 1880s, even though an all-white school was only three blocks from her home. When the Topeka school board refused to let Linda enroll in the all-white school, her father, Oliver Brown, sued. His case, along with four others, challenged the “separate but equal” policies that had sprung up under Jim Crow. The Supreme Court’s ruling for the plaintiffs forced 21 states to open all public schools to African Americans.
Three generations of Browns attended Monroe Elementary: In addition to Linda, Oliver Brown’s wife and his grandchildren went to school there. Another Brown daughter, Cheryl, taught at the school in 1972. Declining enrollment led to the school's closing in 1975. It was named a national historic site in 1992.
Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site/George Washington Carver Museum
1212 W. Montgomery Rd.
Tuskegee Institute, Ala.
Open 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily except for major holidays
It's a shame that George Washington Carver's accomplishments have been reduced to peanuts when he spent his life educating and empowering African-American farmers in rural Alabama. But stop at the George Washington Carver Museum and take the self-guided tour to gain new respect for this esteemed scientist and his accomplishments.
For example, Carver collected samples of local clay, extracted the pigments, and made commercial and artistic paint with them. The house and building paints were used on buildings in the area and at Tuskegee Institute. Carver used the oil paint in his own work.
The museum displays Carver's paint chips, his drawings and other artistic efforts, and the flora and fauna he collected during his career at the institute. Check out the cosmetic products he developed from the peanut: a rubbing oil, a hair pomade and a lotion.
If you're in an adventurous mood, try Carver's recipes for peanut-chocolate brownies and peanut cookies. They're in his agricultural bulletin, "How to Grow the Peanut and 105 Ways of Preparing It for Human Consumption," which is sold in the museum store.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
1616 Chappie James Ave.
Visitor Center open daily 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m.
334-724-0922 for visitor information
You can end your Alabama excursion by visiting the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, near the Tuskegee Municipal Airport. Exhibits and films tell the story of the 15,000 men and women who were part of a national "military experiment" to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat planes during World War II. Although forced into segregated units, the Tuskegee Airmen became one of the most highly respected groups in the Army Air Corps. Moton Field, where the airmen were trained, was closed in 1946. In 1972, large sections of the field were deeded to the city of Tuskegee for its municipal airport.
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel
450 Mulberry St.
Open Monday through Saturday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. from June to August (closes at 5 p.m. the rest of the year); closed Tuesdays and major holidays
Sunday: 1 to 6 p.m. from June to August (open 3 to 5 p.m. the rest of the year)
Admission: Adults $12; children ages 4-17, $8.50, children 3 and under free. Seniors and students with ID, $10.
From the outside, the Lorraine Motel seems frozen in time. Its turquoise doors face the parking lot. A steel-blue railing runs along the second floor. Look up and you can almost see Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing outside his room, joking with the other preachers who had come to support the city's striking sanitation workers.
But much has changed since in the 41 years since King was assassinated as he leaned across the railing. The motel has become a museum with a mission to "inspire participation in civil and human rights efforts globally, through our collections, exhibitions, and educational programs."
It's all here: from the struggles of slavery and Reconstruction, to the oppression of Jim Crow. Visitors can see a full-fledged Klan uniform and climb into a replica of a bus Rosa Parks might have ridden home from work. They can stand on the right side of a Birmingham, Ala., jail cell, and wonder how Dr. King wrote his famous letters in such a dismal environment.
The permanent exhibit looks outward, however, by linking the African-American struggle to similar movements around the globe.
Virtual Black History Road Trip
If you want to explore more, or find locations closer to home, browse the Web site Discover Black Heritage: A travel guide Through Black History and Culture. The site lists great destinations in a host of cities and countries. For civil rights-related travel, go virtual and stop by "We Shall Overcome: Historic Places of the Civil Rights Movement.” It describes 49 places that were important in during the struggle for equal rights. The list is by no means exhaustive. Still, it includes locations like the site of Malcolm X's childhood home in Omaha, Neb., that might be worth a drive-by. The Web site also gives contact and other information for the sites that are open to the public.
Afi-Odelia E. Scruggs is a regular contributor to The Root.