We can’t forget our history. It reminds us of our trials as well as our triumphs. And travel gives us the opportunity to experience, firsthand, the black-history moments we’ve only read about and seen on TV and in movies.
“You have to explore African-American historical travel for yourself. Seeing the images, museums and landmarks in the media cannot begin to convey the complexity of our journey from Africa through slavery and to the modicum of freedom we have now, ” says Elaine Lee, author of Go Girl: The Black Woman’s Book of Travel and Adventure.
To help you plan, here are The Root’s picks for the five best black-history-related travel destinations.
1. Follow the path from slavery to freedom in Savannah, Ga.
Savannah is a pretty city with an ugly past. Known as “the weeping time,” in 1859 the largest slave auction in U.S. history (436 men, women and children) took place at a Savannah racetrack. In commemoration of the Africans brought into America through Savannah’s port, a local artist created the African-American Families Monument (at the west end of historic River Street). The bronze statue inscribed with words by Maya Angelou depicts a black family with broken shackles at their feet.
A short walk from the statue, in Franklin Square, is Savannah’s First African Baptist Church, the oldest black church in North America. Original pews made by slaves have been preserved. And holes and prayer symbols carved into the lower auditorium’s floorboards indicate that the church was a point on the Underground Railroad. Guided tours are given daily, except Mondays. Another significant site is the Laurel-Grove South Cemetery, the city’s segregated burial ground for slaves and free people of color.
2. Trace the Civil Rights Trail in Alabama.
The Civil Rights Trail encompasses landmarks and attractions in several neighboring towns in Alabama, all accessible by car. Among the important sites are the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, where four little Sunday-school girls (Addie Mae Collins, Denise McNair, Carole Robertson and Cynthia Wesley) were killed in 1963; and the Rosa Parks Museum in Montgomery, which honors the mother of the early civil rights movement and depicts events that led to the Montgomery Bus Boycott.
The trail’s most harrowing landmark, however, is the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, where marchers for voting rights were beaten by police on March 7, 1965, known as Bloody Sunday. On March 21, 1965, Martin Luther King Jr. led a successful five-day march from Selma to Montgomery, which initiated the Voting Rights Act of 1965. You can follow the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail along U.S. Route 80. (An interpretive center highlights key events along the route.)
3. Discover Gullah culture in coastal South Carolina.
Gullah (also called Geechee) people are descendants of enslaved West and Central Africans brought to the Southeastern states to farm rice. They live in the idyllic low country of South Carolina, Georgia, Florida and North Carolina, and to this day, Gullah people speak their own Creole-like dialect and maintain African-based culture through food, music and crafts. In St. Helena, a Sea Island in Beaufort County, S.C., the Gullah-Geechee Nation offers authentic tours and workshops for groups of seven or more, conducted by natives of the island.
“People can truly learn our story and support our community by engaging with us,” says Queen Quet, chieftess of the Gullah-Geechee Nation. “We don’t do drive-by tours. We want to invite people into our homes and not have them peeping through the windows on our porches. This is not a safari. It is a living community.”
4. Celebrate Chicago’s proud past and present.
It’s ironic that a city as racially divided as Chicago was founded by a black man. Born in Haiti, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable is known as the Windy City’s first settler and its first black resident. In his honor, there’s a bust of DuSable on the Magnificent Mile (Michigan Avenue) just north of the Chicago River, and the DuSable Museum of African American History celebrates African-American achievements and contributions through art exhibits and family-friendly activities.
The Obamas, meanwhile, are part of Chi-town’s modern history—they lived in Hyde Park, a traditionally black middle-class neighborhood on the southwest shore of Lake Michigan, before they moved on up to the White House. Sneak a peak at their guarded Georgian mansion (5046 S. Greenwood Ave.), and stand at the spot of their first kiss, marked with a plaque at the corner of Dorchester Avenue and 53rd Street.
5. Explore Baltimore’s black-history museums.
Although Baltimore’s image is still rebounding from the unrest after Freddie Gray’s death, the city is a great source of black history. Noteworthy museums include the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, the first wax museum of African-American culture in the nation, with over 150 realistic-looking wax figures of prominent people of color; the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture, which celebrates the history and accomplishments of black Americans in Maryland through exhibitions and events; and the Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park Museum, an educational and historic site that highlights African-American maritime history and chronicles the formative years of Douglass, a Maryland native who worked in a Baltimore shipyard before he fled North to freedom.