Photo: Congo Square, Armstrong Park, New Orleans. Credit: Mr. Littlehand, Wikimedia Commons.
This week we’re sharing our favorite African American historical sites to visit while traveling in the United States. This is the second piece in a four-part series. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part one, part three, and part four.
Let’s go South. Whether you have friends or family with you, New Orleans remains one of the most fascinating places for friends and families to visit. The history is extremely tangled, racially and culturally. The unparalled food is well, a gumbo. And there are oral and architectural sights and sounds everywhere.
The past and current state of race relations is not hard to study in this captivating city.
Slaves and freemen congregated in Congo Square, then and now the site of many musical events, located in the park named for native son Louis Armstrong. For a varnished look at slave quarters, go by the Hotel Maison de Ville in the French Quarter. The quarters were built around 1750 and are now guest rooms. The above ground burial traditions of New Orleans are proudly preserved at St. Louis Cemetery Number One where you can see the ironwork of African American craftsmen, and the grave of Homer Plessy, the plaintiff in the notorious 1892 Supreme Court decision, Plessy v. Ferguson that upheld the separate but equal law in the South.
Photo: Hotel Maison de Ville.
New Orleans has plenty of modern stories. The Praline Connection, a restaurant business of three generations of African American men, survived Hurricane Katrina. The meals at its Frenchman Street location are genuine New Orleans, and it is right by the jazz destination of Snug Harbor. The universities and museums chronicle many aspects of the African American experience. The Amistad Research Center at Tulane University is currently showing a new art exhibition, “Rising Up II: The Life and Work of Hale Woodruff” through August 29, 2014 (coming to the NMAAHC on November 7) and recently acquired “The Evelyn Cunningham Papers,” a collection of her writings titled “The Women,” published in the Pittsburgh Courier, as well as other documents concerning her life and work. Cunningham wrote primarily on the African American lifestyle in Harlem, as well as on the lives and work of many famous African Americans.Visit the National World War II Museum, Mardi Gras World (which gives visitors access to a Mardi Gras experience year-round), Musee Conti, a wax museum where you will find Jelly Roll Morton’s likeness and the living, jumping location of the Preservation Jazz Hall. But don’t overlook the Old Mint Museum, which has a superior collection of jazz and Mardi Gras material.
Photo: The Praline Connection.
Almost 10 years later, the effort to rebuild the Lower Ninth Ward, a neighborhood destroyed by Hurricane Katrina, progresses slowly. Find a local guide to show you the new environmentally friendly homes built under actor Brad Pitt’s organization and the Musicians Village, envisioned by New Orleans native musicians, Harry Connick, Jr. and Wynton Marsalis.
The best way to visit this state, steeped in American history, is to decide on a central gathering place and radiate from there. Because if you don’t have a jumping-off location, such as Grandma’s House, Mississippi can be challenging in its number of important places to see and its geographic spread.
The voices that have risen from the roads of the state are many: Muddy Waters, Leontyne Price, B. B. King, Jerry Butler, Sam Cooke, James Cotton, Charlie Pride, Robert Johnson, Howlin Wolf and Bo Diddley. As befits a tribute to the blues, The Mississippi Blues Trail is slowly evolving into a must-see destination. I suggest you study which markers might mean the most to you and your family, as there are more than 170 important markers on the trail.
Photo: Stop on the Mississippi Blues Trail
For a quick immersion, head to Clarksdale, a crossroads of the Delta region, located 90 minutes from Memphis, Tenn. Several festivals are held every year to salute the blues sound and the singers who are preserving it today. One essential stop is the Delta Blues Museum, which received the 2013 National Medal for Museum and Library Service, the highest national recognition for museum programming. Among the artifacts at the Blues Museum is a reconstruction of the remains of the sharecropper shack where Muddy Waters lived.
Alabama needs some careful planning just like Mississippi. The W.C. Handy birthplace, museum and library are located in Florence. The Dexter Avenue-King Memorial Baptist Church and the Civil Rights Memorial are in Montgomery. The Edmund Pettis Bride is in Selma. And the Tuskegee Institute, a National Historic Site, is in Tuskegee.
I’ve selected Birmingham, because its history resonates with many generations, and this year is the 50th anniversary of the bombing of the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church. The church should top your list because there is a shrine for the four girls killed there in a bomb blast in September, 1963. Also visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, an active history organization that will show you what events shaped the lives of your parents and grandparents in the 1950s and 1960s. The institute is home to many galleries that provide a moving, multi-media experience of Birmingham during the Civil Rights Movement.
Walk over to Kelly-Ingram Park, and imagine what the sounds of the water hoses, the barking dogs and the cries of the innocent citizens sounded like. James Drake, a sculptor has created statues of those events and one of Rev. Martin L. King, Jr., who wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” in the city’s lockup.
In what is called the Civil Rights District is the Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame, located in the Carver Theater. And near the Convention Center is the Alabama Sports Hall of Fame and Museum which honors athletes and coaches, like Paul “Bear” Bryant, Jesse Owens, Hank Aaron, Joe Louis and Willie Mays.
Photo: STAX Museum
If you are headed to Memphis, where Handy later lived, the Beale Street Historic District will keep you extremely busy and awash in music. But a must is the National Civil Rights Museum at the-Lorraine Hotel. The museum recently underwent renovations, but reopened on April 4th, and is currently showing exhibits on many aspects of the Civil Rights movement and history, including an exhibit on “The Rise of Jim Crow,” and “For Jobs and Freedom.” A prime cultural stop is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, to see videos of Otis Redding and Isaac Hayes’s Cadillac. Another tribute to the sounds of Memphis is the Memphis Rock ‘n Soul Museum, a Smithsonian affiliate now featuring an exhibit called “60 Years of Rock,” taking you from Elvis Presley all the way to the present day sounds of rock music.
By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.