Part four in a four-part series about historic African American sites to visit while traveling the US. Read all the contributions to this blog series: part one, part two, and part three.
If you have decided to ditch the car, the East Coast offers several history-rich sites by train, a chance to stretch your legs and read up on this well-preserved corridor of history.
Photo: Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, where Martin Luther King Jr. preached. Credit: Erin McDaniel, Wikimedia Commons.
This Southern city has established a National Historic District centered on the birthplace of Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. at 501 Auburn Avenue. Make those grainy newsreels come to life with stops at the King family’s Ebenezer Baptist Church and the storefronts of the famous business district called Sweet Auburn Avenue. One feature of the District is a Walk of Fame allowing visitors to follow the footsteps of people who fought for civil rights. The APEX Museum on Auburn specializes in local history and family reunion tour, and is currently showing, “Africa: The Untold Story.”
Pick up a copy of the Atlanta Daily World, established by the Scott family in 1928, for insights into black Atlanta. In the Atlanta University Center complex is Spelman College, the home of the Spelman Museum of Fine Art, with a permanent exhibition of 20th Century African American art (on the website it say the museum is closed for summer break; should the reference remain in the post?). For a glimpse of modern entertainment history, check out the schedule for tours of filmmaker Tyler Perry’s state-of-the-art studios.
Photo: Gantt Center
North and South Carolina
Centuries of ghosts haunt Charleston, S.C.—a good introduction to region is the Avery Research Center for African American History and Culture. The Avery Normal Institute was a successful secondary school for African Americans from 1865 to 1954 and its building houses the center on the College of Charleston. Many of the sites related to the Civil War and Reconstruction are prominently marked in downtown Charleston. Enjoy the breeze off the Charleston Battery and imagine how runaway slaves snuck onto friendly ships headed north. The Denmark Vesey House acknowledges the bravery of the failed slave revolt, where more than 30 people were hung, including the organizer Vesey. But don’t neglect the sweet grass baskets handicrafts from Mary Jackson, winner of a National Heritage Award. Available right on the streets of Charleston, these baskets help portray the rich history of the West African community in South Carolina.
In Charlotte, N.C. the Harvey B. Gantt Center for African American Arts + Culture is a beautiful facility designed by Philip Freelon, one of the architects of our building. The evocative center is also the home of the John and Vivian Hewitt Art Collection, one of the country’s most important private assemblages of African American art. Through June 15th, the center is showing “African American Art Since 1950: Perspectives from the David C. Driskell Center.”
Photo: Avery Normal Institute
Virginia has history on almost every stretch of the state and the capital, Richmond, has been working hard to tell the history from all perspectives. In Richmond the American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar is a museum with the Civil War story is told from the Union, Confederate and African American perspectives. Showing now is the 10th Cavalry Drum from the Buffalo Soldiers, regiments of African American soldiers during the Civil War. For a look at Richmond’s famous African Americans, there are statues of William “Bojangles” Robinson, the great dancer and humanitarian, and Arthur Ashe, the pioneering tennis champion. The National Park Service has preserved the home of Maggie Lena Walker, the first woman to charter a bank in the U.S. bank.
Photo: The Lincoln Memorial
When you get to Washington, D.C., there is an exhaustive list of sights, and even if this is your third or fourth trip, do go to the Lincoln Memorial. There is now a plaque where Rev. Martin L. King, Jr. stood on that August day in 1963, letting his voice echo far past the Reflecting Pool and into our collective consciousness. With the passage of time, you might understand even better the power of his words. The towering statue of King, dedicated in 2011, is only a short walk away. Don’t forget to take a look at the grounds for the National Museum of African American History and stop by the Welcome Center on Constitution Avenue near the Washington Monument – opening in 2016, the building has really begun to take shape.
Over the years the achievements of African American citizens have been immortalized around Washington. When you leave the White House and Lafayette Park, visit the Decatur House where the 1822 slave quarters are accessible to visitors. Then walk east a couple of blocks to 1500 H St. NW. A marker commemorates the Wormley Hotel, the prestigious business James A. Wormley opened in 1871 and served the dignitaries of the day. Cultural Tourism DC has placed many markers around town to bring attention to the deeds of blacks of the past.
Away from downtown, and the tourist-crammed sidewalks, is the Mt. Zion Cemetery at 27th and Q Sts. N.W. in Georgetown. Already in use as a cemetery for freed and slave blacks, the land was purchased in 1842 by the Female Union Band Society, an organization started by free black women. It is a wonderful walk and history lesson.
Photo: John Johnson House. Credit: Audrey,. Wikimedia Commons.
The Last Stop in our Travelogues is Philadelphia—Mother Bethel AME Church is a prime destination, with its ministry in continuous service since 1797 and its activity in the Underground Railroad. It is located on the oldest property continually owned by African Americans. Philadelphia was a hub for the Underground Railroad and that bravery is remembered at the home of William Still, a coal merchant who helped as many as 800 people escape and the Johnson House Historic Site, the home of a Quaker family of abolitionists. A newer point of interest is the President’s House Commemorative Site, the home of George Washington and John Adams from 1790-1800. In 2010 a memorial was opened to tell the Washington story, as well as the story of the nine slaves who worked in the house. The location at 6th and Market can be visited 24 hours a day.
Ever since its founding days Philadelphia has had a bounty of museums. Right now the African American Museum in Philadelphia is showing a detailed exhibit of photographs entitled “Distant Echoes: Black Farmers in America”.
By Lonnie G. Bunch III, Founding Director, Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.