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Black Heritage Travel: Been There!
Back to Home

As a travelling folk musician, I could never resist a local museum when I had a few rare minutes of free time. Since I began this site in 2006, I'm making a more concerted effort to explore African American heritage sites, planning my travel and vacations around them, so this section will continue to grow. I'd like to visit every one on my list someday, though I have a preference for smaller, historical sites like the John Parker House in Ripley Ohio. They reflect such passion on the part of people who have worked to save and interpret them.

Stop back often and if you know of a good site (or good local restaurant!) I've missed, please let me know.
Gerri Gribi


Illinois

Bloomington - McLean County Museum of History
See pictures from my tour

The museum is the home for the Black History Project, and African American artifacts and archival materials are showcased in the museum's Encounter on the Prairie exhibit. Also, the museum features PRESENCE, PRIDE, AND PASSION: THE HISTORY OF AFRICAN AMERICANS IN MCLEAN COUNTY through May 24, 2008.

Chicago/Bronzeville - DuSable Museum of African American History

Named for the founder of Chicago, Jean Baptiste Point DuSable, the museum was founded in 1961. Permanent exhibits include "Harold Washington in Office" and "DuSable Treasures" which showcases a few of the more than 12,000 works of art, prints and historical memorabilia in the museum's collection. They also host temporary and traveling exhibits. For visitor information, resources, history, and events calendar, membership information and more, visit the website.

The museum is in Washington Park, a short walk from the Green Line's Garfield Station. Or take the Red Line to Garfield, and catch the #55 Garfield bus eastbound to to 55th Ave. & Payne, then walk .1 mile south. When I visited, they had a special exhibit about Poro College, founded by Annie Malone to train African American women to work as sales agents for a highly successful black-owned line of beauty products. Adjacent to that exhibit was one exploring hair in African art and culture. Plan to spend at least an hour and a half!

Chicago - Harold Washington Libary Center

America's largest central library is a monument to Chicago's first African American mayor. The library houses selected personal effects and memorabilia as well as the Chicago Blues Archives and a collection of videos from the Chicago Jubilee Showcase Gospel music television show. At the website you can take a virtual tour of the library and learn more about its vast resources, and visit the exhibition Called to the Challenge: The Legacy of Harold Washington.

The library also hosts special exhibits of African American interest, such as a Buffalo Soldiers exhibit which I viewed when I visited several years ago. I found the Mayor Washington exhibit moving and inspiring...in no small part because I was fortunate to receive an impromptu guided tour from the security guard who shared his personal memories about the Washington years.

Chicago - Chicago History Museum (formerly the Chicago Historical Society)

The Chicago History Museum cares for, showcases, and interprets millions of authentic pieces of Chicago and U.S. history. This museum and research center frequently hosts or mounts exhibitions of African American heritage in the Chicago area, and you can find their exhibition schedule, visitor information, lesson plans and more at the website

I've enjoyed many Afrocentric exhibits at the Museum over the years, the most memorable being The Birth of Gospel Music. Across the street from the museum (Clark and LaSalle Streets; enter on Stockton Drive) in beautiful Lincoln Park is what must be the cheapest parking lot in Chicago, and museum visitors get a discounted rate with ticket validation. There's no admission charge on Mondays.

Iowa

Been There! Des Moines - Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center

Fort Des Moines was the site of the U.S. Army's first and only officer candidate class for African American men, graduating 639 men as commissioned officers in 1917. Highly educated doctors, lawyers and teachers were among the ranks. In 1942, Fort Des Moines hosted the formation of the first Women's Army Auxiliary Corps, later renamed the Women's Army Corps (WAC.) That program trained 72,000 women and commissioned the first female officers for non-combat duty until 1942.

The museum and education center honors both, and also has a memorial honoring the Tuskegee Airmen, who were trained at Moton Field in Tuskegee Alabama (Iowa had twelve graduate airmen.) The content rich website provides histories, photo gallery, graduates of the 17th Provisional Training Regiment (1917) graduates of the first WAAC OCS (1942), events, visitor information and much more.

I only had 30 minutes to explore this museum while on a lunch break and quickly realized I needed much more to do it any justice, so plan at least 90 minutes for your visit. I was fortunate to receive an overview from Michael Kates, the Education Coordinator. All of the exhibits go far beyond simply displaying artifacts of the period...everything is placed in context of the times and though the museum celebrates achievement in a way that makes us all proud, the history of the segregated army is not sugar-coated. It's sobering to realize how hard African Americans worked to be permitted to protect their country, at a time when their country wasn't protecting even their most basic civil rights. The museum is located in Clayton Hall (built in 1901 and restored in 2004.) I encourage you to pause for a bit on the porch after your tour...if you listen closely, you'll hear the footsteps of history.

Clayton Hall,
Fort Des Moines Museum and Education Center

Been There! Des Moines - State Historical Society of Iowa

Patten's Neighborhood: Memories of the Center Street Community features materials from Robert E. Patten, who operated a Des Moines printing business serving the African-American community from the 1920s through the 1960s.

Patten had saved many of the items he printed, from tickets and posters to party invitations and family portraits, intending to one day open a museum. In this small permanent exhibit, the items are supplemented by newspaper images and text, providing a glimpse into the social world of African Americans in Des Moines. By nature, this exhibit contains a lot of text, but "Discovery Drawers" help make it more accessible to children...I saw many school kids eagerly exploring those drawers during my visit! My only criticism is the exhibit didn't address the demise of the neighborhood which - like so many black communities across America - was divided and destroyed by so-called "urban renewal" in general and the interstate highway system in particular.

Kentucky

Berea - Berea College

Berea College, founded in 1855, was the first interracial and co-educational college in the South. One of Berea's most famous graduates was Carter G. Woodson, known as the "Father of Black History." This site provide's Berea's history, a timeline, maps and tours, photos, oral histories, and even lesson plans.

Located where the foothills of the Cumberland Mountains slope downward to meet the central plains of Kentucky's bluegrass, Berea College is a beautiful campus in a beautiful region. My favorite times to visit are spring and fall. Be sure to take a student-led historical tour and be doubly sure to have lunch (or stay!) at the historic Boone Tavern Inn, which is staffed primarily by Berea students. You'll also want to visit the Log House Craft Gallery to view and purchase student work. The crafts program at Berea College was started back in the 19th Century as a way not only for students to earn money, and also to keep mountain crafts alive.

Louisiana

Jean Lafitte National Historical Park and Preserve - Park Headquarters: New Orleans

The park consists of six physically separate sites and a park headquarters located in southeastern Louisiana. At 419 Decatur Street in the historic French Quarter is the park's visitor center for New Orleans. This center interprets the history of New Orleans and the diverse cultures of Louisiana's Mississippi Delta region. The Park Headquarters is located in New Orleans. I highly recommend the French Quarter tour, followed by a lunch or dinner of red beans and rice at Maspero's at 440 Chartres Street. But be sure to check with New Orleans Online for the latest information as many establishments are still closed after Hurricane Katrina.

Missouri

Independence - National Frontier Trails Museum

Of the estimated 250,000 people who ventured West during the California Gold Rush, about 5000 were African Americans. Though a proportionately small number, I'm sure that's 5000 more than the average American pictures when they imagine pioneers undertaking that grueling journey which left many dead on the trailside.

So I took great pleasure in discovering this exhibit at the National Frontier Trails Museum. It spotlights original letters to David Brown from his wife Rachel who'd stayed behind in Ohio. Brown was a free black man who followed the California trail with a dream of striking it rich. I could hardly bare to read the letters, so full of loneliness coupled with hope that they'd one day be reunited. They never were.

It's crucial to our understanding of American history that the experiences of African Americans be integrated as seamlessly as this.

Kansas City - American Jazz Museum

The mission of the American Jazz Museum in Kansas City is to celebrate and exhibit the experience of jazz as an original American art form through research, exhibition, education, and performance at one of the country's jazz crossroads - 18th and Vine. It is home to one of the world's largest and most comprehensive collection of film footage pertaining to jazz...over 5,000 titles! The American Jazz Museum's Blue Room is a museum by day and at night comes to life as a working jazz club. Four nights a week, the Blue Room resonates with the sweet sounds of Kansas City jazz. The Blue Room has been recognized by Downbeat Magazine as one of the top 100 Jazz Club's in the World. It is part of the museum complex shared with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. The exhibits are interactive and encourage you to improvise as you move through them...it's like nothing I've experienced elsewhere and I wish I'd allotted more time. Unfortunately, I only had about thirty minutes.

Kansas City - Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Founded in 1990, The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is dedicated to preserving the rich history of African American baseball. On your tour you'll experience multi-media displays, artifacts, photos and more dating from the late 1800's to the 1960's. It's permanent, 10,000 square foot facility is part of the museum complex shared with the American Jazz Museum.

The orientation film was very moving, and I wasn't the only one who had tears in my eyes when it ended. A grade school class was in attendance, and I was impressed that they were all asking their teacher questions as they filed out the door...obviously, the film had "connected" even though they were too young to know much history. The main exhibit weaves through time, placing the sport within the context of American history, through slavery, Jim Crow, and into modern times. I had an "I never knew that!" experience around every corner. (Like I didn't realize that during my dad's childhood, Crosley Field in Cincinnati was rented to the Negro Leagues for exhibition games.) Amazing film footage brings the oldtimers to life and by the time you enter the ball diamond peopled with life-size bronze sculptures of The Greats like Buck O'Neil, you'll feel like they're old friends.

As I was leaving, I asked the security guard to name the best BBQ place in town. He said "That's the kind of question guaranteed to start a fight in Kansas City!"

Kansas City (Johnson County, Kansas) - Johnson County Museums

One of the best things about traveling is a serendipitous discovery. We made a side trip to Johnson County to tour the "All-Electric House," a model created by Kansas City Power and Light in the early 1950's to showcase the future of home technology. It just happened to have been built the year I was born, and I wanted to see what the future looked like back then!

I figured it for a 30-minute stop, but then discovered their wonderful Museum of History adjacent. It would be easy to dismiss a "suburb" as lacking history, but this little spot of earth was involved in everything from the Border Wars to the Civil Rights Movement (all in a very local, personal way) and we two history buffs found ourselves looking through a local lens at aspects of American and African American history we'd never before considered. The exhibits were thought-provoking and exceptionally well done, exceeding many at larger, more affluent institutions.

This is a highly recommended stop, but plan 2 hours if you want to do it justice.

St. Louis - The Old Courthouse: Jefferson National Expansion Memorial - St. Louis

The Old Courthouse was the site of the first two trials of the pivotal Dred Scott case in 1847 and 1850. You can tour the exhibits online, or learn more about events, activities, and visiting in person.

The Dred Scott Decision is one piece of African American history every schoolchild learns about...though usually not a whole lot more than the name. As I explored the exhibits here, I couldn't help but feel that I had time travelled into the past. Some of the exhibits included audio histories, and as the voices boomed through the empty building, suddenly the case was no longer just dry words in a text book...I was walking on the actual floors where the participants had walked, and I could feel their ghosts. I wish at the time I had known about The African-American Heritage of St. Louis: A Guide, as I would have definitely visited a few more sites.

New Mexico

Radium Springs - Fort Seldon State Monument - More information

Constructed near Las Cruces in 1865, the fort housed units of the famous Buffalo Soldiers, until the fort was decommissioned in 1891. Living history programs and displays are available to demonstrate 19th century military life on summer weekends. There is also an excellent museum on site. Read more about the Buffalo Soldiers in New Mexico. You can also find more detailed visitor information here.

New York

Cooperstown - National Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum

I confess...I'm not a baseball fan but as a historian I still enjoyed this museum tremendously, because it's so Americana. Though African Americans weren't permitted to play major league baseball until the middle of the 20th Century, they are well represented among the inductees, and an exhibit called Pride and Passion: The African American Baseball Experience details the history of blacks in baseball from the 1800s to major league integration. Of course, if you really want to experience the Negro Leagues, you have to visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City. See South Central States: Missouri

Ohio

Batavia - Clermont County Underground Railroad Freedom Trail

This trail of thirty-three Underground Railroad and Abolitionist sites (along with maps and history) can be downloaded as a full-color brochure. Or call 800-796-4282 to request a copy. The tour included some locations which are simply "former site of" (that is, nothing extant) but such sites still provided interesting and important historical background. I'd recommend this tour because so much of the surrounding area is unchanged, and it's easy to imagine what it was like in the 1840s. The nearby Chilo Lock #34 Park is definitely worth a stop if you're in the area. Though the museum itself is not specific to black history, the Ohio River played a significant role in the story of slavery and freedom and there's much to learn about it here. Besides, there is a nice play area for little travelers who might need a stretch!

Cincinnati - Harriet Beecher Stowe House

The house was the home to Harriet Beecher Stowe prior to her marriage. Operated as an historical and cultural site, it focues on Harriet Beecher Stowe, author of Uncle Tom's Cabin. The site also includes a look into the family, friends, and colleagues of the Beecher-Stowe family, Lane Seminary, and the abolitionist, womens rights and Underground Railroad movements in which these historical figures participated in the 1830's to 1860's, as well as African-American history related to these movements. Visitor and historical information is found at the website.

Been There! And I have mixed feelings. I visited in the spring of 2010 and was disappointed to discover that though there had once been a "permanent" exhibit on African American history in Cincinnati, it had been dismantled and the room that held it was now empty. As with so many historical sites, this one is funded and managed by volunteers and in addition to being in rather sad state of repair, also seems to be in a philosophical transition. I was told that future interpretation will put more emphasis on the life and times of the Beecher-Stowe family, and less on African Americans. Perhaps this is due in part to the fact that it can't compete with the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center (below.) But if you just want to see the home of the (as Lincoln supposedly said) "The Little Lady Who Started This Great War” it's worth a stop. Just don't expect more than that.

Cincinnati - National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Opened in 2004 on the banks of the Ohio River, The Freedom Center uses the Underground Railroad as a lens through which to explore a range of freedom issues, past, present and future. At this rich website you can learn more about its core exhibits housed in three pavillions, it's extensive programming and outreach. You'll find visitor information for both Ohio and Kentucky to enhance your trip.

This is an immense, comprehensive place!! If you simply walk through and read the exhibits, expect to spend about 2 hours. But to really interact with everything the Freedom Center has to offer, I'd suggest you allow (at the very least) half a day, an entire day or more if you want to include the various films and multimedia presentations, or special events and concerts. There is a lovely cafe right on site which has family friendly food. If you're short on time, or travelling with children, it's best to ask a guide for suggestions about how best to focus your time. I'd also highly recommend you check the schedule for films and such online.

Parking is a major concern. There is a lot beneath the building, and parking is also available on the street and in downtown Cincinnati, but you will find it impossible to park in Cincinnati, Covington or Newport if either the Reds (schedule) or the Bengals (schedule) have a home game. Trust me...I learned this the hard way! So before you plan a visit, check those schedules so you don't end up wasting a trip.

Cincinnati - Taft Museum of Art

Artist Robert S. Duncanson (1821-1872) arrived in Cincinnati in the 1840's, establishing himself as one of the first African American artists to gain international recognition. Duncanson's career was manifested through a large commission by Cincinnati art patron Nicholas Longworth, a suite of landscape mural paintings to adorn the walls of Longworth's grand Pike Street home, Belmont, now the Taft Museum of Art. The Museum annually recognizes the achievements of contemporary African American artists through the Duncanson Artist-in-Residence Program . For two weeks the artist joins the staff to give public performances, workshops, lectures, and demonstrations. The Robert S. Duncanson Society supports the residency by promoting and developing a series schedule dedicated to continuing and broadening the exposure of African American artists. The lush murals, though once covered with wallpaper, were recently restored and are worth a stop if you're in the Cincinnati area. Also, check the website for special exhibits - I visited specifically to see Black Is a Color: African American Art from the Corcoran Gallery of Art.

Ripley - John P Parker Home
See pictures from my tour

Born enslaved, Parker purchased his freedom at eighteen and settled in Ripley, Ohio where he became an inventor, entrepreneur and conductor on the Underground Railroad. His home was recently restored, and is open for tours, either by appointment or at seasonal hours, but check the website and call first.

You should read his autobiography before visiting. I read this book in two sittings because I couldn't put it down. Parker had told his life story to a journalist in the early 1880's, but the manuscript was gathering dust in the Duke University Archives until the 1990's. Parker John P. , Stuart Seely Sprague (Editor) His Promised Land: The Autobiography of John P. Parker. NY: Norton, 1996. Order at Amazon.com

Ripley - John Rankin House
See pictures my tour

John Rankin was a Presbyterian minister and educator who devoted much of his life to the antislavery movement. The Rankin house, sitting at the highest point overlooking the Ohio River, was an important stop on the Underground Railroad.

The stairway (100 steps) used by slaves has been reconstructed. If you want to climb up, ask for directions in town...the signage isn't very good. You can read more about abolition and the Underground Railroad in southwestern Ohio in Ann Hagedorn's Beyond the River: The Untold Story of the Heroes of the Underground Railroad. NY: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Order at Amazon.com

Virginia

Hampton - Fort Monroe's Casemate Museum

Fort Monroe was famed during the Civil War as the "Freedom Fort" by blacks escaping from slavery. General Benjamin Butler refusing to return runaway slaves, kept them as "Contrabands" of war, assuring their freedom. Confederate President Jefferson Davis' prison cell is located in the museum. The website provides a virtual tour in addition to history and visitor information.

I visited Fort Monroe in 2002 when I was invited to do a musical performance on the base, and I stayed in a house within walking distance of the museum. Strolling around the grounds during the quiet, early evening hours was like stepping back into time. When I visited there was an exhibit about the "Contrabands" in addition to general military history. My host took me to a wonderful BBQ place called County Grill and Smokehouse (1215#A George Washington Hwy., Yorktown, VA 23693) which was memorable for a platter that lets you sample 6 BBQ sauces from different regions. This museum is on an active military installation, so be prepared to show a photo ID, and it's advisable to call ahead since heightened security levels might effect your visit. Also Fort Monroe is on the BRAC list for closure by 2011, but hopefully the Museum will remain open and perhaps locally operated.

West Virginia

Parkersburg - Sumnerite African American Museum

The museum is housed in the former Sumner School, established in 1862 as the first free school in West Virginia, two years before the state had a public school system. In addition to housing displays of Sumner School memorabilia and hosting special events, the Museum serves as a community center. It's definitely worth a stop if you're going to be in the area, but call first since tours are by appointment. This is one of those small, volunteer-run places with a passion for preserving an important and personal part of African American heritage; I was delighted to be given a tour by a former student.

Wisconsin

Been There! Green Bay - National Railroad Museum - The Pullman Porters: From Service to Civil Rights

From the 1870s through the 1960s the Pullman porter was synonymous with outstanding service aboard America’s sleeping cars. However, beyond the public view porters were confronted with a dual life of admiration and discrimination. The Museum’s new exhibit will tell the life story of the porter from their work for the Pullman Company to their efforts to unionize, which formed the roots of America’s civil rights movement.

 Pullman Porters: From Service to Civil Rights provides visitors the rare opportunity to immerse themselves in a little known but powerful chapter of American history,” stated Michael Telzrow, Museum executive director. “The Porter’s struggle for labor rights paved the way for later generations of successful African-Americans, and helped shape the civil rights movement of the 1960s. It’s a story of humility, sacrifice and ultimate triumph that cuts across racial and generational lines.”

At this website you can view the video developed for this exhibit. As a Green Bay resident I was delighted when this exhibit opened in 2008. I think it is outstanding and well worth the admission to the museum even if you have no interest in the other train exhibits. Walking through the Pullman car, with the computer generated porter as your guide, you'll travel back in time and forget you're in the 21st Century. Highly recommended!

Due to low light, none of my pictures inside the car turned out, but you can see the Lake Mitchell behind this display kiosk...one of many which interpret the important role of the Pullman Porters in the Civil Rights and Labor movements.

Just a few of the items which were donated by relatives of Pullman Porters to support this exhibit.

Lancaster - Cunningham Museum 120 East Maple Street, 53813 (See also Eagle)

This small museum houses photographs, diaries, newspaper articles and artifacts from the African American settlement at Pleasant Ridge, which was located nearby. The museum is located one block east of the Historic Courthouse Square. For appointments, information and hours of operation, please call 608-723-2287 or 608-723-4925. Group tours available by request. Maintained by Grant County Historical Society.

When I visited, the volunteer guide was very well informed about the Pleasant Ridge settlement, and gave me directions to find the site. Elsewhere on the web, you might read that Pleasant Ridge was commonly and derisively known as "N*gger Ridge." Extensive research conducted by Shawn Godwin for the State Historical Society of Wisconsin disputes this. Godwin cites one "relatively isolated occurance" of the term being used - in an early 20th Century newspaper editorial, which drew critical mail from residents decrying the use of the term as both unacceptable and uncommon. To quote:

"When referring specifically to the African-American portion of the community a phrase like: "the colored neighborhood west of Lancaster" is commonly used, particularly in the earliest periods of the community's existence, before it was thought of as a full blown rural place. And on one occasion "n*gger ridge" was used in the early twentieth century (it should be noted that this does seem to have been a relatively isolated occurrence and that the great majority of references to the community are not racially tinged, but rather just like references to any other small rural place in Grant County)."

Source: Pleasant Ridge : a rural African-American community in Grant County, Wisconsin. By Shawn Godwin. State Historical Society of Wisconsin, 2000.

Canada - Ontario

North Buxton - The Buxton National Historic Site & Museum,

We visited this site while traveling from Detroit to Toronto in 2005. We had picked up sandwiches at a Tim Horton's along 401, and thought this site would make a nice picnic stop. We expected to spend 30 minutes...we stayed nearly 3 hours!

This is the original site of the Elgin Settlement, founded in 1849 by Rev. William King as a haven for fugitive slaves. It eventually grew to become a self-sufficient community of more than 2000 people. The educational system was world renowned...in fact, when it surpassed neighbouring schools, whites started enrolling their children there. (The original "Magnet School!") Though many settlers returned to their homes after the Civil War, some stayed and today Buxton is still inhabited by descendents of the original settlers, an active black Canadian village with people who are dedicated to preserving their African American/Canadian heritage.

For years we have heard about slaves escaping to "Canaan Land" but didn't really know what happened after they reached freedom...they just vanish from American history books. So in addition to soaking up all the historical information in the museum (which has a wonderful introductory video) it was fascinating to visit this little community, to sit in their school building, to walk through their cemetery and look at the names of people on the tombstones. It made the history so real and tangible...especially since our tour guide was a college student and sixth generation descendent.

They have a homecoming event every year over Labour Day Weekend (first Monday in September.) They also have programs for schools, including "Voices for Freedom" desgined to meet expectations included in the Ontario Elementary School Curriculum for Grade 7. You'll find more information, a downloadable brochure, plus a wealth of history, photos, books for sale and other resources at the museum's website.

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