America's past is complex and sometimes brutal, but understanding it is an important part of knowing who we are as a nation. Visiting historical African American sites and museums, be they sources of pride, such as Harriet Tubman's stops on the Underground Railroad, or sources of pain, such as auction sites for enslaved people in Montgomery, Alabama, is one way to gain a deeper understanding of America. Here, some destinations with a historical bent.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway
This app-based, self-guided driving tour leads travelers down 125 miles of Maryland’s picturesque eastern shore to 36 different Tubman-related sites. The tour, which begins on Maryland’s Eastern Shore about 80 miles east of Washington, D.C., includes Cambridge’s Harriet Tubman Museum and Educational Center, the Stanley Institute, a one-room schoolhouse built by Blacks after the Civil War, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center, which opened in 2017.
About 40 miles west of New Orleans in Edgard, Louisiana, this is the only plantation tour in the region where enslaved peoples’ perspective is the exclusive focus. Tours educate visitors about the hardships and cruelties endured by enslaved people on a sugar, rice and indigo plantation from the 18th century.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
From poetry readings led by award-winning authors to local tours that question monuments dedicated to the owners of enslaved people, the Wright Museum in Detroit highlights national Black history year-round. The museum also houses the largest permanent exhibit on African-American culture in the U.S.
National Civil Rights Museum
Built at Memphis’ Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated, the National Civil Rights Museum features an audio collection of oral histories and interactive media that recounts the experience of citizens who fought for their civil rights.
National Museum of African American History & Culture
The newest addition to the Smithsonian Institution opened in September 2016 in Washington, D.C., and dedicates itself exclusively to the documentation of African American life, with exhibits such as “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in World War I” and “Now Showing: Posters From African American Movies.”
The Legacy Museum
Montgomery, Alabama’s Legacy Museum was built on the same ground where enslaved people were once warehoused, and just a block from one of the largest slavery auction sites of the 19th century. With the use of extensively researched materials and videography, visitors can gain an in-depth understanding of the racial abuse that has plagued U.S. history.
Visit the site where abolitionist John Brown and his followers raided an armory in the hopes of triggering a slave rebellion in October of 1859. The plot failed, and Brown's eventual trial and execution raised tensions in a country that was already headed for civil war. Today the site is within Harpers Ferry National Park, at the confluence of the Potomac and Shenandoah rivers. Visitors can stay in the historic town of Harpers Ferry, about 70 miles northwest of Washington, D.C.