History, they say, is never static. The Reconstruction era, Civil Rights movement, the more recent discourse over Civil War-era legacies, and the Black Lives Matter protests underscore the importance of continually exploring the legacy of race in America — and not just for the one month every year we designate Black History Month. Because although February comes and goes, racial politics, collective memory, resistance, and public symbolism remain.
As travelers, we can participate in replacing the dominant narrative by seeking out and supporting new places, safe spaces, and established institutions that are challenging historical norms (especially within their own organizations), asking questions, and empowering diverse voices. A number of organizations, think tanks, museums, incubators, and galleries are offering the opportunity to investigate America's history of racial injustice and its legacy of violence. Black History Month is a time to commemorate the many incredible contributions Black figures have made to society. As writer and scholar Clint Smith clarifies, "It is a recognition of all that Black folks have done and continue to do in spite of that violence."
We become better travelers, better citizens, and better people when we learn all aspects of history, even the parts that make us feel awkward, angry, and ashamed. Education leads to real discourse, reconciliation, inspiration, and empowered solutions. Below is a list of places across the United States to visit (physically, mentally, spiritually, virtually!) to unlearn the myths of America, reinforce its truths, and participate in the realization of its potential. Let's get to work.
On Monument Avenue offers a fascinating and thorough reflection on Southern history and public memorialization by contextualizing the debate over Confederate monuments and statues in Richmond, Virginia. Read historical excerpts, interviews, and reflections from a variety of citizens, as well as discussion questions to foster real dialogue during this national reckoning.
Indiana University's collections in the Archives of African American Music & Culture in Bloomington highlight the artifacts of music (classical, religious, R&B) that became popularized in Black magazines and on the Black radio during the 20th century.
Arthur Mitchell created the Dance Theater of Harlem after becoming the first Black principal dancer at New York City Ballet in the 1950s (he was the famed protégé of George Balanchine). Opening a dance school in Harlem in 1969 was an elegant act of artistic resistance. It gave people the sense that the classical art form could belong to anyone — even those dancing in cut-off jeans and T-shirts in an open garage on the streets of NYC. The vintage images are a joy; virtual classes are available at multiple levels.
Take a look around Cedar Hill, Frederick Douglass’s 1878 mansion in Washington, DC. The National Parks Service and Google Cultural Institute developed a visual collection of artifacts and room-by-room tour of the historic house.
Museums, Galleries, and Spaces
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration
On the same grounds that once warehoused humans, one block from a large auction site for enslaved people, EJI (Equal Justice Initiative) explores the history of racial inequality and its relationship to a range of issues haunting us today (see: mass incarceration). An interactive exhibition dramatizes scenes from the domestic slave trade. On a six-acre site less than a mile away, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice serves as a somber public marker of omitted history.
California African American Museum
Los Angeles, California
The museum, in soaring space built by African-American architects Jack Haywood and Vince ProbIts, has a mandate to assemble a comprehensive, wide-reaching collection of artwork made by African Americans in California and the western United States, but also includes significant works from the diaspora. Contemporary exhibitions about fashion, music, Hollywood, politics, and spiritual beliefs motivate viewers to "think expansively about the way African-American artists have contributed to the country's culture and the world at large."
The Underground Museum
Los Angeles, California
The alternative art space, film club, garden hang out, bookshop, and gallery is a vital cultural force in LA with incredible convening power (i.e. Angela Davis spoke on a forum here, John Legend launched an album, and Raoul Peck screened his James Baldwin documentary). Its modest entrance intentionally blends into the Arlington Heights streetscape, making this channel to art easily accessible to people just walking by. During the Covid-19 pandemic, they continue to serve the community in unique ways — showing video installations, hosting virtual group meditation sessions, and delivering produce to the working-class community.
The Black American West Museum
Collecting and sharing the vibrant contributions of the Black community (Buffalo soldiers, cowboys, miners, homesteaders, teachers, doctors) out West.
National Center for Civil and Human Rights
A dynamic museum and human rights organization that links past and present challenges, spearheads initiatives to combat white supremacy, provides training (in human rights, diversity and inclusion, and history) for law enforcement, and gives students and advocates the tools they need to engage in civic life effectively.
Artist Theaster Gates has spent years creating work at the cross section of fine art, social practice, urban planning, and preservation. Through reimagining and adaptive reuse, he reclaims forgotten spaces, turning them into platforms for neighborhood transformations. The proliferation of inventive programming, galleries, research libraries, live/work spaces, and studios are informed by the values statement: "Black people matter, Black spaces matter, and Black objects matter."
The studio space, exhibition space, education center, and retail shop are not for profit. Even better: The whole thing is staffed by teenagers. Empowering youth through hands-on initiatives creates paths to self-sufficiency and creative actualization — cornerstones of a strong and healthy community. This line makes me feel particularly optimistic about the future: "Apprentices use design-based methods and tools to amplify neighborhood voice, build community knowledge, and interrupt patterns of disinvestment in our city."
Studio Museum in Harlem
New York City, New York
The cultural institution for Black artists opened on the heels of the monumental Civil Rights Act of 1964 and has been supporting emerging artists of color and expanding their role within the industry ever since. Case in point: The Studio Museum Institute offers professional development and mentorship for would-be curators, scholars, and administrators from historically unrepresented backgrounds.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
Stories of real people from the era of the Underground Railroad are told through traditional and interactive exhibitions by historians on site. A film theater dedicated to Harriet Tubman has a ceiling of stars replicating the sky on the morning of Lincoln's signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. Traveling exhibitions highlight the very real human trafficking trade that persists today.
Black Wall Street Gallery
Art and performance are used to build experiential understanding and lasting, positive relationships between Black and white folks in Tulsa. 2021 marks the centennial anniversary of the Tulsa Race Massacre in the Greenwood neighborhood (where the Black Wall Street Gallery intentionally opened shop), making it a particularly poignant time to mediate, heal, unite, and love — four series topics the gallery tackles through its exhibitions.
The Colored Girls Museum
A central place for the collection and dissemination of the artifacts, "ordinary objects," and experiences of women of the African diaspora, compiled by and for them, as a way of honoring, protecting, and celebrating them. Besides being an exhibition space, the historic Germantown building is also a research facility and think tank.
American Civil War Museum
You'll find a fascinating and thorough reflection on Southern history and public memorialization in On Monument Avenue, the online exhibit that contextualizes the debate over the city's Confederate monuments and statues through historical excerpts, interviews, and reflections from a variety of citizens, as well as discussion questions to foster real dialogue during this national reckoning.
Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture
Established by an Act of Congress in 2003 and opened in 2019, the museum is now the largest cultural destination devoted to the African-American experience and a place of teaching, collaboration, participation, and enthusiasm in all aspects of Black life in America – from fashion and design to sports and entertainment to identity, place, and gesture.
Loíza, Puerto Rico
The multidisciplinary space offers opportunities to trace "the route of blackness" from memories and traditions and diverse cultural practices within Puerto Rico, the greater Caribbean, and the African diaspora. The brainchild of sociologist and climate justice advocate Maricruz Rivera Clemente and Dr. Marta Moreno Vega, a professor, curator, and former director of El Museo del Barrio in Harlem, who has family from Loiza, the city that's home to the largest populations of African descendants on the island.
A Southern Road Trip
The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor
The coastal areas and the sea islands of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida
The Gullah people are descendants of the Africans enslaved on the rice, indigo, and island cotton plantations of the coastal South. The significant Gullah Geechee culture has imprinted 12,000 miles of land in the southeastern United States (federally recognized as The Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor) with it Lowcountry cuisine, Creole language, and distinct identity. The area is rich with sites: plantations, battlefields, research centers, gardens, museums, freedmen towns, the first school for formerly enslaved people, as well as a low-impact wildlife preserve on thousands of acres of former rice plantations carved out of cypress swamps by the highly-skilled farmers who applied their skills and (mainly) West African agricultural knowledge to the area.
Watch "The Gullah Way" episode on Padma Lakshmi's Taste the Nation. Make your way to Morning Glory Homestead on South Carolina's St. Helena Island for a farm visit. Book a tour with chef and TV personality Sallie Ann Robinson, who actively preserves Gullah heritage by leading tours of Daufuskie Island, a sleepy South Carolina enclave of Gullah homes and cemeteries accessible only by boat or helicopter (a percentage of the tour ticket goes toward restoration).
Walking + Cycling Tours
Angels Walk LA
Los Angeles, California
The non-profit's self-guided trail of the historically Black Crenshaw District has printable guidebooks and maps and physical stanchions for intel.
Take a bicycle ride through the city streets while learning about Civil Rights history, stopping to appreciate little-known landmarks and learning stories about the people who often go unseen and unheard.
Richmond Slave Trail
The three-mile walk from the James River at the Manchester Docks to Lumpkin's Slave Jail passes seventeen markers highlighting local and historical information of enslaved people.
All Bout Dat Tours
New Orleans, Louisiana
The Black-owned tour company provides driving and strolling tours through neighborhoods steeped in Black heritage and legend. Hear about Jazz influences, Voodoo insights, Creole architecture, Freedom Fighters, and centuries-old healing drum circles in Congo Square.
United Street Tours
On walking tours focusing on Civil Rights, Music City, or the slavery trade, educators fill in the missing stories in the history of the city.
Black Scroll Network History & Tours
"African American history is a part of American history. For many years, it's been the missing part of history. And it's not only for Black people — but for everyone in America," says social studies teacher turned enthusiastic tour guide Jamon Jordan, who leads engaging tours of the city filled with cultural, historical, and spiritual context.
Download a .pdf of Barnard's Radical Black Women of Harlem self-guided walking tour. It looks like a cool zine!
Expand your bookshelf with this list of travel books by Black explorers, adventurers, and investigative reporters.