A black history tour with Sift readers
WORLD’s newsletter subscribers share the places that made a lasting impression on them
Throughout Black History Month in February 2021, The Sift newsletter highlighted U.S. destinations with significance to the history of African Americans. Many readers reached out with excellent travel, reading, and watching suggestions. Read them below, organized by state.
Sift reader Rich Humphrey recommended a visit to Tuskegee University in Alabama. Booker T. Washington, the school’s first president, is buried there, along with George Washington Carver. During World War II, Tuskegee hosted a training program for black aviators, who became known as the Tuskegee Airmen. According to Rich, “Benjamin Davis Jr. was the commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. His story of overcoming discrimination while at West Point and later becoming a lieutenant general in the [Air Force] after the war is inspirational beyond belief. I had the great honor of meeting Gen. Davis in 1981 during an ROTC class at Auburn University. He was then retired but was still ramrod straight and had a personal story and presence I will never forget!”
Chuck Clarke wrote about his experience at the National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a monument remembering victims of race-based violence in Montgomery, Ala. If you have read the book Just Mercy or watched the movie adaptation, you know about the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), a nonprofit legal group founded by attorney Bryan Stevenson to represent prisoners who might have been wrongly convicted of crimes. EJI sponsored the memorial, which opened in 2018. Chuck read the book Just Mercy before he visited by himself. “It was a very emotional experience as I realized of the thousands of lives horrifically killed who had aspirations, dreams, and family,” he wrote. “My goal is to someday go back with a diverse group of blacks and whites so that we can share the experience and what each person thinks and feels.”
Sift reader Gene Yow sent along some information about a historical site in Nicodemus, Kan., a small town in the remote northwestern part of the state. Following Reconstruction, black pioneers from the southeastern United States headed West with dreams of escaping economic oppression and owning their own land. Nicodemus is the oldest and only remaining black settlement west of the Mississippi River. Some of the descendants of its original settlers still live there.
Few of us will have occasion to travel to this beacon of heritage, but the National Park Service’s website has a wealth of information on the town and the role that African Americans played in our country’s westward expansion. This presentation in particular could easily become part of an enrichment lesson for students.
Mart Martin wrote about the African American Military Museum in his hometown, Hattiesburg, Miss. It is housed in what was the largest black USO in the United States during WWII. One exhibit honors Hattiesburg’s Jesse Brown, the first African American naval aviator. The museum is one of many stops on the 1964 Freedom Summer Trail, a collection of 16 sites in and around Hattiesburg with significance to the civil rights movement. The museum is open limited hours Thursdays through Saturdays, and you can take a self-guided driving tour of the Freedom Trail whenever you want.
Regarding meaningful black history sites in the United States, Sift reader Elizabeth Jones wrote, “My family visited the B.B. King Museum in Indianola, Miss., several years ago, and we found it interesting and informative. I actually grew up in the Mississippi Delta and loved music, but I did not realize until I became an adult the impact blues music has had on the world. It has influenced many genres of music today, including rock, jazz, pop, even classical. … Blues music was also part of the development of gospel, R&B, funk, and hip-hop. People now travel from all over the world to Mississippi to learn more about blues music and the artists who performed it."
The museum is open limited hours on Thursday, Friday, and Saturday. Its website, like many others, has lessons and activities for students.
A few years ago, I visited the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Mo. I was impressed to learn how hard the Negro Leagues’ founder Rube Foster worked to make sure black baseball benefited black people. Foster had a successful team of his own, the Chicago American Giants. Forming a league helped his team and others keep a consistent schedule, build bigger fan bases, and negotiate more favorable terms with venues. While he made money off the league, he also reached into his own pockets at times to help other teams make payroll. He died in 1930 and was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y., in 1981.
Sift reader Stuart Aller recommended visiting the George Washington Carver National Monument in Newton County, Mo. The 240-acre park surrounds the childhood home of Carver, an agricultural scientist and inventor in the post–Civil War era. Dedicated in 1943, his monument was the first in the nation to honor an African American. “I was amazed at the challenges Mr. Carver overcame and the successes made by this humble, God-fearing man,” Stuart wrote. “Mr. Carver’s contributions inspired me to speak of him often when I was a science teacher of middle school students.” One note: Be sure to check the website of this and any other attractions for pandemic-related changes before you visit. Outdoor areas are open at the Carver monument, but the visitor’s center is closed.
Janet Schamp suggests visiting the historic home of ragtime king Scott Joplin on Delmar Boulevard in St. Louis. Joplin composed more than 100 original ragtime pieces, including the genre-defining “Maple Leaf Rag.” At the St. Louis flat where he lived at the turn of the 20th century, Janet said, “they have a player piano and a staff member will play any ragtime music you select on it.” She added that the worker was “delighted that we did not pick ‘Maple Leaf Rag,’ which is apparently the choice of most visitors.”
Del Groen recently spent some time at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio. The museum is only about 20 miles from two other attractions popular with Christians, the Creation Museum and Ark Encounter in Petersburg, Ky. The Freedom Center has exhibits about American slaves’ escapes and the people who helped them. It also has an exhibit on the modern-day slavery of sex trafficking. Del called it “gripping, sorrowful, inspirational and informative.”
Heather Hutchens is planning a trip to Tulsa, Okla., with her son this spring. She said they want to visit some of the historic landmarks and monuments to the riot-turned-massacre in the city in 1921. A mob of white people enraged by accusations of assault against a black teenager killed hundreds of African Americans and burned the city’s affluent black business district. A hundred years later, Tulsa has memorials, vigils, and other community events planned to honor the victims.
Sift reader Jane lives in Richmond, Va., and recommends a visit to the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site. Walker was the daughter of a former slave who grew up to become the first African American woman in the country to charter a bank and serve as a bank president. She also founded a newspaper and a store and fostered black entrepreneurialism at the dawn of the 20th century. Jane noted that Walker’s house in downtown Richmond is closed because of the pandemic, but the outside has a display, and the surrounding neighborhood has other houses with historic significance to the city’s African American community. She said Walker’s grave in Evergreen Cemetery is also worth a visit.
Mary Petzinger recommends taking advantage of numerous opportunities to learn more about black history in Colonial Williamsburg, Va. Her reference to the town’s historic First Baptist Church piqued my interest. Enslaved and free African Americans founded the congregation in 1776 but had to meet in secret in a brush arbor in the woods. A Williamsburg landowner let them meet in a carriage house until 1856, when they built a brick church nearby. The church moved to a newer building in 1956, where it still meets today. Archaeologists are excavating the site of the 1856 church in hopes of learning more about the people who worshipped there.
Kurt Calloway recommended the Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site in Ontario, Canada, not far from Detroit. An escaped slave named Josiah Henson lived at the site and provided the inspiration for the famous Harriet Beecher Stowe novel, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. The historic attraction has closed for the pandemic, but visitors to its website can learn more about Henson and his work on the Underground Railroad. Kurt recommended Jared Brock’s book The Road to Dawn: Josiah Henson and the Story That Sparked the Civil War. He also reminded me that The World and Everything in It podcast recommended Henson’s autobiography as February 2020’s classic book of the month.
Christine Goudy enjoyed reading Brothers in Arms: The Epic Story of the 761st Tank Battalion by Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (yes, the basketball player) and Anthony Walton. The book tells the story of the soldiers of the first all-black armored unit in World War II. “They were not treated the same as white tank battalions, although their performance earned praise from General George S. Patton and other senior military in the combined command for Europe,” Christine said.
Tim Lowry of Summerville, S.C., suggests Yearning to Breathe Free: Robert Smalls of South Carolina and his Families by Andrew Billingsly. “Following U.S. Highway 17 south from Charleston, S.C., you can cross the Harriet Tubman Memorial Bridge and drive on to Beaufort, the home of Congressman Robert Smalls. Congressman Smalls lived an epic life—enslaved, escaped, Civil War sea captain, South Carolina legislator, United States congressman, United States customs official. He was self-educated, a very accomplished navigator, a brave and much celebrated war hero, and author of the legislation that provides free public education for all children in South Carolina. … But all of these accomplishments pale in comparison to his capacity to forgive and treat all men with dignity and mutual respect.”
Linda West writes, “Breaking the Line by Samuel G. Freedman is an incredible look into the world of black college football in the late ’60s. It reveals not only the bias against black players playing with white, but also the training and competition that took place in black universities in the south—which were segregated. The coaches’ dedication, players’ talent, family life, and the eventual breakthrough of a few players into ‘white’ university football are the highlights.”
Frances Little sent a link to this article about a black fashion designer who dressed American society’s upper crust—including Jacqueline Kennedy on her wedding day—for much of the 20th century. Ann Cole Lowe’s gowns were in high demand, but she never achieved the fame or fortune of some of her contemporaries. She saved the Kennedy wedding wardrobe when her workshop flooded a week before the big day.
Sharon Harkrider, a Sift reader and sixth-grade teacher in New Paris, Ohio, and several other readers have recommended the chapter books written by Mildred Taylor, especially the Newbery Medal winner Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry. Mrs. Harkrider pointed out an author’s note from Taylor’s book The Land, which is based on her great-grandfather’s dream of owning land. Taylor wrote: “Although there are those who wish to ban my books because I have used language that is painful, I have chosen to use the language that was spoken during the period, for I refuse to whitewash history. The language was painful and life was painful for many African Americans, including my family. I remember the pain.”
Jennifer Eaton sent in a TV recommendation for Black History Month that looked too good not to pass on. “We had a weekend of ice and snow here in Virginia and used it to watch all six episodes of The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross,” she wrote. “While it contains serious subject matter and disturbing images, it is not gratuitous, and my sons, ages 16 and 12, both finished it with genuine interest. We all learned an enormous amount.” The docuseries Jennifer watched first came out on PBS in 2013. It traces the history of African Americans back to the origins of the trans-Atlantic slave trade in the 1500s. It’s available on the PBS website and Amazon Prime Video. The writer and presenter of the series, Henry Louis Gates Jr., just hosted another two-part documentary on PBS called The Black Church.
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