Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: February/March 2009
Black History Focus: Sights & Venues
By: Norman Mayers

While Black History Month is every February, the time is always right to explore the heritage of African-Americans in this country. With the swearing in of Barack Obama as the first African-American president, it feels as if the centuries old struggle for equality has reached a dramatic climax. This may not be altogether true, but it is clear that African-Americans are reaching greater heights. It is the perfect time to explore our history from the slave ships to the White House by visiting some of the truly memorable heritage sites and attractions found throughout the country.

It is well known that African-Americans will travel for specific reasons such as family reunions and attractions specific to their interests. Planners would be wise to include heritage attractions, tours, or Black neighborhood excursions as a part of their meeting or conference agenda. This is sure to grab the interest of potential attendees who may be on the fence about traveling during these tough times.

But where are the best places to discover African-American heritage? As the center of the plantation system, the Southern United States is where most of African-American culture can trace its roots. It is in the South where most of us can trace our families to and it makes sense that this is where most of the stories about African-American history will be told. A wealth of attractions can be found in states like Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, and Tennessee. Everything from the stories of slavery and the Civil Rights movement to the creation of rock n roll and jazz can be experienced in the South. Each state and city has a different story to tell.

Birmingham, Alabama stands as one of the most important cities on the heritage trail. Few cities played as prominent a role in the American Civil Rights movement as Birmingham. As such the city boasts a six-block Civil Rights District that is a tribute to the monumental fight for equal rights. Within this area are an assortment of attractions and sites that are worth seeing. A significant part of the Civil Rights District, the newly renovated Sixteenth Street Baptist Church is the site of the infamous 1963 bombing that killed four little girls and brought world condemnation of racial violence. Sixteenth continues it legacy as an open-door church welcoming cultural, educational and civic activities.

Distinguished as "A Place of Revolution and Reconciliation," historic Kelly Ingram Park serves as a threshold to the Civil Rights District. During the Civil Rights Movement, this public park became the focal point of the grassroots resistance. Sculptures commissioned for the park depict attacks on demonstrators, children jailed for their role in the protests, and a tribute to the clergy's contributions to the movement.

The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute (BCRI) is a living institution that views the lessons of the past as a positive way to chart new directions for the future. BCRI's permanent exhibitions are a self-directed journey through the Birmingham Civil Rights Movement and human rights struggles. Multi-media exhibitions focus on the history of African-American life and the civil rights struggle. Yet the institute is more than a museum; it is a center for education, research and discussion about civil and human rights issues.

Atlanta, Georgia is widely considered the center of the South and as a Black Mecca of sorts. Its large African-American population and compelling history make it a top travel destination among Blacks. The Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site honors the life of the civil rights leader and includes a visitors center, his birth home, both his tomb and that of his wife, Coretta Scott King, at the MLK Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change; and both the traditional and new sanctuaries of Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King's family has preached for three generations.

The world's largest consortium of Black colleges, Atlanta University Center includes six institutions that have educated countless African-American political, community, and business leaders. Founded in 1867, the Center houses Clark Atlanta University, home to one of the country's finest galleries of art by African-Americans; and Morehouse College, which is now the caretaker of the Morehouse College Martin Luther King Jr. Collection of the civil rights leader's personal papers. Spelman College is the nation's oldest Historically Black College for women. Other institutions include Morehouse School of Medicine, Morris Brown College, and Interdenominational Theological Center.

There is plenty for African-American visitors to discover in Montgomery, Alabama. The Civil Rights Memorial Center expands the experience of the Civil Rights Memorial, which honors the memory and achievements of those who lost their lives during the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Memorial was designed by famed architect, Maya Lin, who also crafted the Vietnam Wall memorial. In addition to state-of-the-art exhibits and in-depth information, the center houses a 69-seat theater, a classroom, a section dedicated to contemporary social justice issues, and the Wall of Tolerance, where visitors can add their name as they pledge to help end social injustice.

The Rosa Parks Library & Museum provides a reenactment experience involving the activities of Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and involvement of other early Civil Rights leaders. Visitors are able to put themselves in the place of Rosa Parks through a recreated street scene and replica of the bus, while video footage transports witnesses to the fateful day. Additional exhibits lead visitors on an emotional journey through the days of the Bus Boycott, which became the first step on the difficult path to civil rights in America.

Memphis is another southern city with plenty of history to discover. The legendary Beale Street is a must for all tourists interested in experiencing the rich musical heritage for which Memphis has long been known. The street, once the musical home of W.C. Handy, BB King, Bobby "Blue" Bland and others, continues its historical tradition enhanced by a fascinating collection of nightclubs, shops, restaurants, boutiques, and outdoor special events. Continuing with the city's legacy of musical history is the Stax Museum of American Soul Music. This multi-million dollar museum is built on the original site of the Stax Studio and pays tribute to the label that produced over 500 hit songs.

The National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel in Memphis, is the first of its kind in the country. Interpretive exhibits and audio-visual displays bring to life the most significant moments in modern American history. Civil and human rights struggles and victories are displayed to educate, inspire and inform adults and children. Forty-five minutes north of Memphis, in the small town of Henning, Tennessee is the boyhood home of the Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots, Alex Haley. The home has been restored and is open to the public. Visitors to the home may also tour Haley's gravesite and other Haley family plots including the nearby grave of Chicken George.