Magazine Online    The Authority On African-American Conventions, Incentives, & Leisure Travel
Issue: January/February 2011
Heritage Tourism Still A Strong Draw During Challenging Times For The Industry
By: Michael Bennett

The growth and resurgence in heritage tourism is no accident. Consumers from all walks of life have demanded more and great destinations such as Florida and Alabama have answered the call. All too often the African-American experience has been hidden from view. Well, not any more.  Several destinations have invested time, money and other resources paying tribute to African-American contributions and they’ve left those landmarks, trails and museums for all to enjoy. Many states offer guidebooks and brochures specifically targeting African-American heritage with suggested itineraries to maximize the experience.

Despite these tough economic times demand is strong. For many African-Americans, heritage tourism is an emotional journey that brings laughter, tears, knowledge, pride, and yes dreams and possibilities. For the struggle of our ancestors serves as a powerful reminder how to persevere when all else seems lost. “Return to old watering holes for more than water, friends and dreams are there to meet you”…African Proverb

African-Americans more than any other group seek out heritage tourism opportunities on vacation or added to an itinerary when attending a conference. For those unable to travel long distances, a quick car, bus or train ride could take you on the journey of a lifetime and still be home in time for dinner. Phoenix has several African-American heritage sites those outside the state might not be aware of, starting with the George Washington Carver Museum and Cultural Center. Housed at the former Carver High School the museum archives the rich culture and experiences of early African-American pioneers.

Another museum of note, located in nearby Scottsdale is the African-American Multicultural Museum. As they like to say, “they are a local museum with a global perspective.” The museum celebrates many races and cultures incorporating the African-American experience, affording visitors the opportunity to appreciate our differences and celebrate similarities. Just this past December, the Phoenix City Council designated Tanner Chapel AME Church as a historic landmark. It is the oldest African-American Church in Phoenix dating back to 1887. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and well as President Lyndon Johnson have all spoken or delivered sermons at this church.

Other places you might want to visit on a journey to Phoenix, the Swindall House, the only hotel that admitted Black guests during segregation. Ella Fitzgerald, Joe Louis, Jackie Robinson and Louis Armstrong all stayed there at one time or another. If you love theater, check out the Black Theater Troupe in Phoenix. Now in its 41st year, they perform plays that reflect the heart and soul of the African-American experience. Performances are primarily Friday through Sunday.

Birmingham, AL has arguably the richest African-American heritage tourism product in the world. The city played a central role in the Civil Rights Movement and the Convention and Visitors Bureau has a portion of their website dedicated to African-American heritage and much of that experience.  The Birmingham Civil Rights District is a six-block tribute to the monumental fight for human rights in this country. This district includes;
  • Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, site of the infamous bombing in 1963 that killed four little girls.
  • Kelly Ingram Park became the focal point of the grassroots resistance for the humanities and injustices of racism and discrimination. Sculptures created for the park show attacks on monstrators, the arrest of children, and a tribute to the contributions of clergy in the struggle.
  • The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute chronicles the struggles of the Civil Rights Movement. Visitors experience for themselves the courage of those who fought so hard for freedom and equality. The Human Rights Gallery takes visitors beyond Birmingham to look as issues around the world.

And what would any tribute to African-American culture be without music. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame honors great jazz artists with ties to the state. Exhibits convey the accomplishments of Nat King Cole, Duke Ellington, Lionel Hampton and Erskine Hawkins. Other places of note to visit in Birmingham ⎯ the Fourth Avenue Business District, Alabama Penny Savings Bank, A.G. Gaston Gardens and Tuxedo Junction.

Florida has done an excellent job of preserving their African-American heritage tourism offering. Back in 2007, the Florida Division of Historic Resources published the Florida Black Heritage Trail. This book provides an excellent resource for visitors to the state looking for those gems of Black heritage.

There is an online e-book at or you can get a hard copy of the book by calling Visit Florida at (888) 735-2872.

Miami has several sites of significance to African-Americans for all to enjoy starting with Virginia Key Beach. In 2002, this beach was listed on the National Registry of Historic Places. On August 1, 1945 Dade County officials designated this beach for the exclusive use of Negroes. Back the then beach was only accessible by boat from a dock on the Miami River.  Structures include a concession stand, bathhouse and an octagonal carousel house with three picnic pavilions and a 70-ft. wood tunnel for miniature trains, which still stands today. In 1944, the Navy conducted Negro training here since Blacks could not be trained on other beaches. In 2008, after a major restoration project, the park was re- opened and is a top tourist draw in Miami.

D.A. Dorsey is widely recognized as one of Miami’s most famous early Black residents. The D.A. Dorsey home is a great place one to learn about African-American history South Florida style. Dorsey, who eventually became a millionaire, purchased lots in Miami for $25 and advertised himself as the only licensed colored real estate dealer in the city. Dorsey organized the region’s first Black bank, and served as chairman of the Colored Advisory Committee of the Dade County School Board and as a registrar for Black Men during Word War I. Other places of note in Miami include; the Hampton House, Black Archives History and Research Foundation of South Florida, Lincoln Memorial Park and The Lyric Theater.


Tampa is one of the premiere destinations in the country when it comes to celebrating Black heritage. January 2011 marks the 11th annual The Tampa Bay Black Heritage Festival. Festivities include a jazz festival, a 5K-walk, heritage movie night, battle of the bands and so much more. Check out the Black History and Art Museum located inside the Paradise Missionary Baptist Church in the heart of the Central Avenue District once called “The Scrubs” for photographs, documents and artifacts chronicling the Black experience. Other places of note in Tampa include the North Franklin Street Historic District, The Jackson House and the St Peter Claver School.

The Florida panhandle community of Pensacola is the birth home of one of America’s top military leaders. Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr., was the first Black four-start general in U.S. military history. Shortly after his retirement in the late 1970s many were recruiting James to run for Lt. Governor of the state of Florida before he died of a heart attack. The private residence where he was born still stands and a marker in his honor is located in the city’s Memorial Garden on Martin Luther King Boulevard. The Julee Cottage Museum in Pensacola is a simple wood-frame building built around 1804. It’s the city’s only surviving “sidewalk to street” construction. It belonged to Julee Patton a free woman of color who purchased the freedom of fellow enslaved Blacks and today serves as a Black history museum.

The Orlando area was home to a group of highly educated people of color who leveraged that education to advance the cause of those around them. At the Well’s Built Museum of African American History and Culture visitors can learn about the life of Dr. William Monroe Wells. Wells was an African-American physician who built this hotel turned museum for Black patrons in 1926 during segregation. The adjacent South Street Casino attracted many famous entertainers and the hotel became their destination of choice.  This museum has authentic furnishings of the 1930s and features artifacts that include official hotel documents, an original Negro League baseball jersey and slave records. A couple of other locations to check out are the Hankins Building (private). Dr. I.S. Hankins was an active leader in the Washington Shores development, which provided home ownership opportunities for black Orlando residents.

The Nicholson-Colyer Building, built in 1911 was named after an African-American tailor J.A. Colyer and J.E. Nicholson a Canadian baker. It was one of the few properties outside of traditional African-American neighborhoods owned and operated by African-Americans. The African American Research Library and Cultural Center in Ft. Lauderdale contains over 75,000 documents and artifacts about people of African descent, a community cultural center and a 300-seat auditorium with meetings rooms and exhibit area that might prove useful to meeting planners looking for an offsite venue. This library contains the papers of W.E.B. Dubois, the Langston Hughes Collection, the Bethune-Cookman College Collection, the Alex Haley Collection and the papers of Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life and History.

As Americans we often forget about our connection to the people of Canada, especially the province of Ontario and the greater Toronto area. Toronto is the home to half of all people of African descent in the country. Toronto’s geographic proximity to the U.S. made the city one of many Canadian destinations for Blacks escaping bondage prior to and during the days of the Underground Railroad. Several sites within the city played a prominent role in this northward migration of enslaved blacks. St. Lawrence Hall National Historic Site of Canada held several abolitionist meetings during the days of slavery attended by prominent Canadians and Black Americans such as Frederick Douglass.

The story of Thornton and Lucie Blackburn is one that speaks to the bond between our two countries. The Blackburn’s were escaped slaves from Kentucky, who settled in Detroit. After settling in Detroit bounty hunters discovered the couple and they were jailed awaiting transport back to Kentucky. Local Black residents of Detroit helped Lucie escape to Canada. Her husband eventually joined Lucie after 400 men stormed the jail in Detroit, freed Thornton and got him to Canada. Thornton started Toronto’s first cab company. In 1999, the Canadian government designated the Blackburns “Persons of National Historic Significance” and plaques in their honor were erected in Louisville, Kentucky and Toronto.

A couple of churches in the greater Toronto area played an integral role in the lives of escaped slaves and other prominent Blacks. Escaped Blacks often attended services at the African American Methodist Episcopal Church in Toronto where they found religious familiarity. Also First Baptist Church, Toronto, established in 1841 experience significant growth during the height of entrenched slavery in the United States. Like in the United States, Canada celebrates Black History Month. While many of the events held during the month of February look American, this celebration is distinctly Canadian. It a great way to experience the commonalities that bind our two countries yet honor and celebrate a people many of us don’t know. While our common ancestry binds us, many African Canadians have an entirely different experience and one worth celebrating.

There are several destinations in Toronto and the surrounding community that celebrate African-American and African Canadian achievement. If your travels take you to Toronto, check with the CVB to start your African Canadian adventure. The remnants of slavery have stained this country for over 400 years. While Virginia might be the birthplace of American slavery, history also shows us that Black Virginians persevered despite the odds. And much to the state’s credit, rather than hide the facts like so many do, they have laid their souls bare for all to see. As a result Virginia has one of the best heritage tourism offerings in the country.

Virginia Beach is located in what is known as the Hampton Roads area of the state and believe it or not, is the states most populous city. The Hampton Roads area, which includes Norfolk and Newport News, is home to more cultural and heritage tourism sites collectively, than just about anyplace in the United States. The city of Virginia Beach is home to 18 sites on the National Register of Historic Places. Make sure you take a stroll on the Virginia Legends Walk. This Virginia Beach attraction honors Virginians who have made significant contributions to the nation and the world including Arthur Ashe, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Ella Fitzgerald, Pearl Bailey and Booker T. Washington.

Morning Star Baptist Church was founded in 1892 and is one of the oldest African-American churches in Virginia Beach. Church members have been collecting memorabilia depicting the lives of African-Americans from 1892 to 1950. As one might expect not only was slavery and plantation life a staple of early Virginia, maritime activities played a huge role in the areas development and many of the museums in the area chronicle that achievement, including the contributions of many Blacks. And you can’t say the word spring break without thinking about Virginia Beach and Black college students.

“A past to cherish, a future to fulfill.” These words are inscribed on one of Macon, Georgia’s, historic markers dedicated to preserving the city’s rich African-American heritage. There are at least 22 cultural and historical sites throughout the city. The Tubman African American museum features a 63-ft. long mural centerpiece of the museum “From Africa to America” created by Macon artist Wilfred Stroud. As the name suggests it’s a visual history of Black people from the early days in Africa to our famous African American leaders of today. If you love music, head to the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon and look at the careers of Little Richard, Ray Charles, Lena Horne, Gladys Knight and the father of Gospel Music, Reverend Dr. Thomas A. Dorsey.

Sports buff should enjoy the Georgia Sports Hall of Fame with over 3,000 artifacts and a 205-seat ballpark theater. Take a look into the lives of Hank Aaron, Dominique Wilkins, Evander Holyfield, Jackie Robinson and others. Macon has several historic districts, landmarks and memorials including a statue of native son Otis Redding and a bridge named in his honor. If you’re looking for a place to worship while in town, the city has several historic Black churches to choose from. And if your travels take you to Macon in late April check out the Pan African American Festival.
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