Black History Month, celebrated every February, is a perfect excuse to plan an educational trip to a new place. Below, here are some of the top landmarks to visit to experience culture and entertainment, learn about abolitionist and Civil Rights history, visit the homes of influential figures, and see both contemporary art and historical artifacts at museums around the country.
Beale Street Historic District – Memphis, TN
Beale Street, established in 1841 and one of the most iconic streets in America, became a thriving area for black commerce and culture around the time of the Civil War. But in the 1870s, yellow fever hit Memphis and severely affected the city’s population. As a result, the city had to forfeit its charter in 1879. During this time, former slave Robert Church acquired land in the area, and his investments helped restore the business community’s confidence in Memphis, which led to the regaining of its charter. Among Church’s contributions was the Robert R. Church Park at the corner of Fourth and Beale. The park quickly became a gathering center for blues musicians and featured a 2,000-seat auditorium.
Beale Street was also home to many black-owned businesses, clubs, restaurants, and shops and was the headquarters of Ida B. Wells’ anti-segregationist newspaper, Free Speech. The newspaper office was housed in the historic First Baptist Church (Beale Street), which was built by a congregation of freed slaves. From the 1920s to 1940s, artists such as Muddy Waters, Louis Armstrong and B.B. King played on the street and subsequently developed the legendary Memphis blues sound. During the Civil Rights Movement, the area was also where African-Americans came to entertain and be entertained, shop, strategize and protest. When city sanitation workers decided to strike in response to deplorable job conditions, they marched down Beale Street, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. came to Memphis in support. The demonstrations were a precursor to his assassination on April 4, 1968.
Despite the closing of many sections of the storied street by the 1960s, Beale Street saw a successful revitalization. Today, it continues to be a hub for music, nightlife, dining and the arts. The Withers Collection Museum & Gallery, toward the end of Beale Street, houses an archive of 1.8 million images by photographer Dr. Ernest C. Withers. The building was Withers’ working studio, and visitors can see displays of his iconic images of legendary Civil Rights Movement events as well as blues and jazz performers.
Other nearby landmarks: National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, Clayborn Temple, WDIA Radio Station
Martin Luther King Jr Memorial – Washington, DC
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial – courtesy of britannica.com
Located in downtown Washington, DC, the memorial honors Martin Luther King, Jr.’s legacy and the struggle for freedom, equality, and justice. A prominent leader in the modern civil rights movement, Dr. King was a tireless advocate for racial equality, working class, and the oppressed around the world. The National Mall was also the site of one of the largest human rights protests in American history – the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom – after which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his historic “I Have a Dream Speech” to a crowd of 250,000.
Washington, DC is a site that’s central to the Civil Rights Movement. The United States Supreme Court building here was the location of the groundbreaking decision in Brown v. Board of Education, and students and professors at local Howard University played a major role in bringing school desegregation to the nation’s attention. The nation’s capital and its historic landmarks offer opportunities for reflection on the American Civil Rights Movement and the country’s progress moving forward.
Other nearby landmarks: Frederick Douglass National Historic Site (reopens March 2023), Lincoln Memorial, National Museum of African American History and Culture
Biddy Mason Memorial Park – Los Angeles, CA
Bridget “Biddy” Mason was born into slavery in 1818. Not much is known of her early life, but by the time she was a young adult she was enslaved in the household of Robert Smith. In 1847, she traveled, mostly on foot, from Mississippi to Utah with the Smith household. The household lived in Salt Lake City for two years, then resettled in San Bernardino, California in 1851. California was admitted to the Union in 1850 as a free, nonslave state, which meant Smith was holding Mason illegally. Mason fought for her freedom in court, with the trial ruling confirming her freedom in 1856. As a free woman, Mason settled in Los Angeles with her children and found work as a nurse and midwife. In 1866, she purchased a nearly one-acre site between present-day Broadway (then Fort Street) and Spring Street, between 3rd and 4th Streets. On this, the present location of the park, she built her homestead. Throughout the years, this pioneering black woman purchased more property, and as the value of her holdings escalated, she eventually became a relatively wealthy woman and an untiring philanthropist.
This mini-park was designed by landscape architects Katherine Spitz and Pamela Burton. The artwork Biddy Mason Time and Place is an 80-foot-long poured concrete wall by artist Sheila Levrant de Bretteville. The wall is a timeline of Biddy Mason’s life, illustrated by impressions of objects such as agave leaves, wagon wheels, and a midwife’s bag, as well as simple text and images such as an early survey map of Los Angeles and Biddy’s freedom papers. The history begins at the right (northernmost) end of the wall with the text “Biddy Mason born a slave,” and progresses in time to the inscription: “Los Angeles mourns and reveres Grandma Mason.”
Other nearby landmarks: The Great Wall of Crenshaw, Ralph Bunch House, African American Firefighter Museum, Lincoln Theater
Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site – Richmond, VA
Maggie L. Walker House – courtesy of npplan.com
Maggie Lena Walker devoted her life to civil rights advancement, economic empowerment, and educational opportunities for Jim Crow-era African Americans and women. As a bank president, newspaper editor, and fraternal leader, Walker served as an inspiration of pride and progress. Today, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage, and determination. The residence at 110 1/2 East Leigh Street was built in 1883. The address became a prime location in the heart of Jackson Ward, the center of Richmond’s African American business and social life at the turn of the century. The Walkers purchased the house in 1904 and soon began making changes. Central heating and electricity were added, and with the addition of several bedrooms and enclosed porches, the home increased from 9 to 28 rooms. In 1928 an elevator was added in the rear of the house to provide Mrs. Walker access to the second floor.
The Walker family owned the home until 1979, when it was purchased by the National Park Service. Most of the furnishings throughout the home are original family pieces. They are valuable in understanding the 1904–1934 period of her occupancy. Together the house and the furnishings help us to learn more about Maggie Walker and the world in which she lived. Her community of Jackson Ward, a National Historic Landmark District, continues to exemplify the success of African American entrepreneurship.
Other nearby landmarks: Robert Russa Moton Museum, Virginia Civil Rights Memorial, Jackson Ward, Sixth Mount Zion Baptist Church, Booker T Washington National Monument
Mississippi Freedom Trail
Freedom Trail marker – courtesy of civilrightstrail.com
There are several Freedom Trail markers in Jackson, so if you’re starting from there, you can see markers at the home of Medgar Evers, the Greyhound Bus Station, Mississippi State Capitol, Council of Federated Organizations Civil Rights Education Center, Tougaloo College, Jackson State University and the site of the 1963 sit-in at Woolworth’s. According to the state of Mississippi’s tourism website, three more markers are scheduled to be placed in Jackson – at the NAACP state headquarters, Masonic Temple (M.W. Stringer Grand Lodge) and WLBT news offices.
Northern Mississippi is also home to several markers. In Cleveland, you can visit the home of Amzie Moore, an underappreciated champion of civil rights in Mississippi. Nearby Ruleville has two markers, one at William Chapel Missionary Baptist Church and one at the gravesite of civil rights heroine Fannie Lou Hamer. Take a 40-minute drive to explore the Mississippi Delta and visit Clarksdale to see the Freedom Trail marker at Aaron Henry’s Fourth Street Drug Store. Other northern Mississippi cities with markers on the Freedom Trail include Mayersville, Greenwood, Holly Springs and Blue Mountain. For a complete list of cities and markers, visit Mississippi’s tourism website.
Abiel Smith School & African Meeting House – Boston, MA
African Meeting House – courtesy of nps.gov
The Museum of African American History is New England’s largest museum dedicated to preserving, conserving and interpreting the contributions of African Americans. In Boston, the Museum has preserved two historic sites that tell the story of organized Black communities from the Colonial Period through the 19th century.
At the Boston location, visitors arrive first at the Abiel Smith School. The Abiel Smith School (1835) is the oldest public school in the United States that was built for the sole purpose of educating African American children. Its walls tell the story of abolition and equal education. Located steps away from the Massachusetts State House, the Abiel Smith School currently houses first-class exhibit galleries, education programs, and a museum store filled with books and inspired gifts. Nearby, the African Meeting House (1806) is the oldest extant black church building in the nation and built by free African American artisans. Once a church, a school, and vital community meeting place, the African Meeting House has been returned to its 1855 appearance through historic restoration and is open to the public for talks and tours, our events and yours.
In addition to the historic sites, the Museum has also preserved sites in Nantucket as well as a trail through the Beacon Hill neighborhood that includes the Charles Street Meeting House, Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, George Middleton House, The Phillips School, John J. Smith House, Lewis and Harriet Hayden House, John Coburn House, and the Smith Court Residences.
Other nearby landmarks: Boston Common, Boston Women’s Memorial for Phillis Wheatley, Orchard House, W. E. B. DuBois HomesiteThe Langston Hughes House – New York, NY
The African-American poet Langston Hughes, one of the foremost figures of the Harlem Renaissance, lived at 20 East 127th Street for the last two decades of his life, on the top floor of a brownstone row house where he wrote such notable works as “Montage of a Dream Deferred” and “I Wonder as I Wander.” Open to the public, it’s also home to the I, Too, Arts Collective, a non-profit committed to nurturing creativity within underrepresented communities that offers poetry salons, workshops and affordable work space.
Other nearby landmarks: The Malcolm X and Dr. Betty Shabazz Memorial & Educational Center, The Studio Museum in Harlem, Apollo Theater, Audre Lorde Residence, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater, Frederick Douglass Memorial,Museum of Contemporary African Diasporan Art
The Little Rock Nine Monument – Little Rock, AR
The Little Rock Nine – courtesy of civilrightstrail.com
Following the decision in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, the court mandated that all public schools in the U.S. be desegregated “with all deliberate speed” in a second ruling called Brown II. Arkansas Gov. Orval Faubus opposed the decision and attempted to block nine black students from entering Central High School in Little Rock by calling in the Arkansas National Guard on September 4, 1957. These students, known as the Little Rock Nine, and their plight drew national attention. President Dwight D. Eisenhower sent in federal troops to protect the students and let them enter the school safely. By the end of September, all nine had been admitted to Little Rock Central High School, marking a major victory in the fight for civil rights in education.
“Testament: The Little Rock Nine Monument” honors the courage of the nine African-American students enrolled at Little Rock Central High School who began the process of desegregating the city’s public schools in 1957. Located on the grounds of the Arkansas State Capitol, the memorial features bronze sculptures of the nine, along with plaques bearing quotations from each of them.
Other nearby landmarks: Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, Arkansas Civil Rights Heritage Trail