From Memphis to Boston, uncover important monuments, museums, and historical sites.

By Jess McHugh and Vanessa Wilkins
January 28, 2020
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Credit: AFP/Getty Images

Parks, monuments, and historic homes throughout the U.S. bear witness to the lasting cultural and historic achievements of Black residents over the centuries.

The legacy of Black Americans is often overlooked by the country at large, and it wasn't until November 2016 that the Smithsonian dedicated a national museum to African-American history and culture. But traces from some of the country's most influential musicians, politicians, writers, and Civil Rights leaders can be found in just about every state.

Travelers may not have noticed some of the historic sites in their own cities and towns, such as the lunch counters where young people fought against segregation laws, or the African Meeting House in Boston, which is the oldest Black church in the country. Throughout Black History Month and beyond, consider making a trip to one of these sites — only a small selection of the hundreds of locations where travelers can learn about Black heritage in the U.S.

Civil Rights Trail

This national trail includes 100 locations across 15 states, educating visitors about the long and ongoing struggle of Black people to achieve equal rights. Locations include the Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. and the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the location of a police confrontation during the Selma, Alabama, marches.

National Museum of African-American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.

Inaugurated in November 2016, this Smithsonian museum in Washington, D.C. is the “only national museum devoted exclusively to the documentation of African-American life, history, and culture,” according to its website. Objects on display include Chuck Berry's Cadillac, Harriet Tubman's prayer shawl, and protest signs from the Black Lives Matter movement. The Sweet Home Café in the museum showcases some of the stories and themes of the rest of the museum, giving visitors a taste of traditional meals from the diaspora. Taste spicy oxtail pepperpot or savor sweet potato pie.

Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History, Mississippi

These two museums attempt to take a critical look at the state's controversial history, particularly during the height of Jim Crow segregation laws in the 20th century.

The Civil Rights Museum, in particular, explores how Mississippi often served as a prime organizing ground for the movement in the 1960s. Protests such as the Freedom Rides and other forms of resistance against segregation often started in Mississippi, given its fierce segregation.

“These museums are telling the stories of Mississippi history in all of their complexity,” said Katie Blount, director of the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, which operates the two new museums, in a statement. “We are shying away from nothing. Understanding where we are today is shaped in every way by where we have come from in our past.”

Credit: Bettmann/Getty Images

Beale Street Historic District, Memphis, Tennessee

This neighborhood in Memphis served as the incubator for some of the best early jazz, blues, and R&B music. Louis Armstrong, B.B. King, and Muddy Waters all played in this district's famed clubs, and Elvis spent a lot of time there as a teenager, listening to the blues music that would influence his rockabilly style.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri

Local historians and former baseball players helped create this Missouri museum, founded in 1990. The museum now occupies 10,000 square feet of space in a building shared with the American Jazz Museum. Visitors can explore photographs and interactive exhibits chronicling some of the most well-known Black baseball players, including Jackie Robinson and Buck O'Neil.

African Meeting House, Boston, Massachusetts

Built in the early 1800s, this small place of worship in the Beacon Hill neighborhood of Boston is one of the oldest historically Black churches in the country. The location served as a church, school, and meeting house where members of Boston's Black community organized, particularly during the push for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Visitors can tour Douglass' historic house to learn about his lifetime of activism and writing. A leader in both the abolition and suffragette movements, Douglass fought for equal rights after escaping from slavery, going on to pen an autobiography about his experiences.

Museum of the African Diaspora, San Francisco, California

This San Francisco museum showcases contemporary art from across the African diaspora. Exhibits explore everything from slave narratives to the celebrations of Carnival in the Caribbean islands.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, Church Creek, Maryland

A former slave who went on to become a leader of the Underground Railroad, Harriet Tubman is one of the most iconic women in history. The land encompassing her home in upstate New York was named a national park in 2017, ensuring its legacy.

“What makes her so incredibly striking is that she went back several times after her own escape to freedom to help others,” Debra Michals, Ph.D. and director of women and gender studies at Merrimack College, told Travel + Leisure. “I don’t think most people today could comprehend what kind of inner fortitude and dedication to the larger cause of freedom that that must have taken.”

Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo, New York

The Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo, New York, is the only operating African American jazz club in the United States. Established in 1917, the historic club became a place for Black musicians to socialize, play music, and rehearse. It has hosted the likes of musical legends like Ella Fitzgerald and Duke Ellington. In 1999, the CMC was designated a historical preservation site, and the first floor of the building now serves as a multimedia museum for guests to listen to jazz and enjoy historic memorabilia.  

Credit: Courtesy of National Museum of African American Music

National Museum of African American Music in Nashville, Tennessee

The recently opened National Museum of African American Music serves as an opportunity to honor and preserve the vast and innumerable contributions that the African American community has provided to the music industry, as well as celebrate the central role African Americans have played in shaping American music. The first and only U.S. museum of its kind, the innovate space “will share the story of the American soundtrack by integrating history and interactive technology to honor Black musical heroes of the past and the present,” according to a press release

National Voting Rights Museum and Institute in Selma, Alabama

Located near the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, the National Voting Rights Museum and Institute chronicles, preserves, and honors the activists who participated in the events leading up to and during the 1965 Selma to Montgomery marches and the passing of the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Exhibits, including the “Women’s Suffrage” and “Selma”galleries, commemorate and honor the strength of these freedom fighters as they strove to ensure the right to vote for all African Americans. 

Credit: Marianna Massey/Getty Images

Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana

The Whitney Planatation, located on the grounds of a mid-1700s sugar, rice, and indigo plantation, is now a museum dedicated to educating the public on the history of slavery. Visitors are able to tour the grounds, which include original slave cabins, a freedmen’s church, a detached kitchen, and an owner’s house built in 1790. The museum also holds a number of memories for the people who were enslaved on the plantation. 

Studio Museum in Harlem, New York

The Studio Museum in Harlem, New York, is devoted to showcasing the works of artists of African descent. The museum’s permanent collections and traveling exhibitions highlight African and African American history, culture, and identity. The space also hosts community events (both online and in person) and an artists-in-residence program.

First Landing Park in Virginia Beach, Virginia

First Landing State Park, located on Cape Henry in Virginia Beach, is the most-visited state park in Virginia. It was built by an all African American regiment, Company 1371, in the 1930s and is now a registered National Natural Landmark. Part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) established by former president Franklin Roosevelt, Company 1371 constructed more than 20 miles of trails, drained the marsh, and planted a wide variety of trees and shrubs to create Seashore State Park, which was later renamed First Landing State Park. Today, visitors can hike, camp, bird-watch and more at this historic state park.