In 1860, the schooner Clotilda—the last slave ship to bring African captives to the American South—arrived at the Alabama coast, its hold containing 110 people smuggled into the U.S. more than 50 years after importing slaves was outlawed. After an intensive yearlong search, supported by the National Geographic Society, marine archaeologists have located the Clotilda. Few slave vessels have ever been found, so this groundbreaking discovery unlocks a mystery that many thought lost to history. (Read more about finding Clotilda.)
Such breakthroughs help preserve our shared heritage and tell the stories of the estimated 389,000 Africans delivered into bondage in mainland America from the early 1600s to 1860. For some descendants of slaves, artifacts such as the Clotilda represent a tangible connection to their ancestors. For travelers, such discoveries can present an opportunity to learn more about U.S. history.
“The African-American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American,” writes Lonnie G. Bunch III, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The national collection in Washington, D.C., is just one of many diverse museums and monuments across the country that help visitors connect to significant moments in black history and to learn about the country’s legacy of racial injustice. Here are 13 destinations for discovering more about African-American history and culture.
Despite initial funds provided in 1915 by black Civil War veterans and a signed Public Resolution from President Calvin Coolidge in 1929 establishing a commission to plan its construction, it wasn’t until legislation signed by then President George W. Bush in 2003 that the museum had the authorization it needed to be created on the National Mall. Since the museum opened in fall 2016, visitors will be able to explore more than 400 years of artifacts and historical information detailing the African American experience. (Read more about the museum.)
Established in 1965, this Detroit museum holds the world’s largest permanent collection of African-American culture. Among the more than 35,000 artifacts, find interactive kids stations, displays on trailblazers in science and engineering, and stained-glass windows by Samuel A. Hodge that depict stories of notable African Americans from dancers to civil rights activists. The annual three-day African World Festival held in August celebrates the cultures of the diaspora with hosts free performances by gospel legends such as the Clark Sisters, African drummers, and dance troupes.
The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the first squadron of back military airmen, weren’t considered equals in the eyes of the law but that didn't stop them from defending the country. The museum details their training and the role they played in desegregating the military. Also find monuments to the men who served as “Red Tails” all over the country, including a National Park Service sitein Tuskegee, Alabama, in their honor.
Informally called the lynching memorial, the first U.S. commemoration of the thousands of men, women, and children who were murdered—primarily because of the color of their skin—opened in Montgomery in April 2018. This Alabama site holds 805 hanging, steel rectangles in the shape of coffins, each representing one of the U.S. counties where a documented lynching took place, as reported by legal advocacy nonprofit Equal Justice Initiative. Steps away, visitors may explore the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, which opened on the same day and displays the history of racism in America—beginning with slavery before examining lynching, the Civil Rights era, and the present. (Discover the new U.S. Civil Rights Trail in Alabama.)
A slave cabin from a South Carolina plantation sits among the exhibits at the NMAAHC. At the Whitney Plantation, visitors can walk the fields once toiled in by slaves and learn the history of this brutal time in American history. Informed docents provide tours through memorials, slave cabins, and the great house with a unique focus on the slaves’ perspective. (Plantations are a dark chapter in American history—here’s why to visit.)
There is no shortage of museums dedicated to civil rights in America set in spots where pivotal points in the movement's history occurred. The National Civil Rights Museumin Memphis is built across from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated as he stood on a balcony in 1968. Visitors can hear audio of oral history recounting firsthand accounts of life under Jim Crow or women of Montgomery boycotting bus segregation.
African American men who worked as porters on the trains of the Pullman Car Company are revered for their service and dedication. The men endured incredibly long working hours for about $60 per month and more than half of that went back to the company to pay for the supplies they used on the job. Stories of their experience on the segregated trains, and off, are detailed in the intriguing museum, which also explains the political climate of the time and rise of unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The Buffalo Soldiers were a group of former slaves, freemen, and black Civil War soldiers who continued to serve America during peacetime. So named by the Native Americans, the soldiers often are lauded for helping to forge the Wild West. The museum showcases the efforts of African Americans in the protection of this country, at home and abroad, where often their safety was equally at risk due to the color of their skin.
The intricate, secret network of allies that runaway slaves relied on to escape to freedom was called the Underground Railroad. Although slavery ended in the United States roughly 150 years ago, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center works to keep the story and the message alive for the current generation. With exhibitions that highlight slave trades of the past and present, the center presents interactive exhibits, films, and even includes a slave pen from Kentucky built in the early 1800s. The moving tribute is even more relevant given the approximately 27 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world today. (What if Martin Luther King Jr. were never assassinated?)
Although Americans of all races are lauded here, the inclusion of the relationship of Memphis Soul to the 1930s sharecropper roots and the city’s civil rights movement history lend a poignant backdrop. The museum's artifacts and exhibits were curated by the Smithsonian Institute and offer opportunities to hear the music, read the stories, and watch films from decades past.
Long before Jackie Robinson became a household name, African American baseball players were making a name for themselves on the field. The Negro League offered these men a place to play in a segregated America. The museumhighlights the successes and struggles of the players (both superstars and the unknown) and provides a glimpse into the incredible talent kept out of the mainstream. The museum is located in the historic 18th and Vine district with the American Jazz Museum, also worthy of a look for those in town.
What started as an ode to black cowboys has grown to include tales and artifacts of African Americans who made their way west to forge new lives, whether driven by professional or personal circumstances. Located in the former home of Colorado’s first female African American physician, Justina Ford, the museum is packed with photos and artifacts is best experienced with a pre-arranged tour.
This 44,000-square-foot museum does a great job of showcasing items from African American history while also heralding contemporary themes. The exhibition “Oh Snap! West Coast Hip Hop Photography” is just one example of how the museum makes the collection interesting, informative, and accessible to younger audiences.
This article, originally published on September 19, 2016, was updated on May 23, 2019, with new sites and additional information.