By Randy Yagi
First conceived as a weeklong event in Washington DC in 1926 and held annually over the entire month of February since 1976, Black History Month celebrates the numerous achievements and contributions from black Americans in U.S. history. But this year, it’s an especially important time raise awareness in African American history, in that it also commemorates the 50th anniversary of the death of Martin Luther King Jr. and provides for an excellent opportunity to reflect upon his legacy upon one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world. While special events and celebrations will be held all around the country, there are a few cities that will be of particular interest, not only for its wealth of events, but also for its wealth of historical settings. The following are five of the best destinations to visit for African American culture and history in observance of Black History Month.
Certainly one of the best and most popular destinations to celebrate Black History Month is Atlanta, the capital city of Georgia and the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr. Located in the Sweet Auburn Historic District just east of downtown Atlanta, Dr. King’s birth home is part of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Park, which also features his pastoral home church Ebenezer Baptist Church and the King Center established by his wife Coretta Scott King, as well as his and his wife Coretta’s final resting place. Although there is no admission free to enter the National Historic Park, reservations for free tickets for the Birth Home Tours is required and only at the park visitor center. Another important place to honor Dr. King’s legacy during Black History Month is the Center for Civil and Human Rights, a cultural attraction near Centennial Park that’s dedicated to both the American Civil Rights Movement and today’s Global Rights Movement. In addition previously announced events like the Black History Month Programs at the Children’s Museum of Atlanta and the Civil Rights Parade, visitors can also enjoy an NBA game with the Atlanta Hawks, and live performances by Grammy Award-winning singer Jeffrey Osborne and Rachelle Ferrell who will appear at the historic Fox Theatre February 10, as well as the Queen of Hip Hop Soul, Mary J. Blige a few days later on February 13.
Recently described by the New York Times as the “most exciting city in America”, Detroit should be high on a list of destinations to visit this year, in particular during Black History Month. While the unveiling of the dazzling Little Caesars Arena was a major factor in the city’s higher profile, the Motor City offers several more attractions, some which are critically important in African American history. For instance, Detroit was considered one of the final stops along the legendary Underground Railroad, a 19th century network of safe passages and houses that helped African American slaves escape to free states and Canada. One of the most important sites is the First Congregational Church of Detroit, which features the Underground Railroad Museum. Also nearby is the must-see Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, which holds the world’s largest permanent exhibit on African American history. Known around the world as the historic birthplace of the American automotive industry, Detroit is also acclaimed for its music contributions to American history and none more important than Motown, whose original headquarters and recording studio now serves as the Motown Museum, allowing visitors to tour the former home of Berry Gordy Jr. and the legendary Studio A, where several Motown hits were recorded from music icons like the Four Tops, the Temptations, Stevie Wonder, the Miracles and the Supremes. While several other events to celebrate Black History Month, including African American History Day at the Detroit Historical Museum and a full month of programs at the Detroit Institute of Arts, visitors are strongly urged to set aside time to visit the Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation in nearby Dearborn, particularly to see the actual Rosa Parks Bus.
With a round of special events and several historic places to visit, Memphis is one of the most important cities in America to visit during Black History Month. Most importantly is the National Civil Rights Museum, which was built around the former Lorraine Motel, the site of the tragic assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on April 4, 1968. Established in 1991, the National Civil Rights Museum chronicles the history of the American Civil Rights Movement through more than 250 artifacts, interactive media and permanent exhibits like a replica of the Rosa Parks bus and the original lunch counter from the 1960 student sit-ins. However, this prestigious museum is also in the midst of a yearlong observance through April 4, 2018, on the 50th anniversary of Dr. King’s death. Other historical attractions in Memphis include the Slave Haven Underground Museum, historic Sun Studios, known as the “Birthplace of Rock N’ Roll”, where legendary music artists like Howlin’ Wolf, B.B. King and Elvis Presley recorded there in the 1950s and the must-see Stax Museum of American Soul Music, located on the site of the famous Stax studio, where several music icons recorded there, including Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staples Singers and Booker T & the MGs, who also served as the studio’s house band. Among the important events scheduled for Black History Month are the IRIS Orchestra Black History Month Event Part at historic Clayborn Temple and “Selma: A Musical Tribute to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. at the Hattiloo Theatre beginning February 23 and running through March 18. Lastly, visitors should also take some time for some great food and entertainment in the Beale Street Entertainment District, at popular places like the Blues City Café, the Pig on Beale and Rum Boogie Café. For visitors traveling from New Orleans or Natchez, Mississippi, the American Steamboat Company‘s American Duchess all-suite paddlewheeler is an excellent way to further explore the South via a Lower Mississippi River cruise.
The capital city of Alabama is so rich in African American history and culture, it might take more than just one visit to appreciate its singular importance. In fact, it was in Montgomery, where Rosa Parks refused to give up her bus seat to a white passenger on December 1, 1955, which helped launched the creation of the American Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. One of the leading attractions in the state’s second largest city is the Rosa Parks Museum, a moving tribute dedicated to the “Mother of the Civil Rights Movement”, which features an exhibit that details the subsequent Montgomery bus boycott and an original bus from the 1955 city fleet, in addition to an important plaque outside that marks the bus stop location where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat. Less than a mile away near the Alabama State Capitol, is the Dexter Avenue Memorial Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King Jr. served as the pastor between 1954 and 1960. Also not to be missed in the capital city are the Dexter Parsonage Museum, the former residence of Dr. King during the 1950s, Civil Rights Memorial and the Freedom Rides Museum. Lastly, no trip to Montgomery would truly be complete without seeing at least a portion of the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, which traces the 54-mile route of the historic Selma to Montgomery marches in 1965 and includes the Edmund Pettus Bridge, the site for the brutal event that later became known as “Bloody Sunday”.
With the opportunity to see the enormous Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial and National Museum of African American History and Culture, the nation’s capital is an especially important destination to visit during Black History Month. While either of these two exceptional attractions could be the first of several stops in the District of Columbia, walk-up passes to the National Museum are only available on weekdays, with high-in-demand, same day timed entry passes available online. Overlooking the Tidal Basin near the Korean Veterans Memorial, the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is certainly much easier to visit in that it always open to the public 24 hours a day and requires no pass or reservation, with park rangers on duty from 9:30 am to 10: p.m. Throughout February, Washington D.C. will host several events and special exhibitions of particular interest, including the premier event of the founders of Black History Month, the African American Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), the 92nd Annual Black History Luncheon on February 24, African American Pioneers in Aviation and Space at Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center on February 10, “Section 27: Separated at Death in Arlington” at the Clara Barton Missing Soldiers Office Museum February 15, “Civil War, Civil Rights and the African American Experience” on Wednesdays at the Smithsonian American Art Museum and a rare display of the Emancipation Proclamation from February 17-19 at the National Archives. Further suggestions include the African American Civil War Museum, National World War II Memorial, Vietnam Veterans Memorial, National Gallery and the Lincoln Memorial, whose steps was the setting for Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s unforgettable “I Have a Dream” speech in 1963.