Travel is one of the best ways to bring the past to life for children. It’s no different with Black history, which many people focus on in February—but is equally important the rest of the year.
We’re shining the spotlight on six U.S. cities that families often visit for their charm, beaches, food, or fun—but can also provide powerful lessons in African-American history and culture. Kids can learn firsthand about everything from the Underground Railroad to the Civil Rights Movement, Gullah/Geechee communities to jazz, slavery to baseball.
Black history is increasingly being recognized and memorialized, which means it’s easier than ever to explore on your travels. The museums, homes and parks in these cities are worth weaving into an itinerary—or even planning a entire trip around.
Before you visit any site, check its website or call ahead. The pandemic has affected opening hours, reservation policies, capacity limits, and more. You don’t want to miss a life-changing experience for lack of an advance ticket.
St. Augustine, Florida
This sunny city bills itself as America’s oldest, and is known for beaches, golfing and history. But like many places, it also has a dark past. Historians say that St. Augustine is where slavery began in what would become the United States.
Spanish settlers brought enslaved Africans there in 1565, a half-century before Puritans arrived on Wampanoag Nation land (now called Cape Cod). Fort Mose Historic State Park, site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in the colonies, dates back to the 18th century and is definitely worth a visit.
Martin Luther King, Jr. and Dr. Andrew Young frequently led the protests in St. Augustine; you can learn more at the Lincolnville Museum & Cultural Center and the Accord Civil Rights Museum, which is open by appointment. It also offers a self-guided walking tour. Stop by Andrew Young Crossing in St. Augustine’s Plaza de la Constitución, which was once—unbeknownst to many tourists—a slave market.
Montgomery and Birmingham, Alabama
Alabama’s capital is considered the birthplace of the Civil Rights Movement, and you could plan an entire troup around its wealth of important sites. The Legacy Museum, which opened in 2018 on a site where enslaved people were once warehoused, traces the history of racial inequality in the U.S. A visit can be enlightening but also very painful—not advised for younger children.
The Rosa Parks Museum and Library is very family-friendly, and includes a replica of the bus where she staged her protest, as well as a new statue of the icon. Martin Luther King Jr. served as pastor at Dexter Avenue King Memorial Baptist Church for eight years, and it was a center of the Civil Rights Movement. It’s closed to tours because of the pandemic, but you can see its distinctive brick facade. The Maya Lin-designed Civil Rights Memorial is right around the block, though the Civil Rights Memorial Center is currently closed. The Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace & Justice, the nation’s first dedicated to racial inequality, is moving—and, spread over six acres, a good option with energetic kids. Montgomery is all about good eats. Make your way to Brenda’s Bar-B-Que Pit, the oldest Black-owned barbecue joint in Montgomery; for breakfast Barbara Gail’s Neighborhood Grille is the spot.
Birmingham, where the Civil Rights National Monument encompasses four city blocks of memories, is just an hour’s drive away. Kelly Ingram Park, a gathering place for Civil Rights activists, is now home to many sculptures related to the movement (including some depicting attack dogs, potentially upsetting to kids). Pay your respects across the street at 16th Street Baptist Church, site of the 1963 bombing that killed four children. The Alabama Jazz Hall of Fame pays homage to Nat King Cole, Dinah Shore, and other musical greats; sports fans will want to hit the Negro Southern League Baseball Museum.
It may not be as central to Black history as some other cities, but Louisville has a number of sites where you can explore Black influence on baseball, bourbon, agriculture and more—and there are some brand new offerings, too.
This May, Louisville gets a notable addition when the Roots 101 African American Museum opens in the Central Business District. It will tell the story of the African American journey from Africa, with exhibits, programs and activities that illustrate Black history, culture and art. Also new at the Kentucky Derby Museum is the 90-minute African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing Tour, which takes place on Saturday afternoons.
Not to be missed, especially with kids: Locust Grove, a former plantation/farm where actors portray the daily lives of enslaved people. At the Louisville Slugger Museum, you can learn about the Louisville Unions and other Black baseball teams; the Frazier History Museum’s tour highlights significant African American contributions throughout bourbon history.
This seaside town may be best known for the U.S. Naval Academy and its vibrant sailing scene. It also played a not-insignificant role in the slave trade. In 2019, UNESCO designated City Dock a “Site of Memory Associated with the Slave Route.” Gambian-born slave Kunta Kinte—whose plight was made famous in the Alex Haley novel Roots—arrived there aboard the slave ship Lord Ligonier in 1767.
Visit the Banneker-Douglass Museum, a hidden gem that is Maryland’s official repository for African American History. It tells stories from the 1600s to the present, and has generated a lot of buzz for the 7,000-square-foot ground mural of Breonna Taylor it helped create in Parole, about a 10-minute drive away. A little farther afield (about 20 minutes outside town), Historic London Town & Gardens, a 23-acre historical park, is also one of 30 U.S. sites designated by the UNESCO Slave Route Project. At least eight slave ships called into London between 1708 and 1760.
Memphis was front and center during the Civil Rights movement. Marches, ceremonies, sit-ins and more occurred on its streets and in its diners. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated at the city’s Lorraine Hotel. The site—which now houses the National Civil Rights Museum—should be on everyone’s bucket list. It chronicles the history of Black resistance in the U.S. with films, displays and artifacts, including one of the original lunch counters where citizens protested. None of it may be as powerful as simply gazing on the balcony where Rev. King was shot in 1968. Also worth a visit: Slave Haven National Museum, an antebellum home that was part of the Underground Railroad.
For a lighter side of the city’s history, head to Beale Street for shops, restaurants and clubs, as well as the park honoring Robert Reed Church Sr., the first Black millionaire in the south. You can’t do Memphis without a stop at Stax, the Museum of American Soul Music, and you might want to add the Blues Hall of Fame, where R.L. Burnside’s guitar and Mavis Staples’ Grammy dress are on display.
The stunning city of Savannah was built on the backs of the enslaved, and memories are everywhere. You might start your visit at the 19th-century Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters, which shows what life might have been like, not just for the wealthy homeowners but the enslaved families who worked there. You can also tour the First African Baptist Church, built in 1777 by enslaved people. The first Black Sunday school in North America was held there; holes in the sanctuary floor are in the shape of an African prayer symbol.
At the Pinpoint Heritage Museum, families can experience the history of a Gullah/Geechee community founded by freed slaves in 1890. If at all possible, dine at The Grey. Chef Mashama Bailey and her partner have turned history on its head, transforming a once-segregated bus station into one of the country’s top restaurants.