Black History Month travel destinations

For The Baltimore Sun
These seven destinations can transport you to significant moments in African-American history.

African-American History Month began as "Negro History Week" in February 1926, initiated by historian Carter G. Woodson to recognize achievements related to the Black Diaspora.

But in those days, getting to places with events celebrating those feats wasn't easy for people of color, as wide-ranging Jim Crow laws limited choices for traveling safely and comfortably.

In 1936, Victor Green, an African-American postal worker from Harlem, created "The Negro Motorist Green Book," the first travel guide dedicated to African-Americans. In it, he listed hotels, shops, restaurants, even gas stations that were welcoming to the "Negro Traveler." His guide was published until the passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964.

While the African-American experience is now recounted year-round in many U.S. institutions, February provides an opportunity for special programs and exhibitions. The Mid-Atlantic contains dozens of black heritage sites hosting extraordinary events, including the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History & Culture and the Great Blacks in Wax Museum in Baltimore.

But with an entire country of rich history to explore, and nonstop flights from Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport readily available, why not consider discovering the African-American legacy of another area? Here are some of the most interesting spots to sightsee for a weekend, or longer.

Memphis, Tenn.

Though infamous as the site of the 1968 assassination of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., Memphis has a long and storied African-American history that encompasses slavery, the Underground Railroad, the first recorded R&B, soul and jazz music, and the civil rights movement.

To do: Begin at the National Civil Rights Museum, housed in the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed (civilrightsmuseum.org). Afterward, see Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, located in what was once a safe house for runaway slaves. The museum offers tours visiting dozens of important sites (slavehavenundergroundrailroadmuseum.org).

Allow a half-day to explore the Beale Street district (bealestreet.com). In the early 1900s, when segregation ruled, Church Park was created for African-Americans by a former slave who became Memphis' first black millionaire, providing green space, a swimming pool and entertainment auditorium. The Rock N' Soul Museum, filled with relics defining the history of soul and R&B, was once the home of "the father of blues," W.C. Handy (memphisrocknsoul.org).

Nearby W.C. Handy Park hosts music events. In South Memphis, trace the history of soul music at the interactive Stax Museum of American Soul (staxmuseum.com). Along the way, peek into Mason Temple Church of God in Christ, where King delivered his "I've been to the mountaintop" speech (nps.gov/nr/travel/civilrights/tn1.htm).

Dine: Alcenia's is a warm-hearted soul food restaurant where the owner welcomes patrons with a hug (alcenias.com). The Four Way is a circa-1942 soul food restaurant frequented by King when he was in town (fourwaymemphis.com).

Getting there: Southwest Air flies to Memphis nonstop, from $108 one-way.

New Orleans

Sharing February with Mardi Gras doesn't diminish African-American History Month here. In fact, one of the most highly anticipated pre-events is the jubilant Zulu Lundi Gras Festival on Feb. 8, which celebrates the union between African-American culture and Native Americans during the time of slavery and features live music and arts (lundigrasfestival.com). African-American contributions are prominent and interwoven into the fabric of life here: the creation of New Orleans jazz, Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs, second-line parades (a jazzy post-funeral march celebrating the life of the deceased), religion and architecture. Seven historic sites in town are part of the Louisiana African-American Heritage Trail, a guide to African-American sites statewide (astorylikenoother.com).

To do: The colorful Faubourg Treme is America's oldest black neighborhood and the first for free people of color (faubourgtreme.org). Treme is the neighborhood where jazz originated. Also here is the 31-acre Louis Armstrong Park adorned with sculptures of famous black musicians, including Satchmo. On Sundays in the 18th and 19th centuries, free and indentured servants gathered around the southern corner, called Congo Square, for drumming, music and dance.

Nearby is the circa-1842 St. Augustine Church, the oldest African-American Catholic church in the country (staugustinecatholicchurch-neworleans.org). Attend Sunday mass to hear the gospel choir. Le Musee de f.p.c. is dedicated to telling the story of New Orleans' free people of color (lemuseedefpc.com). The Backstreet Cultural Museum exhibits African-American costumes, masks and parade paraphernalia created for Mardi Gras, funerals, and Social Aid & Pleasure Clubs (backstreetmuseum.org).

For authentic jazz, try the Grammy-winning Irvin Mayfield's Jazz Playhouse (irvinmayfield.com), Kermit Ruffins' Mother In Law Lounge (facebook.com/kermitruffinsnola), or catch a show at the Jazz Market (phnojm.org).

Stay: The Hubbard Mansion, owned by civil rights leader Don Hubbard (hubbardmansion.com).

Dine: Cafe Rose Nicaud is a breakfast and lunch restaurant named after a slave known to be the first coffee vendor in New Orleans; she purchased her freedom with her profits (caferosenicaud.com). Dooky Chase's is a Zagat-rated classic Creole restaurant with a longtime celebrity clientele, including President Barack Obama (dookychaserestaurant.com). Circle Food Store was the first African-American-owned full-service grocery in New Orleans (circlefoodsnola.com).

Getting there: Southwest flies to New Orleans nonstop, from $112 one-way.

Atlanta

Encompassing King's childhood home, America's largest private consortium of black universities and nearly 50 years of black mayors, this city has been shaped by African-American history.

To do: Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site is the official visitors center for King's birth home, Ebenezer Baptist Church and his gravesite. It's all walkable, but the free NPS Ranger tour is fascinating. Afterward, see the Center for Civil and Human Rights' interactive, high-tech galleries, immersing visitors in the events that shaped history (civilandhumanrights.org). For an insider's perspective, take a civil rights tour with Tom Houck, King's former driver (civilrightstour.com).

Throughout February, The Oakland Cemetery, the resting place of Maynard Jackson (Atlanta's first African-American mayor) and of other celebrated African-Americans, offers free walking tours (oaklandcemetery.com). The Soul Food Museum exhibits 400 years of cuisine, including techniques and samples (soulfoodmuseum.org). Also check out Auburn Avenue Research Library on African-American Culture and History (afplweb.com/aarl), Apex Museum of black history (apexmuseum.org), Spelman College Museum of Art (spelman.edu), Ballethnic Dance Company (ballethnic.org), and Atlanta's Black History Month Parade and festival, Feb. 27 (blackhistorymonthparade.com).

Stay: Hyatt Regency Atlanta , Atlanta's first hotel to desegregate. King stayed here with his family (atlantaregency.hyatt.com).

Dine: Busy Bee Cafe is a circa-1947 diner serving soul food (thebusybeecafe.com). Mary Mac's Tea Room serves traditional Southern dishes (marymacs.com). The Downtown Southern Food Walk tours seven restaurants, beginning with Paschal's, the meeting spot of civil rights leaders (atlantafoodwalks.com).

Getting there: Southwest Air and Delta fly to Atlanta, from $59 one-way.

Boston

Boston became one of the earliest abolitionist cities with a thriving free black population. Easily walkable, Boston provides a wonderful landscape to explore African-American history.

To do: Walk the Black Heritage Trail, beginning at the Museum of African-American History, to 14 sites around Beacon Hill, home to a thriving black community in the 19th century (afroammuseum.org). Noteworthy is the African Meeting House, the nation's oldest extant black church and the site where the New England Anti-Slavery Society was founded.

Also check out the African-American Patriots Tour along the Freedom Trail, presenting Boston's Revolutionary War history through the eyes of African-American revolutionaries (thefreedomtrail.org). The High Notes of Jazz Roxbury music history tour also features local leaders of the civil rights movement (discoverroxbury.org/visit/walking-tours).

Dine: Darryls Corner Bar and Kitchen serves classic Southern fare amid live jazz music (dcbkboston.com). Savvor Boston specializes in soul and Caribbean cuisine (savvorbostonlounge.com).

Stay: The Courtyard by Marriott Copley Square offers large rooms and a complimentary breakfast, and is within walking distance of Boston's attractions (marriott.com/hotels/travel/bosdt-courtyard-boston-copley-square/).

Getting there: JetBlue and Southwest Air fly to Boston, from $59 one-way.

New York

Surely no other African-American cultural destination has achieved the worldwide prominence of Harlem. Harlem is in the midst of a renaissance, attracting a vibrant creative populace determined to preserve the cultural contributions that originated here. Imaginative new restaurants and shops are popping up alongside reinvigorated legendary institutions of music, dance, and cuisine. But Harlem is not the whole story of New York's black heritage. Manhattan and Brooklyn, too, possess a wealth of heritage sites to explore.

To do: In Harlem, Striver's Row, the Apollo Theater, The Studio Museum, Minton's and Bethel Gospel Church are just a few destinations. Harlem Heritage hosts walking and multimedia tours of the neighborhood's heritage, including historical tales and commentary on current conditions (harlemheritage.com).

Throughout February, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture is hosting free lectures, movies and workshops (nypl.org/locations/schomburg). Discovered in a Lower Manhattan construction site in 1991 was a long-forgotten cemetery for free and enslaved Africans spanning 1690-1794, now the African Burial Grounds National Monument (nps.gov/afbg). The Arsenal in Central Park is hosting the exhibit "America: The Legacy of African-American Public Service" (nycgovparks.org/art-and-antiquities/arsenal-gallery). See a replica of Emancipation Proclamation at the Brooklyn Historical Society, as well as the exhibits "Brooklyn Abolitionists" and "Why New York? Slavery on Long Island" (brooklynhistory.org).

Also don't miss "Honoring Satchmo" at the Louis Armstrong House Museum (louisarmstronghouse.org) and performances of "Radical Black History" on Feb. 6 at the Brooklyn Museum (brooklynmuseum.org).

Stay: The Lucerne sits between the historic sites of Harlem and the excitement of midtown (thelucernehotel.com).

Dine: With fusion dishes such as Afro/Asian/American Oxtail Dumplings and Barbecue Brisket Egg Rolls, it's no wonder the Cecil was named Best New Restaurant In America by Esquire magazine (thececilharlem.com). For an epic jazz experience, try Minton's, home to bebop and contemporary jazz (mintonsharlem.com).

Getting there: Amtrak goes into New York's Penn Station, from $46 one-way.

Charleston, S.C.

A city still beset with racial tension, picturesque historic Charleston was built using African slave labor. From servitude through emancipation and the civil rights movement, African-Americans are largely responsible for the colorful cultural vibe of the city. Visit the plantations and the site of the Slave Mart. Take a Gullah tour, where the people still practice West African customs. And don't miss the African-American History Festival on Feb. 26 (ccprc.com/1099/African-American-Heritage-Festival).

To Do: Middleton Place Plantation hosts tours throughout February and includes Eliza's House, the former home of two freed slaves (middletonplace.org). The McLeod Plantation tells its story through the slaves' perspective (ccprc.com/1447/McLeod-Plantation-Historic-Site). Avery Research Center for African-American History & Culture, once a secondary school for African-Americans, is now a museum dedicated to the history of African-Americans in the region's Low Country (cofc.edu/avery). Storyteller Alphonso Brown gives Gullah tours, visiting slave revolt leader Denmark Vesey's home, the Old Slave Market, Catfish Row, an Underground Railroad stop and Sweetgrass Market (gullahtours.com).

Stay: The new Hyatt House is centrally located, with large rooms and a complimentary breakfast (charlestonhistoricdistrict.house.hyatt.com).

Dine: Martha Lou's Kitchen serves authentic Low Country comfort food (marthalouskitchen.com).

Getting There: Southwest Air flies to Charleston, from $119 one-way.

Detroit

From the early 1800s through the Civil War, Detroit played a major role in the Underground Railroad. The famous meeting between abolitionists Frederick Douglass and John Brown happened here. Industrialist Henry Ford was the first to hire African-Americans for the automobile assembly line and paid them an unprecedented (at the time) $5 a day.

To Do: Many of Detroit's African-American heritage sites spanning the anti-slavery movement to the civil rights era can be seen on the self-guided African-American Heritage walking tour (experiencedetroit.com/aahdaytour1detroitattractions.htm). The Detroit Underground Railroad Lantern Walking Tour features a lantern-carrying guide revealing some of the stops on the journey to freedom (hometownhistorytours.com). The Charles Wright Museum of African-American History (called the world's largest African-American history museum) exhibits "And Still We Rise," transporting visitors through slave ships, plantations, the Underground Railroad and the northward migration. The Gold Records of Diana Ross, Marvin Gaye and the Jackson 5, and their recording studio, are on display at the Motown Historical Museum (motownmuseum.org). Plowshares Theatre Company stages highly acclaimed African-American themed shows (facebook.com/plowsharesthr). Bakers Keyboard Lounge, said to be the world's oldest jazz club, stages top jazz acts and once hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald and Miles Davis (theofficialbakerskeyboardlounge.com).

Stay: The Marriott Courtyard Detroit Downtown has an indoor pool and Detroit's Mass Transit/People Mover downstairs (marriott.com/hotels/travel/dtwdc-courtyard-detroit).

Dine: Bert's Marketplace is a jazz and blues club serving soul food (bertsentertainmentcomplex.com).

Getting There: Southwest Air flies to Detroit, from $99 one-way.

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