By Melissa Hart on January 27, 2021 in Travel
Each February, Black History Month inspires theater and dance performances, concerts, art exhibitions, films, lectures, and other events. This four-week celebration provides endless opportunities to learn how Black Americans have shaped this country’s history and culture.
When did Black History Month first begin, and why? Who founded it, and how has it evolved? We’ll answer these questions and offer a list of landmarks around the country to visit to get an up-close look at Black American narratives and accomplishments over centuries.
A Brief History of Black History Month
Carter G. Woodson (1875-1950) was a Black historian and educator. While earning a Ph.D. in history at Harvard, he noticed how little the contributions of Black Americans figured into textbooks and academic discussions. In 1915, he cofounded what is now called the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH). In 1926, he, along with ASALH, chose the second weekend in February to debut Negro History Week to coincide with the birthdays of Frederick Douglass and Abraham Lincoln.
A general public appreciation for Black culture and history grew steadily; however, textbooks continued to leave out most Black leaders’ stories and contributions. In the 1960s, during the Civil Rights Movement, college students and professors hoping to remedy this exclusion helped expand the weeklong recognition of Black American accomplishments to a month.
In 1976 — half a century after Carter G. Woodson’s vision — the ASALH decreed February as Black History Month, and President Gerald Ford urged Americans to observe it. Each year, ASALH chooses a theme. Past themes include “African Americans and the Vote,” “African Americans in Times of War,” and “The Crisis in Black Education.”
The Importance of Black History Month
As Woodson discovered in the early 20th century, history books have downplayed and misrepresented Black Americans’ role in the U.S. Even now, some high school textbooks read by millions of students include racially insensitive terms to describe Black biracial people and maps that refer to enslaved Africans from the 18th century as immigrants rather than slaves.
Though 7.7 million public school students in the country identify as Black, most textbook authors are white, and so are most public elementary and secondary teachers. These trends contribute to a Eurocentric view of Black history in the U.S. Resources such as the New York Times-sponsored 1619 Project and “Teaching Hard History: American Slavery” from the magazine Teaching Tolerance attempt to remedy the problem. But teachers approach the role of Black Americans in history differently depending on the textbooks chosen by state school boards and textbook review panels.
Black History Month offers an opportunity to close the books and celebrate the vibrant history and vital accomplishments of Black Americans through in-person and remote events. For instance, in 1836 half the nation’s economic activity depended on cotton, a plant grown and harvested by enslaved African Americans. Black Americans fought in the Civil War; herded cattle and defended Western lands as cowboys; and marched from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, a demonstration that resulted in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
Black innovators in the U.S. have contributed a wealth of art and literature and scientific discovery over centuries. For example, Dr. Charles Drew was a blood-bank pioneer and entrepreneur and activist Madam C.J. Walker developed a line of hair care products and became one of the first self-made female millionaires in the country.
Landmarks to Visit for Black History Month
In celebration of innovators and of Black History Month, we’ve compiled a list of 18 museums, national parks, and other landmarks that will deepen your appreciation for Black American achievements and notable figures. Visit the websites to learn about opportunities at each physical location as well as online events and exhibitions.
- African American Museum in Dallas, Texas
This museum showcases Black American art, culture, and history. Visitors can see one of the largest Black American Folk Art collections in the nation, as well as Black Renaissance paintings and contemporary art. The museum also hosts live music and lectures.
- Allensworth State Park in Central California
This park honors the town established here in 1908 by Colonel Allen Allensworth and four other Black Americans. A self-guided tour provides a history of the town’s residents and historic buildings, including the schoolhouse and the Colonel’s residence. Fifteen campsites are available to rent on site.
- Beale Street Historic District in Memphis, Tennessee
In the “home of the blues,” stroll the Brass Notes Walk of Fame and explore the street’s Roaring Twenties history of nightclubs, restaurants, theaters, shopping, pawnshops, drinking, gambling, murder, and voodoo. Visit museums, catch a live blues performance in Handy Park, and stay for the exciting nightlife.
- Birmingham Civil Rights Institute in Birmingham, Alabama
This institution features The Human Rights Gallery, which connects Birmingham’s local fight for equality with human rights movements worldwide. Explore Black American culture and history on an hour-long walking tour, and participate in special events during Black History Month and Women’s History Month.
- Boley Historic District in Boley, Oklahoma
Founded in 1903 for Black construction workers working on the railroad, this town became the largest of more than 50 all-Black towns in the state. Take a group tour to learn about Boley’s history and culture, and attend the annual Black American rodeo on Memorial Day weekend.
- Boston African American National History Site in Boston, Massachusetts
Visit the Black Heritage Trail, the African Meeting House, the Museum of African American History, the Abiel Smith School, and various historic homes once inhabited by African American leaders in the region.
- DuSable Museum of African American History in Chicago, Illinois
See exhibits featuring the history of the city’s 1919 race riot and of citizen soldiers in the Illinois National Guard. Visit the African American History Archives and Special Collections, and check the museum’s website for virtual events.
- Frederick Douglass National Historic Site in Washington, D.C.
Take a guided tour of the famed abolitionist’s home, including a recreation of “The Growlery,” the room in which Douglass read and wrote. Students in grades one through 12 may enter an annual oratorical contest hosted by the National Parks Service.
- George Washington Carver National Monument in Diamond, Missouri
Join a guided tour, and check out interactive exhibits celebrating the work of the agricultural scientist and inventor. Watch the park’s film Struggle and Triumph: The Legacy of George Washington Carver, and take a one-mile walking trail around his childhood home.
- Harriet Tubman National History Park in Auburn, New York
Walk the grounds outside the residence belonging to the woman who helped rescue hundreds of slaves. Explore the visitors’ center, see the church Tubman raised funds to build and attended for two decades, visit her gravesite at Fort Hill Cemetery, and take a guided tour of the Tubman Home for the Aged.
- International Civil Rights Center and Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina
Learn about the 1960s Greensboro sit-ins in this archival center and museum. Visit the permanent interactive exhibition, “The Battlegrounds,” and an exhibition featuring notable Black athletes and artists.
- National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
Enjoy films, oral histories, interactive media, lectures, and hundreds of artifacts that help interpret centuries of Black history from slavery to the current Black Lives Matter movement. Events are both virtual and in-person.
- National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio
Check out permanent and traveling interactive exhibits on the history of the Underground Railroad, and special exhibitions on contemporary social justice issues such as human trafficking.
- Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
See a wealth of interactive exhibits on Black American stories, history, and culture. Learn about music, theater, dance, the Black American military experience, and social justice movements over centuries.
- The American Jazz Museum in Kansas City, Missouri
Enjoy films and interactive exhibits focused on legendary jazz greats and contemporary musicians. Listen to live music and family-friendly jazz storytelling, then wander the historic 18th and Vine Jazz District with its iconic barbecue joints and the nearby Negro Leagues Baseball Museum.
- The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit, Michigan
Visit permanent and visiting exhibitions commemorating notable figures from the region. Take a live or virtual tour, attend public programs and historical reenactments, and attend the annual Black Marriage Day dinner.
- The Griot Museum of Black History and Culture in Saint Louis, Missouri
See life-sized wax replicas of Black Americans such as Carter G. Woodson, Josephine Baker, Dred and Harriet Scott, and Miles Davis, along with interpretive exhibitions that include an authentic slave cabin. Attend public programs and visit the Afrocentric gift shop.
- Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail in Fort Pierce, Florida
Learn about the life of the famed Harlem Renaissance author. Visit her home and the academy where she taught English, and the Zora Neale Hurston Library and the Backus Studio, where Neale went to listen to jazz sessions.
Black History Month offers an opportunity to learn about the stories and achievements of Black Americans. Plan a road trip to one or more of these important historical landmarks to celebrate this February.