Photo: The Legacy Museum

11 Must-See African American Heritage Sites in the US This Year

United States Museums Insider Guides Black Travel
by Gabrielle Misiewicz Feb 24, 2020

2020 is the 155th anniversary of the abolition of slavery in the United States. Here’s the list of museums, memorials, and historic sites you’ve got to see this year.

We pored over the websites of all the best-known African American cultural and heritage institutions to find those that are running fantastic exhibits, like the Negro Motorists Green Book at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee. We also considered the legacies of luminaries and the experiences of everyday people. For example, one site is celebrating W.E.B. Du Bois’ environmental activism, and another is marking the 95th anniversary of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.

From DC to California, this list covers all cardinal points on the compass, and the events and learning opportunities are a mix of serious and celebratory. Wherever you are in the country, we hope at least one of these places is within reach, but they are all worth a road trip. Here are the must-see African American heritage sites in the US this year.

1. The Legacy Museum and Legacy Pavilion — Montgomery, Alabama

Photo: Equal Justice Initiative/Facebook

In the new Michael B. Jordan movie Just Mercy, Jordan plays Bryan Stevenson, a real-life lawyer who has dedicated his career to serving people illegally convicted, unfairly sentenced, or abused in prison. His pursuit of justice and mercy for the marginalized led to him found the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI), which continues his work on a wider scale. It is this organization that developed the Legacy Museum in Alabama. The museum exists to acknowledge the legacy of slavery, segregation, and lynching in modern-day American society.

The Legacy Museum opened in April 2018 in a building mere feet away from what was once an active slave auction site. It explores the way slavery led to lynchings and other racially based violence, and how these led to the issue of mass incarceration today. In addition to traditional exhibits, the museum employs videography, animated content, and fine art to connect with audiences and share information. Thanks to the tireless efforts of the EJI team, which spent over a decade on research, the museum has the most comprehensive documentation on lynchings in the United States.

This January the EJI unveiled the Legacy Pavilion, which serves as a welcome center for the museum and nearby memorial. The pavilion extends the museum experience with its own exhibits and highlights the role that Montgomery played in the Civil Rights Movement.

Where: 400 North Court Street, Montgomery, AL 36104

2. National Memorial for Peace and Justice — Montgomery, Alabama

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is the first of its kind in the United States, dedicated to enslaved Africans, lynched African Americans, and African Americans living under the oppressive segregation laws. It was created by the Equal Justice Initiative and is a sister site to the Legacy Museum.

The memorial begins with a commissioned sculpture on slavery and, as with the museum, moves chronologically to the present day, addressing police violence and the criminal justice system. The memorial skillfully weaves art, space, and design to walk visitors on a path that in some ways has them physically confront the impact of history. The six-acre site includes 800 six-foot monuments, row upon row of metal columns suspended from a ceiling, etched with the names of those victims to lynching.

After visiting the Legacy Pavilion and the Legacy Museum, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a good place to both continue learning about the legacy of racial terror and reflect on the sobering information.

Where: 417 Caroline Street, Montgomery, AL 36104

3. California African American Museum — Los Angeles, California

This year, the California African American Museum is unveiling new additions to its permanent collection. The “Sanctuary” exhibit will be on view from March to September 2020 and features photographs, sculptures, and mixed-media work. The pieces all explore the idea of safety and refuge as it relates to the African American experience, hence the name.

The California African American Museum opened in 1981. While it collects artifacts from across the country, its focus is on the African American experience in California and the western United States. Particularly strong in the arts, the museum also has a series of fashion-related programming this year: two workshops, one on men in fashion and the other on fashion and social change, and a men’s apparel exhibit. On view until August 2020, “Cross Colors: Black Fashion in the 20th Century” examines the Cross Colors clothing brand, which became popular after dressing Will Smith for the first season of the Fresh Prince of Bel Air.

The Smithsonian’s “Men of Change: Power. Triumph. Truth” exhibit, developed for its Traveling Exhibition Service, will be on view at the museum April-August 2020. It will feature revolutionary African American men whose work has altered the course of American history. Bringing together the work of 25 artists, the exhibit includes photographs, quotes, and works of art depicting men like W.E.B. Du Bois, Alvin Ailey, and LeBron James.

Where: 600 State Dr, Los Angeles, CA 90037

4. A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum — Chicago, Illinois

Pullman porters were the Black American men that worked on sleeping cars during the height of the railroad industry. If their name sounds familiar, it’s probably because they became famous for their impeccable service and hospitality. Initially, they labored under exploitative conditions, but after years of threats against organizing, they formed the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters. Led by magazine publisher Asa Philip Randolph, who wrote about the porters’ horrible conditions, the Brotherhood was the first African American union in the United States to win a collective bargaining agreement.

The A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is dedicated to telling the stories of these porters and other laborers on the railroad. This February, to celebrate its 25th anniversary, the museum is hosting a gala event and introducing the A. Philip Randolph Gentle Warrior Awards. August 2020 marks 95 years since the Brotherhood was founded and brings to a close the museum’s three-year campaign to register descendants. If you are a descendant of a porter, maid, dining car waiter, or other railway worker, the museum would like to record your family’s story.

Whether or not you have this close connection, 2020 is the perfect time to visit the museum and learn about these men that transformed their difficult jobs into badges of self-respect and national admiration.

Where: 10406 South Maryland Ave, Chicago, IL 60628

5. National Museum of African American History and Culture — Washington, DC

Photo: bakdc/Shutterstock

You probably remember the jubilant opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture. In those early days in 2016, people stood in lines that wrapped around the block just to get inside. No wonder given that the idea for the museum was first put forth in 1915. It took over a century, and 13 bills in Congress, to become a reality. The museum is dedicated to documenting African American history, life, and culture, and today has an incredible number of artifacts, currently numbered at over 36,000.

Until June 2020 you can visit “We Return Fighting: The African American Experience in WWI.” This comprehensive exhibit covers the periods before, during, and after the First World War, with never before seen artifacts including uniforms, oil paintings, weapons, and film footage.

If art and pop culture are more your thing, you’ll want to head over to “Now Showing: Posters from African American Movies.” This exhibit, open until November 2020, is the first to feature augmented reality, which means you can interact with posters using your smartphone. More than just a gallery, the exhibit explores the ways the posters teach us about perceptions of African American life and culture through the years.

Where: 1400 Constitution Ave NW, Washington, DC 20560

6. W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site — Great Barrington, Massachusetts

W.E.B. Du Bois is renowned as a public intellectual. He spent his life fighting for racial equality, civil rights, and world peace. His writings articulated what many African Americans felt about their lives in the US. Best known for his book The Souls of Black Folk, he also wrote The Suppression of the African Slave Trade and The Philadelphia Negro, all by the time he was 35. Du Bois was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts, and it is here that you will find the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historic Site.

Du Bois was also an environmental activist, known especially for his love of rivers. On August 29, 2020, the 57th anniversary of his burial ceremony in Ghana, this devotion will be celebrated at the “I’ve Known Rivers” event. The riverside celebration will include musical tributes, poetry, readings, and a tour, and will culminate at the Clinton A.M.E. Zion church. If you’re unable to make “I’ve Known Rivers,” you can still take guided or self-guided tours of Du Bois’ five-acre homesite and downtown Great Barrington.

Where: 612 South Egremont Road, Great Barrington, MA 01230

7. National Civil Rights Museum — Memphis, Tennessee

Photo: Gino Santa Maria/Shutterstock

The film Green Book, starring Viggo Mortenson and Mahershala Ali, won Oscars for Best Picture (albeit a controversial decision), Best Original Screenplay, and Best Supporting Actor for Ali last year. The film is named after an actual publication, The Negro Motorist Green Book, used by African Americans on road trips in the Jim Crow era. It was a vital handbook, published between 1936 and 1966, listing the hotels, gas stations, restaurants, and other businesses safe for African Americans to visit on their travels. Without it, Black men and women would have literally been risking their lives whenever they attempted to find comfort and safety on the road; with it, they were able to visit friends, family, and generally have more control over their movements, free from otherwise crippling anxiety.

This year, the National Civil Rights Museum is focusing on the impact of the Green Book. On February 27, it will host author Candacy Taylor for a talk about her book Overgrown Railroad: The Green Book and the Roots of Black Travel in America. Then in June 2020, the museum will open “The Negro Motorists’ Green Book and American Story” to the public. The exhibit closes in September 2020.

The National Civil Rights Museum was established in 1991. Housed in the Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated, it is dedicated to examining the history of the Civil Rights Movement and how it continues to shape global society.

Where: 450 Mulberry Street, Memphis TN 38103

8. Malcolm X Memorial Foundation — Omaha, Nebraska

May 2020 is another major anniversary, marking 95 years since Malcolm X’s birth. What better way to honor this hero of the Civil Rights Movement than to visit his hometown in Omaha? The Malcolm X Memorial Foundation, established in 1971, is housed on the site where Malcolm X was born. The foundation is currently being led by a group of vibrant young African Americans, who oversee a radio show, community garden, and children’s advocacy organization, among other projects.

Although the house has been torn down, a plaque giving an overview of Malcolm X’s life was erected on the site. Volunteers lead tours of the property, and though walk-ups are welcome, we recommend calling in advance. The foundation schedules lots of interesting programs throughout the year, so take a look at its website to see if you can time your visit to see a public lecture or music event.

Where: 3448 Evans St, Omaha, NE 68111

9. Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History — Detroit, Michigan

The International Afro-American Museum, founded by Dr. Charles H. Wright, opened in 1965. Dr. Wright was inspired to create the museum after encountering a WWII memorial on a visit to Denmark. Renamed after its founder in 1998, the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History celebrates African American culture and history. With over 35,000 artifacts, it is one of the largest repositories of the African American experience in the world.

On April 30, 2020, the museum will unveil an exhibit dedicated to 44th US President Barack Obama. The exhibit consists of 44 life-size busts of the president sculpted by 44 different artists. Also, this year, visit the museum to see paintings from actress CCH Pounder’s personal collection. The “Queen” exhibit, on view until April 2020, features works by renowned Black American women artists.

If festivals are more your thing, 2020 is the 55th anniversary of the museum. As part of its celebrations, the 38th Annual African World Festival kicks off at the museum grounds on August 14, 2020. This three-day festival attracts more than 100,000 visitors and includes food, music, poetry, and dance.

Where: 315 East Warren St, Detroit MI 48201

10. Harriet Tubman Museum — Cape May, New Jersey

Born into slavery in 1822, Harriet Tubman not only escaped but returned to rescue approximately 70 other enslaved people. She is best known for her efforts on the Underground Railroad but was also a spy for the Union during the Civil War and an advocate for women’s suffrage. This Juneteenth, the Harriet Tubman Museum will open in Cape May, New Jersey, to teach visitors about Tubman’s work and the significant role of Cape May on the Underground Railroad. Juneteenth, or June 19th, is the day that Texas abolished slavery, finally making it illegal throughout the entire United States.

In the early 1850s, Tubman spent summers in Cape May working as a cook for hotels and families. She used her earnings not just to support herself but also to finance her rescue missions. Escaped fugitives to Cape May were assisted by churches, abolitionists, and Quakers, and the museum highlights their contributions as well. Among its collections is a signed copy of an early edition of The Underground Railroad by abolitionist William Still. The book, first published in 1872, tells the story of Cape May’s involvement in helping enslaved people move further north.

The museum, which has been under construction for about a year, is housed in the historic Howell House. The onetime parsonage for the still-active Macedonia Baptist Church is being restored to its pre-1800 origins and expanded with an addition. The building now incorporates planks of wood from a demolished Cape May home that was a safe house on the Underground Railroad.

Smithsonian Magazine named the Harriet Tubman Museum one of the most anticipated museums to open in the world this year. The staff is already fielding inquiries from schools and organizations, including a cycling group that wants to organize a 200-mile bike ride to the museum on opening weekend.

Where: 632 Lafayette Street, Cape May, NJ 08204

11. National Museum of African American Music — Nashville, Tennessee

This summer, the National Museum of African American Music will have its grand opening in Nashville, Tennessee. The museum takes an in-depth look at the more than 50 genres and subgenres of music created, influenced, or inspired by African Americans. It is the first and only museum to focus on preserving and celebrating African American music traditions and their impact on American culture. The museum integrates history with interactive technology to bridge the gap between music from as far back as the 1600s to the present day.

Smithsonian Magazine named the National Museum of African American Music one of the top 10 museums worldwide opening in 2020, and you can take a virtual tour through the 56,000-square-foot facility. Already known as the Music City, Nashville was an obvious choice for the museum founders. In the city where great African American musicians and music events thrived, the Fisk Jubilee Singers launched the first world tour by a musical act from their base at Nashville’s Fisk University.

With five major galleries, a 200-seat Roots Theatre, Rivers of Rhythm interactive corridor, and a research library, the National Museum of African American Music is poised to be an incredible resource for music lovers of all kinds.

Where: 211 7th Avenue North, Suite 420, Nashville, TN 37219

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