African American history and culture are inseparable from the greater legacy and identity of the United States. Across the country, a number of compelling museums, monuments, and landmark trails commemorate significant moments in African American history—both the traumatic and the triumphant.
At many of these locations—some existing in concrete and others, only now, in concept—it is possible to experience what writer and professor Deborah D. Douglas calls “history you can touch.” As Douglas put it in a 2021 interview with AFAR, “The trick about the story of the Civil Rights movement is that we think that it was so long ago—at a time we can barely even imagine. But you can [still] go someplace and touch places and spaces that were critical to that period.”
This list is by no means comprehensive, but rather, one to build and build on. Here are 21 locations where you can learn more. —The Editors
National Memorial for Peace and Justice
Established in April 2018, the National Memorial for Peace and Justice marks the first public memorial dedicated to victims of slavery and racial terror in the United States. Situated on a hill overlooking Montgomery, the former capital of Alabama’s domestic slave trade, the six-acre site commemorates the more than 4,400 victims of lynching from 1877 to 1950. The open-air memorial features 800 suspended steel columns—one for every U.S. county or jurisdiction where a lynching took place—and each is inscribed with the names of lynching victims. Several blocks from the memorial, near one of the country’s most prominent former slave auction sites, the companion Legacy Museum is housed in a warehouse that once imprisoned enslaved Africans: Here, interactive exhibits lead visitors through the history of racial injustice in the United States, from slavery to the present era of mass incarceration.
Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park
The Sweet Auburn Historic District, which the prominent Atlanta civic leader John Wesley Dobbs once called the “richest Negro street in the world,” is also where Martin Luther King, Jr. grew up in the 1930s—and where visitors today can learn more about his life, civil rights work, and all-abiding legacy. On Auburn Avenue, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park comprises six sites including the activist’s birth home; the Baptist Church where he often preached on Sundays; and the final resting place for both Martin Luther King, Jr. and his wife, Coretta Scott King. Other notable sites include the Behold Monument by sculptor Patrick Morelli, which represents the African ritual of lifting a newborn to the heavens and was unveiled by Coretta Scott King herself in 1990. Don’t miss the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden, which has 185 roses of various colors as a symbol of Dr. King’s ideals of peace through nonviolence. —Nneka M. Okona
New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
New Orleans, Louisiana
As New Orleans’s oldest African American neighborhood, Tremé is also the birthplace of jazz—fitting, then, that it should house a national park devoted to the appreciation of this history. Located near the perimeter of the French Quarter, New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park celebrates the evolution of jazz, a genre rooted in the musical expressions of enslaved West Africans and fused with sounds like the blues and ragtime. The park’s website offers a free downloadable map for a self-led jazz history walking tour of notable sites in the area, where in the late 19th and early 20th centuries musicians like Buddy Bolden (“the father of jazz”) and Louis Armstrong were heard sounding their trumpets. Nearby, the 32-acre Louis Armstrong Park honors the namesake jazz musician and New Orleans native, and the New Orleans Jazz Museum, also in Tremé, hosts the world’s largest collection of jazz artifacts in the very neighborhood where the genre was born. —N.M.O.
Buffalo Soldiers National Museum
African Americans have fought in U.S. wars since the colonial era. The Buffalo Soldiers, a regiment of Black soldiers consisting of formerly enslaved and free men, was formed just after the Civil War. (Their name, Buffalo Soldiers, is thought to be a tribute to their brave service on the Western frontier; some theorize it originated from interactions with Native Americans.) Buffalo soldiers were dispatched to protect settlers of the American West. (They were also among the first park rangers, with duties from evicting poachers to extinguishing forest fires.) Houston’s Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, founded in 2001 by an African American Vietnam War veteran, tells the stories of these soldiers who played a pivotal role in the U.S. army, with exhibits focused on their efforts in World War I and II as well as the Civil and Vietnam Wars. —N.M.O.
“Absolute Equality” Mural
On June 19, 1865, Union Army General Gordon Granger marched into Galveston, Texas, and issued General Order No. 3, which declared more than 250,000 remaining enslaved Black people in Texas were free—more than two years after the Emancipation Proclamation was formally issued. A detail that’s not widely mentioned in the story of Juneteenth is that many of the soldiers who marched alongside General Granger on that fateful day were Black members of the United States Colored Troops.
Soon, this detail will be depicted in a new, permanent 5,000-square-foot mural by Houston-based artist Reginald Adams. Titled Absolute Equality, it is set to be unveiled in Galveston on June 19, 2021. Developed by the Juneteenth Legacy Project, the mural will illustrate a range of historical figures and events related to Juneteenth, from a portrait of Harriet Tubman to images of Abraham Lincoln holding the Emancipation proclamation and General Granger issuing the order accompanied by Black Union soldiers. At the mural, which will overlook property that once served as General Granger’s headquarters, visitors will be able to hold their phones up to the paintings and glean historical information about specific images through a special app designed for the project. —Lahoma Scarlette
Beale Street Historic District
In the 1860s, many Black musicians began performing on Memphis’s Beale Street, the commercial district for the city’s African American population. By the early 1900s, the roughly 1.8-mile stretch was home to a slew of Black-owned businesses, including restaurants, clubs, department stores, and banks, as well as the famous Memphis Free Speech newspaper, which was co-owned by civil rights advocate and journalist Ida B. Wells. During the 1920s and 1930s, legends like Louis Armstrong, Memphis Minnie, and Muddy Waters flocked to the juke joints and honky-tonks on Beale Street, and from there, the “Memphis Blues” was born. Today, Beale Street is listed on the National Register of Historic Places. (Congress also declared it the official “Home of the Blues” in 1977.) Establishments like B.B. King’s Blues Club offer live music seven days a week, and the Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum, curated by the Smithsonian Institution, tells the story of the musicians that shaped the legacy of blues, jazz, rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, soul, and gospel in Memphis.
National Museum of African American Music
The National Museum of African American Music (NMAAM) traces African American music traditions from the 1600s to the present day, ranging from spiritual hymns to blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip-hop. The NMAAM, which opened in downtown Nashville on January 30, 2021, is the world’s only institution dedicated solely to preserving and celebrating the central role African Americans have played in shaping American music. The 56,000-square-foot museum features seven interactive galleries with more than 1,500 artifacts, objects, and memorabilia on display, from traditional African drums to a gown worn by the late singer Whitney Houston. Each of the galleries focuses on specific historical periods that influenced the creation of African American music, such as the Reconstruction era, the Great Migration, and the Harlem Renaissance.
U.S. Civil Rights Trail
The U.S. Civil Rights Trail links more than 100 sites associated with Civil Rights history across 15 states, forming a network of courthouses, schools, museums, and other landmarks where activists challenged segregation in the 1950s and 1960s. An interactive online map provides important context about the notable locations, spanning the region between Kansas, Louisiana, Florida, and Delaware. The route includes the F.W. Woolworth’s building in Greensboro, North Carolina, where four Black students staged a lunch counter sit-in that sparked a series of peaceful protests throughout the South in July 1960. The site is now home to the International Civil Rights Center and Museum, which still features the original seats and counter where the nonviolent demonstrations began.
The Civil Rights map also points to the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail, an Alabama driving route that follows the 54-mile path marched by civil rights activists in 1965 and includes the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where the “Bloody Sunday” beatings occurred during the first voting rights march. About five hours away in Memphis, Tennessee, the National Civil Rights Museum is another trail highlight that sits across from the Lorraine Motel where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated in 1968.
The Scrabble School
Rappahannock County, Virginia
Completed in 1921 in the area neighboring northeastern Virginia’s Shenandoah National Park, the Scrabble School sought to provide local Black children with basic public education during the Jim Crow era. The school, which operated until 1968, was one of more than 5,000 Rosenwald Schools established across the South by African American educator Booker T. Washington and Jewish philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to help further education and opportunities for African Americans during the early 20th century.
Most Rosenwald schools became obsolete after Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark 1954 Supreme Court case that ruled that racial segregation of children in public schools was unconstitutional. In 2009, the shuttered school reopened as a senior center and the Rappahannock African-American Heritage Center, which includes an in-depth exhibit of the school’s history. Appointment-only tours are available on Fridays and Saturdays and guided by Scrabble School alumni; on them, visitors can see a timeline display of old report cards from former students, as well as other artifacts from the Scrabble School, which is among an estimated 10 to 12 percent of Rosenwald Schools that are still standing. —L.S.
International African American Museum
Charleston, South Carolina
Between 1783 and 1808, the peak years of the transatlantic slave trade, almost half of the imprisoned Africans who were brought to North America on slave ships disembarked at Gadsden’s Wharf in South Carolina. Come 2022, this former Charleston wharf—often referred to as the “Ellis Island of African Americans”—will be home to the International African American Museum (IAAM).
The IAAM will feature eight interactive galleries focused on themes ranging from connections across the African diaspora to the spread of African American culture. Woven around and underneath the museum—elevated on pillars as a sign of respect for the site on which it stands—an outdoor African Ancestors Memorial Garden will feature artistic installations and quiet enclaves with seating options. There will also be an on-site research center where visitors can draw connections to their African American ancestors with the help of archival databases and museum staff trained in genealogy.
Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
Throughout the Great Migration of the mid-20th century, countless African Americans fled the South due to racial persecution and terror. Many of them found a new home in Detroit, and from the 1930s to the 1970s, Detroit was the country’s largest Black majority city and a hotbed for African American activism and art. The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit’s Art Center district was founded in 1965 to celebrate this legacy: Here, museumgoers will learn about the “movers and shakers” of African American history and culture through stained glass installations from artist Samuel A. Hodge and celebrate the prolific contributions of African American STEM innovators in the interactive “Inspiring Minds” exhibit. Elsewhere in the museum, the 37-foot floor installation, “Ring of Genealogy,” by Michigan-born muralist Hubert Massey, features hundreds of bronze nameplates inscribed with the names of notable African American figures. —N.M.O.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center
During the era of chattel slavery in the United States, the only hope of freedom for most enslaved Africans was to escape from the South to the North using the Underground Railroad, an extensive network of safe houses and secret routes established to help shepherd fugitive slaves to freedom. In downtown Cincinnati, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center outlines this history through its exhibits on human trafficking, one of which includes an early 1800s slaveholding pen that was recovered from a Kentucky slave trader. The museum sits on the banks of the Ohio River, which served as a natural barrier between slaveholding states in the South and free states in the North until the mid-19th-century abolition of slavery. —N.M.O.
Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park
In 1908, the town of Allensworth was established by a group of African Americans led by Colonel Allen Allensworth, a top Black officer in the U.S. Army who was born into Kentucky slavery in 1842. The central California community—founded, financed, and governed by African Americans—was the first of its kind in the state. At its peak in the early 20th century, Allensworth had as many as 300 residents. However, compounding on loss after the 1914 death of Colonel Allensworth, an ongoing drought in the area caused residents to relocate, leading to the town’s ultimate demise in the mid-1960s. In 1974, the California State Parks purchased a parcel of land within the central part of the former townsite, which has since been restored as an homage to the history of the African American individuals who created a home for themselves in Allensworth. Today, visitors to Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park can browse the restored 20th-century buildings, which include the colonel’s house, a Baptist church, library, and schoolhouse. —N.M.O.
Black American West Museum
Dr. Justina Ford was Denver’s first African American female doctor. During her five decade–long tenure in the early 20th century, she practiced gynecology, obstetrics, and pediatrics from her Colorado home. In the late 1980s, nonprofit Historic Denver, Inc. funded the relocation of Dr. Ford’s home to its current site in the city’s Five Points neighborhood, where it was restored as the Black American West Museum, memorializing the contributions of Black people like Dr. Ford who helped settle and develop the American West. Exhibitions, which revolve regularly, have previously been centered on topics such as African American members of the U.S. military as well as Black cowboys such as Bill Pickett, a pioneering African American rodeo performer during the early 1900s. —N.M.O.
National Museum of African American History and Culture
Located on the National Mall, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture tells the story of our nation’s racial history through the lens of the African American experience. Exhibits begin several floors below ground-level with a focus on the early days of the transatlantic slave trade, where powerful objects on view include small ankle shackles made for an enslaved child and a shawl worn by Harriett Tubman.
As visitors make their way up a ramp to subsequent floors, the exhibitions progress through the Civil War and Reconstruction to the Jim Crow era and the Civil Rights movement, with rare artifacts on display include a segregated Southern Railway rail car from the Jim Crow era, a 1950s dress sewn by Rosa Parks, and the casket of Emmett Till, the 14-year-old African American boy who was lynched in Mississippi while visiting from Chicago in 1955. The upper floors of the museum celebrate the ongoing contributions of African Americans to American history and culture, with exhibits that touch on topics ranging from film, music, sports, cuisine, and language, to the evolution of the contemporary #BlackLivesMatter movement. Admission to the museum is free, though timed-entry passes are required for peak visitor times.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway
Dorchester County, Maryland
The 125-mile Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway is a self-guided driving route that winds through Maryland’s Eastern Shore into Delaware and Philadelphia, linking more than 36 sites tied to Tubman’s history, including where she was born, lived, and labored—plus, where she fled and ultimately found freedom for herself and other enslaved people. Notable stops along the Maryland portion of the byway include Brodess Farm, where Tubman lived as a child and worked for her enslaver, and the 17-acre Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park, which features a visitor center with multimedia exhibits related to Tubman’s life, walking trails, and a meditation garden. An interactive online map details each stop along the byway, and a free driving tour map and audio guide are also available for mobile download.
The African American Museum in Philadelphia
Located a few blocks from the famed Liberty Bell, the African American Museum in Philadelphia became the first major U.S. institution to honor African American heritage when it opened in 1976. The museum’s permanent exhibit, Audacious Freedom, tells the stories of African Americans in Philadelphia from 1776 to 1876 through interactive displays and reenactment videos. Look for historical figures such as Richard Allen—founder of the country’s first African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1794—and Frances Harper, a poet, writer, abolitionist, and women’s rights activist, who in 1859 became the first African American female to publish a short story in the United States. The museum also houses a staggering collection of images donated by the late photographer Jack T. Franklin. He began documenting political and social movements in Philadelphia for publications like the Philadelphia Tribune—the country’s oldest African American newspaper—in the 1950s and went on to photograph all of the major rallies and protest marches of the Civil Rights movement. —N.M.O.
Black Heritage Trail
Boston’s Black Heritage Trail winds through the city’s Beacon Hill neighborhood, where a community of free African Americans grew after Massachusetts became the first state to declare slavery illegal in 1783. The 1.6-mile walking route links more than a dozen sites related to the neighborhood’s African American history during the 19th century. Among them: the African Meeting House, the country’s oldest surviving African American church—established in 1806—where abolitionist leader Frederick Douglass often spoke, and the 54th Regiment Memorial, which honors the first all-Black U.S. Army regiment. Free guided tours of the trail are offered at the Boston African American National Historic Site’s visitor center, and the Museum of African American History—also in Beacon Hill—provides free maps for self-led exploration.
The Colored Musicians Club
Buffalo, New York
While New Orleans, Chicago, and New York City are some of the better-known U.S. jazz capitals of the early 20th century, the city of Buffalo in upstate New York plays an important role in the genre’s history. In 1934, an African American musicians union called the Buffalo Local 533 opened the Colored Musicians Club in downtown Buffalo at the same site where the venue stands today. Throughout the 1930s and ’40s, the club served as a haven for Black jazz musicians; musical greats such as Duke Ellington, Billie Holiday, and Ella Fitzgerald graced its stage.
Today, visitors can catch live jazz performances at the Colored Musicians Club on Mondays and Thursdays (check the website for hours, event schedule, and visitation guidelines regarding COVID-19). On the first floor of the historic venue, an on-site museum showcases a retrospective exhibition with instruments, artifacts, and an interactive display that allows visitors to listen to original audio recordings from previous performances at the oldest continuously running African American club in the United States. —L.S.
The Apollo Theater
Harlem, New York City
For African Americans living in New York, the Apollo Theater has long acted not only as a beacon of budding talent but also as a safe space for Black entertainers to perform freely. Up until the Civil Rights Act of 1964, theaters and performance spaces throughout the United States were segregated, meaning that Black artists, dancers, and live performers had to seek out specific places to display their talent onstage. Originally established in 1914, the Apollo began to nurture and celebrate Black talent in the mid-1930s, opening its doors to Black patrons and welcoming greats such as James Brown, Aretha Franklin, Diana Ross, Duke Ellington, Etta James, Ray Charles, and many others to its stage. More than 85 years later, the Apollo still hosts regular live performances at the Harlem landmark, which was the center of a namesake documentary that aired on HBO in November 2019. —N.M.O.
Universal Hip Hop Museum
Bronx, New York City
The Universal Hip Hop Museum (UHHM) currently operates out of a pop-up space at the Bronx Terminal Market, but the music-focused museum will soon get a permanent spot in the very place where hip-hop music and culture originated in the 1970s. When it opens in 2024, the UHHM will take up 50,000 square feet on the lower levels of Bronx Point, an upcoming mixed-used development alongside the Harlem River. (The museum was slated to open in 2023—coinciding with the 50th anniversary of hip-hop—but it was pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic.)
Inside the museum, visitors will be immersed in a multi-floor experience spanning the genre’s influence from the East Coast to the West Coast. Exhibitions will be organized into hip-hop’s five key themes: DJ’ing, emceeing, breakdancing, visual arts, and knowledge. According to museum organizers, various displays will include hip-hop artifacts—think an extensive collection of classic magazine titles such as The Source and VIBE, as well as a host of Snoop Dogg paraphernalia. In an imitation DJ booth, visitors will also be able to create and spin their own records, as well as take the stage with some of hip-hop’s biggest icons as part of a virtual reality theater experience.
This article originally appeared online in January 2020; it was updated on February 8, 2021, to include current information.