Take the Family on a Civil Rights History Road Trip

Hop on a plane or crowd into a car: The history of Black liberation is a road trip away.

exterior image of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the largest Black history museum in the United States.

Photo by Alan Karchmer

Growing up, I got a ton of American history in school. Years later, I discovered how many chapters were missing from those books. Through travel, I learned my history that wasn’t taught in classrooms. What I saw and heard in Black history museums and on trails made me mad, sad—seared my soul. Thankfully there were also tales of courage and hard-won triumphs that inspired and filled me with pride.

With race still leading the national conversation, this summer’s family vacation can be about teachable moments. Here are a few favorites along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail to give your children—and perhaps yourself—an education they may not get at school.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee

The museum captures 400 years of Black history through interactive exhibits, collections, films, oral histories, artifacts, educational programs, special events, and more—and it’s in the motel where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. Reading a history book or watching a film or documentary doesn’t compare to the power of being up close to history. I remember walking almost reverently to Room 306. The room was so well preserved, it was surreal: a rotary telephone, ’50s-style lamps, a small television with an antenna, and other artifacts. I remember my heart filling up. I didn’t cry but I wanted to. Another highlight was stepping on the bus in the Rosa Parks exhibit. Listening to the narration and seeing a replica of her sitting close to the front, rather than at the back where she would have been placed during segregation, was inspiring.

Purchase timed entry tickets online to avoid long wait times. Allow yourself at least two hours to immerse yourself in the exhibits. The museum is hosting a symposium on July 27 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Mississippi Freedom Summer and the enactment of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

International Civil Rights Center & Museum, Greensboro, North Carolina

Four college freshmen helped launch the sit-in movement at the F.W. Woolworth building in Greensboro in 1960. The original whites-only lunch counter where the quartet sat is restored and remains in its original location at this museum. I stared at it in awe, imagining the conversations they must have had at that counter. You’ll remember it long after your visit. But there’s more to this museum: pictorials, video reenactments, interactive components, and artifacts of the civil rights struggle. While you can tour on your own, the small guided tour provides context and detail. If you want alone time, do another walk-through after the tour. For a historic place to stay, consider The Magnolia House, one of few Green Book hotels left.

National Historic Preservation District, St. Augustine, Florida

St. Augustine is beloved for its beaches and golf. What’s lesser known is the city’s rich Black history. Some historians say it is where slavery began in what would become the United States of America; Spanish settlers brought enslaved Africans here in 1565. Be sure to visit Fort Mose Historic State Park, the site of the first legally sanctioned free African settlement in the colonies, which dates to the 18th century. During the civil rights movement, the Plaza de la Constitución, once a slave market, is where many night marches ended. The Foot Soldiers Monument there pays homage to advocates for racial equality.

Walk along the plaza’s Andrew Young Crossing Monument, which commemorates Revs. Young and King, who helmed protests in the city. The crossing has bronze replicas of Young’s footprints embedded in the coquina walkway, along with the words, “Justice, Non-Violence, Equality and Freedom.” The plaza is a powerful spot. Stand there and soak it up.

Also schedule an appointment to visit the ACCORD Civil Rights Museum, where you’ll encounter essential artifacts from the movement. Pop into the Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center to learn about the city’s all-Black settlement that was founded in 1866. The recently released St. Augustine Black History app is free, and its What’s Nearby tool shows you nearby historical sites.

National Museum of African American History & Culture, Washington, D.C.

The NMAAHC is the largest Black history museum in the United States. Plan to spend several hours there—or make two visits. The 10-story building has more than 40,000 objects telling stories from slavery to today. I admit, I was a bit overwhelmed. It was a roller coaster. What I saw made me want to shout “Hallelujah” with the victories and achievements in music, politics, science, and sports; some made me want to cry; others left me wondering why. Enjoy the journey. One thing I remember is the Point of Pines Plantation Slave Cabin, moved to the museum from Edisto Island, South Carolina. I felt a heaviness. Expect to be exhausted by the end of your visit, but in a good way. Exhale and talk about the experience with your family over a meal at the museum’s Sweet Home Café. The fried chicken, potato salad, coleslaw, collard greens, and other Southern goodies are the comfort food you’ll need. Get free timed museum entry passes online.

Sheryl Nance-Nash is a writer based in New York.
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