During a film that simulates an escape from Southern slavery in Cincinnati National Underground Railroad Freedom Centerthe fear of the heart in the mouth is tangible.
The poignant museum is less than a block from a scenic suspension bridge that connects Kentucky and Ohio. Crossing the Ohio River was once the last gigantic push for freedom, until the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 moved the line of safety to Canada and the slavery debate eventually exploded into civil war.
Emotional exhibits include the chance to walk through the rudimentary and eerie quarters of a former slave pen, while speakers, films and rotating exhibits connect historical slavery to modern times. “Motel X,” on view through April 5, examines current human trafficking and how Cincinnati sits along the busy Interstate 75 corridor, where victims are moved across the country. (Freedomcenter.org).
Museums across the Midwest are dedicated to black history year-round, sharing stories of influential leaders, musicians, athletes, soldiers, scientists and activists whose influence has spread across the country. Here are some of the best.
As an international crossing point for the Underground Railroad and a pivotal destination during the Great Migration for factory and auto industry jobs, Detroit has a rich black heritage. Discover “And Still We Rise”, an anchor of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in downtown Detroit. The museum has over 35,000 artifacts, including the Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman collections (thewright.org).
For a lighter nostalgic trip, take a guided tour through the modest home recording studio where Barry Gordy started Motown Records. It took promising musicians and groomed them for stardom, paving the way for legends like Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross (motownmuseum.com).
In Chicago’s South End, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened in 1961 as the nation’s first museum devoted solely to African-American history. The exhibits bring together art, culture brought from African countries, and historical milestones and leaders in America (dusablemuseum.org).
Pullman National Monument (or the Pullman Historic District) preserves the nation’s first planned industrial community, which built passenger cars for trains. African Americans also served as railroad porters, who, along with factory workers, made history fighting against falling wages (nps.gov/pull).
The south side is also the planned future location of the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center houses one of the nation’s largest collections of African-American artifacts, including Alex Haley’s typewriter and the final version of his book “Roots”; the tap dancing of Gregory Hines; and African American artwork. A special exhibit, ‘African Americans Fight for a Double Victory,’ chronicles their roles in WWII, including the stories of the Tuskegee and Red Ball Express airmen, and the impact of veterans on rights post-war civilians (ohiohistory.org).
In the heart of Kansas City’s 18th & Vine district, the courage, talent and innovation of African-American athletes and musicians come together in two highly targeted attractions: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Together in the city’s historic black neighborhood – once home to 40 jazz clubs – they illustrate the 1800s and early 1900s after slavery through the lens of daytime baseball games and jazz clubs in end of the night.
In the 1870s, about 40,000 African Americans moved north to Kansas City. Most were confined to this cramped neighborhood where a favorite weekend pastime was baseball, drawing crowds dressed in their best Sunday clothes. In 1920, players turned professional to form the various black leagues. It wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson became the first black player drafted into Major League Baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Despite the scrutiny, pressure, and segregation of his white teammates while traveling, he won Rookie of the Year and was the league’s most valuable player in 1949 (nlbm.com).
KC’s jazz clubs nurtured and showcased the talents and star power of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and others. With a host of listening stations, the Jazz Museum shows how these artists perfected a genre of fast-paced improvisation that began in New Orleans and was influenced by West African drumming, but grew up in Kansas City. Visitors, including children accompanied by adults, can attend evening jam sessions at the museum’s Blue Room, an active jazz club (americanjazzmuseum.org).
While much of Gateway Arch National Park explores the westward migration of settlers, the site also includes the historic site old courthouse, part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom linking hundreds of sites that commemorate the resistance to slavery. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, slaves who lived with their owner in Fort Snelling, Minnesota in the 1830s, sued for their freedom in 1847 at the Old Courthouse. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled that the Scotts were property and therefore had no right to sue. Considered one of America’s most pivotal court cases, it fueled the national debate that led to the Civil War (nps.gov/jeff).
Before jazz, Scott Joplin fused European and African rhythms to create ragtime. At Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, his most successful tracks, such as “The Entertainer”, can be heard on the player piano. With gas and authentic decor, the house and neighboring buildings recreate 1902, when it was on the road to glory (mostateparks.com).
George Washington Carver National Monument preserves the birthplace and early 1860s childhood home of the famous agronomist, educator and humanitarian. The National Park Service’s first site dedicated to an African American includes tours and a museum that chronicles his work in discovering hundreds of new uses for crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, pecans and soybeans. Visitors can walk the trails and restored meadow that spans more than half of the park’s 210 acres southeast of Joplin (nps.gov/gwca).
Visitors can wander through the former classrooms of a black elementary school, where multimedia exhibits commemorate the historic 1954 legal decision that ended segregated schools in the Brown National Historic Site v Board of Education. The decision for equality in education advanced the national civil rights movement (nps.gov/brvb).
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick has written about travel destinations across the Midwest for the Star Tribune and other publications since 2001.