Black history matters
“These stories are hard to tell and hard to hear.”
While Rosemary Judkins of the Alabama Tourism Department acknowledges the emotional pain, she also sees the value of visiting sites that reveal the struggles Black Americans have faced—through enslavement, Jim Crow, and the civil rights movement—and how lessons of the past resonate today.
“When people experience what happened here, they get an understanding of what really took place, and they take back something they didn’t come with,” Judkins says. “They feel like they can now contribute to social justice.”
At destinations throughout the U.S. South, visitors enjoy the beauty of natural environs and the adornments of human-made structures. But they also come face-to-face with uncomfortable reminders of the past: slavery and oppression.
One of uncomfortable reminders in Alabama is the Legacy Museum in Montgomery, which illuminates the horrors of lynching during post-Civil War Reconstruction and Jim Crow eras.
“We were a little hesitant at first about a lynching memorial, but then we realized how important that really is,” Judkins says. “Showing how a group of people suffered fits into our history and what we’re trying to promote, which is telling the story.”
Black tourism professionals who market and manage the visitor experience understand that their duty is to blend both sides of the story to provide guests with a full picture of their place—especially now, according to Portia Conerly of the Arlington (Virginia) Convention and Visitors Service.
“How we present our destination—through our website, our tours, and our hiring—make it evident that we are being inclusive, and that cultural diversity is present in everything we do,” Conerly says.
At destinations that promote the history of all citizens, visitors can learn about Black people’s hurdles and high points through the years.
“Savannah (Georgia) celebrates more than 250 years of Black history and features historical sites and museums that honor the contributions of the enslaved Africans and African Americans who sewed the fabric of our community,” says Anjuli Derien of Visit Savannah. A variety of walking tours highlight the city’s Black history, and the Owens-Thomas House features one of the few remaining examples of urban slave quarters in the South.
Arlington, too, promotes a rich heritage of Black history. Connected to the well-known national cemetery is the site of Freedman’s Village, established during the Civil War to assist enslaved people transitioning to freedom. Residents were provided housing, education, training, and medical care. Prominent African Americans buried there today include Medgar Evans, Thurgood Marshall, Joe Louis, and several Tuskegee Airmen and Buffalo Soldiers.
Along with museums and historical buildings and neighborhoods, Arlington National Cemetery gives visitors to the city a unique view of the past.
“Visitors gain knowledge of African American history that is interwoven in American history through culture, diverse cuisine, and stories of sacrifice,” Conerly says.
Although the study of slavery opens a deeply disturbing chapter of American history, there is also beauty and achievement to celebrate. Louisiana’s River Parishes region, located just outside of New Orleans, is dotted with nine plantations where people were enslaved, but those same plantations showcase the laborers’ marvelous handiwork.
“French and Creole-speaking people of color made major contributions to the unique architectural styles of houses built on plantation estates in Louisiana’s Mississippi River region,” says Willma Harvey of the River Parishes Tourist Commission. “And these attractions are committed to telling that talented slaves were the primary designers and builders of the slave owners’ family homes. These buildings exemplify the skills and craftsmanship of enslaved African artisans.”
In Memphis, the Black artistry to explore is mostly musical, and attractions in the Tennessee city include The Blues Hall of Fame Museum, Stax Museum of American Soul Music, and Sun Studios.
“Visit any one of Memphis’ music attractions and you’ll learn about—and feel—the music made by legends like B.B. King, W.C. Handy, Isaac Hayes, Otis Redding, Al Green, and so many others,” says Milton Howery III of Memphis Tourism.
Yet the city offers more than music to those who want to explore Black history.
“Memphis is home to several historical sites and attractions that offer visitors a deepened understanding of the Black experience in America,” Howery says, citing, among others, the National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, which vividly details the struggles of Black people during the American civil rights movement and is the site where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968.
A movement for all people
A tumultuous 2020 brought the world a coronavirus pandemic, and it also brought—through a series of high-profile acts of racial injustice in the United States—a sense of urgency for societal change. And that mission applies to destination marketing organizations.
“This year's social justice movement has heightened our awareness of the need to highlight what we do and where we stand,” says Arlington’s Conerly. “How I look at it is that everyone wants to see themselves included in the American experience. Our goal in Arlington is that when you visit us, you feel welcomed no matter who you are.”
In Savannah, Derien says the staff at her organization looked within and had the “hard conversations” about diversity, equity, and inclusion in relation to their guests, the community, and themselves. “It was a fantastic exercise, and improvements are being made daily to ensure that every Savannah story is told.”
Derien added that her city’s mayor has supported the DMO’s heightened efforts, and Savannah’s city government and business community benefit from a solid working relationship.
Alabama’s tourism promoters did not experience a major change, though, Judkins says.
“Social justice is what we’ve been promoting all along,” she says. “We’ve been talking about this, and now the world is seeing it.”
Along with 13 other states and the District of Columbia, Alabama is part of the U.S. Civil Rights Trail, a collection of museums, schools, churches, courthouses, and historic sites where activists in the 1950s and ’60s challenged segregation.
“When people come here, we make them feel like they were part of that movement,” Judkins says. “Reenacting is the best way to put people in that place, and we have lots of experience-givers—historians and retired educators—who know how to explain this history in different ways.”
The stories are important today—and significant for everyone.
“What happened here changed the world. It affected so many people—and not just African Americans,” Judkins says. “People from all different places and races and backgrounds made voting rights happen.”
Professional … and personal
Of course, tourism leaders are people first, and these Black professionals have experienced calls for racial equality and justice through unique sets of lenses.
“The history of slavery and segregation has been my primary interest as long as I can remember—long before I came here,” says Louisiana’s Harvey. “And now that I work in this region, I never miss a day thinking about the suffering that African American slaves endured. I feel them in my spirit!”
Harvey wants to learn more about free people of color, and there are freedmen’s communities within the Louisiana’s River Parishes region that can provide insight. “Although these people of color were considered free, they, too, were subjected to the many forms of persecution and denial that enslaved people had to endure.”
For Derien, a young professional, the protests of 2020 bring to mind the struggles of her parents’ and grandparents’ time, and today’s turmoil has brought about feelings of anger, fear, and sadness within her.
“It’s not something I thought I would ever see play out on American streets in my lifetime, and it’s made me more appreciative of our forefathers that carried the burden of inequality and the fight for civil rights,” she says. “That history is alive here in Savannah, where it can be seen, touched, and heard, and I appreciate those lessons.”
At the Arlington tourism office, Conerly believes she is leading by example.
“As you go up the corporate ladder in the tourism industry, you rarely see any African Americans, but I am the first Black director of sales at the Arlington Convention and Visitors Service,” she says. “I have always aspired to be the very best that I could be and to encourage others to do the same, no matter what race, color, or creed.”
It was a case of on-the-job learning for Memphis’s Howery.
“Beyond Black History Month and brief mentions of the civil rights movement and slavery, I learned little in school about Black history in America,” he says. “But when I kicked off my tourism career at the Memphis Visitor Center 14 years ago, I was amazed at how much I didn’t know about Black history. I'm forever grateful to Memphis-area attractions for preserving and teaching that history, ensuring that the future for everyone is better.”
Alabama’s Judkins sees her work as a higher calling.
“God has given us all talents, and we need to use them for good,” she says, describing the “sacred grounds experience” she has created so that visitors can stand where people walked, marched, and protested to make life better for people of color.
“At the end of that experience, I give them a certificate that shows they have walked in the path of the foot soldiers of the civil rights movements,” she says. “I’m telling you, it’s a takeaway that people cherish. They feel like they’ve accomplished something. And now they know they must leave and do the work.”
Learning about the Black experience—with all the knowledge and emotion that comes with it—is something that more people will want to do when the veil of the virus has lifted. And when tourist destinations can make that experience deeper and wider for visitors, it’s a satisfying journey.
The work that Judkins speaks of, though, happens when travelers get home.
“You search yourself and ask, ‘What are my morals? How can I contribute to society?’” she says. “Once you get an understanding of what really took place, you can help teach the stories to others.”
Top photo: National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
Photo by Andrea Zucker