In spite of all the trouble brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic, destinations march on, creating new tour product and joining the fight for equality by highlighting Black heritage in their communities.
In light of many racial injustices that have made headlines over the past year, industry professionals see that, now more than ever, it’s important to tell the stories—past and present—of the Black community. They’re taking steps, and a collective motion is what leads to progress.
Here are four destinations with much to offer—and many stories to tell—in Black heritage tourism:
Charleston, South Carolina
According to Explore Charleston’s website, the deeply historical city is one of the first in the country to have had a presence of African people. What followed was many years of enslavement, but Charleston works diligently today to shine a light on the value of African cultural expression in the present.
“Black heritage tourism is very important now because of our society's greater awareness and education on the role that African Americans have played in our country's history,” says the CVB’s Serge Polyachenko. “This is especially important for Charleston because of our city's history. We strive to acknowledge it and not hide it. We are actively promoting this point with our digital programs and also in partnering with local businesses in an effort to get the message out to our visitors. There are a variety of African American history tours, for example, that we work with to educate the public.”
Polyachenko says these are the most hands-on spots with a great deal to explore:
- The Charleston City Market, “because there is so much to see in regards to Gullah culture here. This isn't a static site but an active, vibrant place to visit.” Fifty-plus resident Gullah artisans at the market sell their handcrafted sweetgrass baskets, made for more than 300 years from bulrush, a locally harvested marshgrash that flourishes in Lowcountry soil.
- The Aiken-Rhett House, “because it shows another side to the contributions of the enslaved. Many were highly skilled artisans as well (and that is evident here).” One of the most well-preserved antebellum townhouse complexes in the country, it was home to Governor William Aiken Jr., his wife, and their slaves in the mid-1800s.
- Mt. Zion AME, “because of our appreciation for this historical church.” AME stands for African Methodist Episcopal, and this denomination stemmed from the original Methodist doctrine. The congregation formed in 1816, with Mt. Zion AME opening after the first AME church was established in Philadelphia in 1787 to break away from racial discrimination.
The state’s largest city is known for its hip vibes and one-of-a-kind coffees and brews, and even under stay-at-home orders, Portland has rolled out new offerings (while promoting their longstanding establishments) celebrating its rich Black heritage.
“It’s incredibly vital to support and promote those who are underrepresented in our industry and city. Travel Portland is a partner to many Black entrepreneurs, and they are able to share their stories and promote Portland with us,” says the DMO’s Chanel Sheragy. “We are a city made up of small businesses, and continuing to support those businesses—and especially Black chefs and owners—is important to all of us.”
- Olive or Twist is a posh bar located in the Pearl District. Visitors can grab a handcrafted martini or classic cocktail and find a spot on a comfy couch or the lovely patio. We hear the dessert martini made with Bend Distillery’s hazelnut espresso vodka is divine.
- The Portland Pioneers of Color Walking Trail tells the stories of freed African American slaves who lived in the historical downtown as well as the businesses and residences they took up after their emancipation. Also, trail walkers get a look at The Walls of Pride, a collection of murals and public art created by local artists in North and Northeast Portland.
- Abbey Creek Vineyard was established by Bertony Faustin, Oregon’s first recorded Black winemaker. A child of Haitian immigrants, Faustin emulated his father’s work ethic and built a unique, community-centered attraction on 15 beautiful acres just west of Portland.
“It’s not every day you can walk into a winery, sit down with the owner, and hear his story about overcoming obstacles, while sitting amid the success of all of it. That’s part of what makes Portland Portland … and why visitors want to experience it,” Sheragy says.
This river city is affluent in three things: bourbon, horses, and history. Louisville Tourism is launching new programming to highlight the African American influence in Kentucky by focusing on the bourbon and horse racing industries. Through leadership of the Black Tourism Advisory Council, the DMO’s COO, Cleo Battle, has involved the community and all major hospitality industry sectors to develop programming with inclusivity in mind.
“Although these leisure tourism experiences began two years ago as an effort to curate the rich cultural assets involving Louisville’s Black history and heritage, they are coming to fruition at a very timely moment—on the heels of a national social justice push, further increasing our urgency and sense of purpose,” says Battle.
Seven local attractions will come together as the Unfiltered Truth Collection to share many untold stories and perspectives of the city’s Black community. Here are three of those places:
- The Kentucky Center for African American Heritage: “Songbird of the South”
This performance tells the story of how Mary Ann Fisher became one of the first African American women to have a career as a rhythm and blues singer, covering her life from her harrowing childhood in Henderson, Kentucky, to her glorious rise to stardom.
- Kentucky Derby Museum: Two African American experiences
These experiences include “Proud of My Calling, An African American Experience in the Kentucky Derby,” which illuminates the accounts of Black horsemen through costumed actors, photos, and artifacts; and the “African Americans in Thoroughbred Racing Tour,” which takes visitors to Churchill Downs to learn about the most important Black figures in horse racing.
- Louisville Slugger Museum & Factory: “The Louisville Unions Rediscovered”
The museum recently acquired rare photographs of Black athletes who played for the Louisville Unions, a pre-Negro Leagues team that dominated the Southern baseball circuit in 1908. This exhibit explores why the team vanished after great success and its important contributions to the documented history of Black baseball before integration.
St. Louis, Missouri
Explore St. Louis’s website says early census figures show that Black people, both freed and enslaved, lived in St. Louis under French and Spanish colonial rule as early as the city’s founding in 1764. Their stories—the tragic and the triumphant—have shaped the major Missouri city to be a place in the present with profound Black heritage tourism.
“St. Louis’ stately domed Old Courthouse, part of the Gateway Arch National Park, is perhaps the single most important location in the U.S. relating to a cause that jump-started the Civil War,” says the CVB’s Renee Eichelberger. “It was there in 1847 that an enslaved man named Dred Scott filed suit for the freedom of himself, his wife Harriet, and their two daughters.”
Inside the Old Courthouse is an exhibition on this critical moment in history called “Dred Scott: A Legacy of Courage.” Re-creations of the trial are conducted throughout the year at the Old Courthouse, and Scott’s grave can be found at Calvary Cemetery.
Here are a few other attractions with Black history to discover in St. Louis:
- The St. Louis Walk of Fame is six blocks made up of 150-plus sidewalk stars honoring notable people who were either born in the greater St. Louis area or spent their creative years there. Visitors can find stars for Chuck Berry, Miles Davis, Maya Angelou, and Elizabeth Keckley.
- The George Washington Carver Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden appropriately honors Carver’s life and legacy as he revolutionized Southern farming and became known as one of America’s greatest scientists, teachers, humanitarians, and advocates for sustainable agriculture.
- The Missouri History Museum’s new “See STL Walking Tour” covers “The Ville,” a historical African American neighborhood. It’s home to several Grammy Award winners, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers, three Grand Slam titleholders, the founder of the first Black collegiate sorority, and a chemist who worked on the atomic bomb.
Top photo: Kiener Plaza and the Old Courthouse in St. Louis
Photo by Explore St. Louis