5 Ways to Seek Out Black History Across The U.S.
At KEEN, we love spending time outside for many reasons. It’s how we have fun, connect with people we love, and make memories that last forever. It’s also how we like to discover more about the world around us.
Inspired by Black History Month, we wanted to head outdoors and find new ways to learn about some of the aspects of Black history we were never taught in school. This list offers you five ideas for getting outside to see, feel, and experience the impact of Black Americans on our country.
Wherever you live in the US, there’s an opportunity near you. We included some examples to get you thinking about the possibilities, but if you do your own research, we bet you’ll find some hidden gems in your area. So go by foot, by bike, by car. Take your friends, your kids, and/or your friends’ kids! The only thing better than learning is learning together.
Consider this a small list of suggestions to kick off your route of discovery:
1. Go on a walking tour
Have you ever thought about all the Black Americans (activists, entrepreneurs, musicians, artists, and more) and Black movements that have made their mark on the town or city where you live? Do some Google research and make a list of landmarks to visit in your home environment or take a trip to explore somewhere new. You can also follow a pre-developed tour like one of these:
Memphis Heritage Trail: The Memphis Heritage Trail is a “walking museum” in Memphis, Tennessee. Download the app, pop in your headphones, and explore historical markers in a 20-block radius that detail the rich business, cultural, and musical heritage of African Americans in Memphis.
Longwood Gardens: A public natural area in Philadelphia, the unbelievably expansive Longwood Gardens are a meeting point of horticulture, education, and art. Their Voices in the Landscape audio exhibition, led by storyteller Charlotte Blake Alston, guides you deeper into a multifaceted understanding of Black history in relation to the plants present at Longwood. Take a walk with American abolitionist Frederick Douglass as he takes solace in nature, and hear an ancient Zulu creation myth as you stand before a Wood’s cycad which is native to South Africa and is one of the oldest and rarest plants in the world. (Not able to travel to Pennsylvania? You can experience Alston’s guided tour from anywhere in the world, thanks to a virtual option.)
Gullah Heritage Trail: The Sea Islands, off the coast of North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida, are the site of a rich history nurtured by the area’s West African descendants. Gullah is a system of traditions, customs, beliefs, art forms, and family life that survived centuries of slavery and still thrives today. Run by a fourth-generation Gullah family, Gullah Heritage Trail Tours offer tours in this area, known as the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.
2. Learn more about the impact Black Americans have had on our natural lands
We treasure our nation’s public lands and waters. Learning about Black history gives us a chance to see our national parks and other nature preserves in a whole new light. Find out how Black Americans have been part of the history of the natural lands near you. For example:
Yosemite National Park: From 1891 to 1913, the Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks were run by the US Army, and the Buffalo Soldiers — an all-Black regiment of cavalry troops — were instrumental in both parks’ development and care. During this time, approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. They fought forest fires and protected the lands from poachers and timber thieves. Today, Yosemite park ranger Shelton Johnson has dedicated his life to educating visitors about the Buffalo Soldiers, appearing in character as a Black cavalryman to lead tours and answer questions. (He has also written a novel and created a podcast featuring his fictionalized Buffalo Soldier character.)
The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge: The Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland is a bird sanctuary made up of land that was once worked by Harriet Tubman during her enslavement. During this time, she learned crucial outdoor skills that helped her navigate the Stewart Canal as she ushered freedom seekers to the North using the Underground Railroad. Blackwater is located right next to the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historic Park, where you can continue your exploration of Tubman’s legacy.
3. Take in some public or street art
The art displayed throughout our cities is an entry point into rich histories that might otherwise go unseen. When you pass a mural or a statue, do you stop to wonder who created it? Who is depicted in the art? What does the art represent? How does it make you feel? The more questions you ask yourself and your kids about public art in the places you live and visit, the more opportunities you have to learn something new. For example:
Rumors of War: Located in Richmond, Virginia, this bronze sculpture of a Black rider atop a horse was created by artist Kehinde Wiley as a response to long traditions of white-dominant equestrian art, as well as contemporary controversies over Confederate monuments. As of 2020, it stands in front of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts.
Living Walls: The nonprofit Living Walls has commissioned dozens of murals to enliven neglected public spaces across the city of Atlanta. Created by community artists, many of these murals are inspired by Black histories, communities, and social movements that have shaped Atlanta and our country as a whole.
4. Discover notable Black Americans in your region
It’s one thing to read about a historical figure. It’s another to actually go to a physical place and see, hear, and experience their legacy. Trips to visit a historic home, business, or museum can bring the past to life for kids (and adults). Plus, there’s no shortage of opportunities to learn more about the Black Americans who have shaped our physical and cultural landscape. Who can you find in your area, and what kinds of spaces are dedicated to them today?
For example: Madam CJ Walker was a Black entrepreneur who built a beauty empire in the early twentieth century, creating a successful line of cosmetic and hair care products for Black women. In Indianapolis, the former headquarters of her business now serves as the Madam Walker Legacy Center, a nonprofit that preserves the legacy of Madam CJ Walker by providing cultural education, promoting social justice, supporting entrepreneurship, and empowering youth in civic leadership. It hosts frequent events, including regular tours.
5. Build an itinerary, big or small, and go on an adventure
Black history isn’t just about individual people. It’s about changing communities that span generations. It’s also about movements backed by strength and resilience. There are multiple resources and itineraries that can help you explore the protest sites, churches, homes, and other landmarks that are part of America’s history.
“We Shall Overcome”: This online itinerary resource hosted by the National Park Service weaves together many of the locations that were integral to the civil rights movement. It also offers a “Research It!” section on the website to help you do your own research and find places relevant to civil rights history near you.
Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail: The Moon U.S. Civil Rights Trail is a book that lets you choose your own itinerary and go at your own pace. With maps, directions, itineraries of different lengths, ideas for supporting Black-owned businesses along the way, and helpful suggestions on lodging, it offers a deep dive into the story of Black America’s fight for equality. It’s part of the Moon Travel Guide series, which “prioritizes local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably.”
We encourage you to seek out experiences to discover more about Black history at home or on the road — not just in February, but year-round. Black history is American history, and the world is our classroom.