The Word Is ‘Slaves’: A Trip Into Black History


Despite its slow start, Colonial Williamsburg today is in the forefront of a movement that is turning black history into an important tourist attraction. Williamsburg is the only restoration to have excavated and rebuilt actual slave quarters—the crude wood huts at Carter’s Grove Plantation—although Larry McKee, an archeologist who says, “I owe my job to Alex Haley,” is presently excavating the slave quarters at the Hermitage, Andrew Jackson’s home in Tennessee. He has turned up evidence that the quarters were brick, and he has found enough animal bones and coins to indicate that slaves regularly ate meat and “had some participation in the cash economy.”

Not all black historic sites, by any means, concern slavery. In Jackson, Mississippi, the Smith Robertson Museum and Cultural Center has been operating since 1984 in the first public school built for blacks in the state. Its exhibits cover local architecture—“structures built by blacks for blacks”—folk art, education, civil rights, black politicians, and the history of Parish Street, Jackson’s main black thoroughfare. Two photographs of water fountains, one marked “White,” the other “Colored,” are startling reminders of segregation not long past. “Those were two words we learned to recognize at an early age,” Barbara Barber, the black woman guiding me, said.

In Annapolis, Maryland, the Banneker-Douglass Museum of Afro-American Life and History honors both Frederick Douglass, the nineteenth-century abolitionist and civil rights leader, and Benjamin Banneker, a free black engineer who helped design Washington, D.C., and who, in 1791, wrote Thomas Jefferson protesting the “State of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity” that blacks endured. The restored homes of prominent blacks include the elegant Maggie L. Walker House in Richmond, Virginia, the residence of a slave’s daughter who became the first American woman bank president. The contributions of blacks to American popular music and sport have been documented in numerous museums, such as the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

At the Tuskegee National Historic Site, in Alabama, the tour includes the Oaks, the 1899 home of the Tuskegee Institute’s founder, Booker T. Washington, and the George Washington Carver Museum, named for the institute’s most famous scientist and teacher. There the number of visitors has tripled in the last five years—to 399,684 in 1990. (These figures include large groups of schoolchildren on end-of-the-year trips and, increasingly, Northern blacks on their way to and from family reunions in the South.) At the Martin Luther King, Jr., Birth House, in Atlanta, Park Service rangers conduct tours with the same plodding attention to detail that they give to the homes of famous white Americans. (Did King, as a boy, sleep in the front bedroom or in the hallway?) The King house is part of a complex that includes the Martin Luther King, Jr., Center for Nonviolent Social Change, where he is entombed, and the Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King and his father and grandfather were pastors. It is one of the most visited sites in the South, and located just off the interstate highway through Atlanta, it attracts large numbers of white as well as black visitors.

Deep South states that opposed racial equality in the 1950s and 1960s are taking a lead in promoting sites associated with the civil rights movement. In 1983 Alabama’s tourism office published 18,500 copies of a booklet listing 58 black historic sites. “It was gone in less than a month,” recalls Frances Smiley, the tourism board’s Black Heritage Coordinator. Now in its third edition, Alabama’s Black Heritage details 163 places, many of them scenes of civil rights activity. On its cover is a photograph of the 1989 Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, a record in granite of important events of the movement and a tribute to forty representative people who died in the struggle between 1955 and 1968. The memorial was designed by Maya Lin, who also created the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Reunions draw more than two thousand progeny of a plantation’s slave families.

In Selma, Alabama, walking across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, where police beat and tear-gassed civil rights marchers in 1965, has become a must for tourists. (Among Selma’s many foreign visitors, the Japanese in particular “are more familiar with events at the Edmund Pettus Bridge than they are with Gone with the Wind,” says Edie Morthland Jones, the city’s director of tourism.) In Montgomery, Alabama, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Dexter Avenue Baptist Church vies with the Confederate White House as an attraction. A civil rights museum and research facility will soon be built next to Birmingham’s Kelly-Ingram Park, which in 1963 was the scene of riots and a church bombing; a similar museum opened in the summer of 1991 in Memphis, Tennessee, in the Lorraine Motel, where King was assassinated in 1968.