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Beyond The South

May 2024
3min read

African-American landmarks across the country

Black-heritage sites are increasingly being promoted outside the Deep South—at long-established historic restorations, such as Historic Hudson Valley’s Philipsburg Manor in Tarrytown, New York. Until recently Philipsburg was devoted entirely to interpreting the English and Dutch heritage of the Hudson River Valley. Today, however, its program stresses that the manor’s farm and gristmill were operated by twenty-three African slaves and that New York in 1790 had nearly as many slaves as Georgia.

In Boston the Black Heritage Trail, a 1.6-mile walking tour, winds though the north slope of Beacon Hill, an area now designated the Boston African-American National Historic Site . The fifteen stops along the trail include the African Meeting House (1806), the oldest surviving black church in the country, where so many antislavery meetings were held before the Civil War that it was known as the Black Faneuil Hall. Also on the tour are the Abiel Smith School, a public school for blacks from 1835 to 1855, now the Museum of Afro-American History, and the George Middleton House, built in 1797 by Colonel Middleton, who commanded an all-black company, called the Bucks of America, during the Revolutionary War. The tour starts across from the State House on Beacon Street at the Robert Gould Shaw and 54th Regiment Memorial, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’s magnificent basrelief depicting the all-black unit and its white commander marching off to the Civil War. The regiment was the subject of the film Glory .

Among the reconstructions at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, in Hardy, Virginia, is the kitchen cabin where the black leader and educator was born as a slave in 1856. In Washington, D.C., the National Park Service maintains the Black History National Recreation Trail, providing a list with maps of sites in six neighborhoods, including Cedar Hill, the home of Frederick Douglass from 1877 until his death in 1895; the campus of Howard University, founded in 1867 to educate freed slaves; and the nine-teenth-century Bethune Council House, today a museum and black women’s historical archives, named for the black educator Mary McLeod Bethune, who advised the Roosevelt administration in the 1930s on minority affairs.

One of the oldest black-history museums in a rapidly growing field is Chicago’s DuSable Museum of African American History, founded in 1961. Ohio, once a stronghold of abolitionism and important on the route of the Underground Railroad, today has many black-history sites open to the public. In Wilberforce, named for the English abolitionist William Wilberforce, the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center concentrates on black history and culture from the end of World War II to the passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. And Wilberforce University is the first black-owned and -operated college in the country. Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, the first white college to accept blacks, has a statue dedicated to the Underground Railroad on its campus.

The home of the abolitionist minister John Rankin, in Ripley, Ohio, is now a state memorial. Overlooking the Ohio River, Rankin’s house was a landmark for fugitive slaves on the Underground Railroad. In 1834 Harriet Beecher Stowe visited there, and she later adapted Rankin’s accounts of escaping slaves for Uncle Tom’s Cabin . In nearby Cincinnati the Greek Revival Harriet Beecher Stowe House, where the author lived as a young woman, displays documents and artifacts from the slavery era. In Dayton the Paul Laurence Dunbar House has on view papers and memorabilia belonging to the acclaimed black poet, who lived in this simple brick home from 1903 until his death three years later.

In the 1930s Henry Ford brought to his Greenfield Village museum near Detroit two slave houses from Savannah, Georgia, and reconstructed them, brick by brick. He built a log cabin memorial for George Washington Carver within the museum complex in 1942. Recently restored, these structures cast new light on African-American family life on the plantation and on Carver’s life and work.

The George Washington Carver National Monument, near Diamond, Missouri, the first national monument to honor an African-American, is at the birthplace of the eminent black scientist and educator. As a small child Carver was abducted by raiders during the Civil War, then later returned to the farm, where he was raised by his former owners, Moses and Susan Carver. The house Moses Carver built in 1881 is also on view.

Farther west the town of Nicodemus, Kansas, was settled in 1877 by Southern blacks fleeing the terrors of the post-Reconstruction era. Once called “the Largest Colored Colony in America,” the nearly deserted town has applied to become a national historic site to represent the black presence on the American frontier.

In Denver the Black American West Museum and Heritage Center depicts the roles of black cowboys, settlers, and ranchers in the development of the West. The museum is in the former home of Dr. Justina L. Ford, Colorado’s first black female physician.

Renowned for their successful battles against Apaches, several units of the Buffalo soldiers, the first all-black cavalry and infantry regiments, were stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, from 1867 to 1885. Today a visitors’ center and museum at Fort Davis National Historic Site inhabit restored enlisted men’s barracks.

An attempt by blacks to establish a settlement in California independent of whites is represented at the Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park near Earlimart in the San Joaquin Valley. Alien Allensworth, an escaped slave, joined the Union forces during the Civil War; after he retired in 1908, he and his partners purchased land for the all-black farming community, which prospered until Aliensworth’s death, about 1914. The restored buildings there include a school, three houses, two stores, and an eightroom hotel.

—M.S.D.

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