The new National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., shines light not just on one group of Americans but a quintessential American experience.
“The African American experience is the lens through which we understand what it is to be an American,” writes founding director Lonnie G. Bunch III.
Never before has the opportunity to tell that story on a grand, national scale been so available. Despite initial funds provided in 1915 by black Civil War veterans and a signed Public Resolution from President Calvin Coolidge in 1929 establishing a commission to plan its construction, it wasn’t until legislation signed by then President George W. Bush in 2003 that the museum had the authorization it needed to be created on the National Mall.
No matter how long it took to get here, the outpouring of response to the museum’s opening this month is proof positive that the demand for it remains strong. Now, for the first time, visitors will be able to explore more than 400 years of artifacts and historical information detailing the African American experience.
It couldn’t have happened at a more interesting time. Racial tensions are high in the country. Black Lives Matter demonstrators clash against police brutality, athletes protest the national anthem, actors use awards ceremonies to raise awareness on stage, and parents—a generation removed from the civil rights marches of the sixties—wonder if the era is about to be relived.
There is no question that this story is worth telling and little doubt that the NMAAHC is worthy of a visit, but travelers hoping to get in right away may be out of luck. Advanced timed passes for October, November, and December are no longer available, and only a limited number of same-day passes are distributed daily.
Long before construction of NMAAHC, the story of the African American experience was told through smaller museums and monuments across the country. These 10 diverse destinations will help travelers connect with some themes to expect in NMAAHC exhibits until their trip to Washington, D.C.
Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana
A slave cabin from a South Carolina plantation sits among the exhibits at the NMAAHC. At the Whitney Plantation, visitors can walk the fields once toiled in by slaves and learn the history of this brutal time in American history. Informed docents provide tours through memorials, slave cabins, and the great house with a unique focus on the slaves’ perspective.
Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum in Detroit, Michigan
The Tuskegee Airmen of World War II, the first squadron of back military airmen, weren’t considered equals in the eyes of the law but that didn't stop them from defending the country. The museum details their training and the role they played in desegregating the military. Also find monuments to the men who served as “Red Tails” all over the country, including a National Park Service site in Tuskegee, Alabama, in their honor.
Memphis Rock ‘n’ Soul Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
Although Americans of all races are lauded here, the inclusion of the relationship of Memphis Soul to the 1930s sharecropper roots and the city’s civil rights movement history lend a poignant backdrop. The museum's artifacts and exhibits were curated by the Smithsonian Institute and offer opportunities to hear the music, read the stories, and watch films from decades past. Also stay tuned for the National Museum of African American Music scheduled to open in Nashville in 2018.
Pullman Porter Museum in Chicago, Illinois
African American men who worked as porters on the trains of the Pullman Car Company are revered for their service and dedication. The men endured incredibly long working hours for about $60 per month and more than half of that went back to the company to pay for the supplies they used on the job. Stories of their experience on the segregated trains, and off, are detailed in the intriguing museum, which also explains the political climate of the time and rise of unions like the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters.
The Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Houston, Texas
The Buffalo Soldiers were a group of former slaves, freemen, and black Civil War soldiers who continued to serve America during peacetime. So named by the Native Americans, the soldiers often are lauded for helping to forge the Wild West. The museum showcases the efforts of African Americans in the protection of this country, at home and abroad, where often their safety was equally at risk due to the color of their skin.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio
The intricate, secret network of allies that runaway slaves relied on to escape to freedom was called the Underground Railroad. Although slavery ended in the United States roughly 150 years ago, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center works to keep the story and the message alive for the current generation. With exhibitions that highlight slave trades of the past and present, the center presents interactive exhibits, films, and even includes a slave pen from Kentucky built in the early 1800s. The moving tribute is even more relevant given the approximately 27 million people estimated to be enslaved around the world today.
National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, Tennessee
There is no shortage of museums dedicated to civil rights in America set in spots where pivotal points in the movement's history occurred. The National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis is built across from the Lorraine Motel, where Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated as he stood on a balcony in 1968. Visitors can hear audio of oral history recounting firsthand accounts of life under Jim Crow or women of Montgomery boycotting bus segregation.
Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, Missouri
Long before Jackie Robinson became a household name, African American baseball players were making a name for themselves on the field. The Negro League offered these men a place to play in a segregated America. The museum highlights the successes and struggles of the players (both superstars and the unknown) and provides a glimpse into the incredible talent kept out of the mainstream. The museum is located in the historic 18th and Vine district with the American Jazz Museum, also worthy of a look for those in town.
Black American West Museum in Denver, Colorado
What started as an ode to black cowboys has grown to include tales and artifacts of African Americans who made their way west to forge new lives, whether driven by professional or personal circumstances. Located in the former home of Colorado’s first female African American physician, Justina Ford, the museum is packed with photos and artifacts is best experienced with a pre-arranged tour.
California African American Museum in Los Angeles, California
This 44,000-square-foot museum does a great job of showcasing items from African American history while also heralding contemporary themes. The exhibition “Oh Snap! West Coast Hip Hop Photography” is just one example of how the museum makes the collection interesting, informative, and accessible to younger audiences.
Learn more about the National Museum of African American History and Culture in the October 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine.