Midwest Sites to Explore Black History and Learn About the Great Migration
More than 6 million African Americans migrated north from World War I through the 60s. It enriched the Midwest with artists, musicians, athletes, scientists and activists whose feats and talents ripple into the 21st century. Check out some top spots to celebrate and learn about this important part of American history.
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As an international crossing spot for the Underground Railroad and as a pivotal destination during The Great Migration for factory and auto industry jobs, Detroit’s black heritage runs deep. Check out "And Still We Rise," the largest single African-American exhibit and an anchor for the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown Detroit. The museum’s more than 35,000 artifacts include Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman collections and extensive documents on Detroit’s labor movement.
Also carve out time for a musical nostalgia trip with lively guided tours through the modest home-turned-recording-studio where Barry Gordy began Motown Records, grooming young musicians and singers such as Michael Jackson and Diana Ross before launching them into superstardom.
On Chicago’s South Side, The DuSable Museum of African American History opened in 1961 as the country’s first museum solely devoted to the African American roots, culture and history. Exhibits pull together art, culture brought from African countries and historic milestones and leaders in America.
Less than 10 miles away, Pullman National Monument (also known as the Pullman Historic District) preserves the country’s first model, planned industrial community, which made passenger cars for trains. African-Americans also served as railroad porters, and together with factory workers, they made history in fighting against falling wages.
Kansas City, Mo.
Tucked into the traditionally black neighborhood and business district of 18th and Vine, side-by-side museums poignantly and melodically bring American history to life with the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and American Jazz Museum. The Negro League of professional players started in 1920 and drew a faithful following of fans dressed in their Sunday best to cheer the star players at games in the U.S., Canada and Latin America. Photos, films and artifacts from bats to uniforms round out their stories, which include Jackie Robinson, who was recruited to the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1945, a small first step toward full integration on pro teams in the 1960s.
Grab headphones at listening stations through the American Jazz Museum and return for a night out in its Blue Room, which continues the city’s tradition of jazz, along with jazz storytelling and poetry jams.
The complex of Henry Ford Museum of American Innovation, Greenfield Village and Rouge Factory on Detroit’s eastern edge feels like the Midwest’s version of the Smithsonian in both size and ambition with a meticulous collection of American treasures. The site’s seasonal Greenfield Village (re-opening in April 2019) includes Thomas Edison’s relocated laboratory and Abraham Lincoln’s law office, but tourists in the main museum can see the car in which John F. Kennedy was assassinated and step inside the carefully restored Bus No. 2857 from Montgomery, Ala. It’s both poignant and powerful to sit down and hear the voice of a reporter asking Rosa Parks why she refused to give up her seat for a white passenger in 1955. Her voice crackles across a speaker explaining the act of courage that helped fuel a citywide bus boycott and the Civil Rights Movement.
Prepare for a shot of adrenaline and emotion while walking through a former slave pen or sitting in a dark theater that recreates a slave escape and the terror of being hunted at the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center. In the heart of downtown, the center follows U.S. abolitionism and the Civil War while celebrating those who’ve fought for freedom since then and how to help fight slavery that still occurs around the globe.
Visitors can roam through the former classrooms of a black elementary school where multi-media exhibits commemorate the 1954 landmark legal decision that ended segregated schools at the Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site. The decision for educational equality pushed forward the nation’s Civil Rights Movement.
St. Louis, Mo.
While much of Gateway Arch National Park explores President Jefferson’s 1803 Louisiana Purchase, the 1804-1806 Lewis and Clark Expedition and how the flood of settlers to the west of the Mississippi began, it’s also significant for the historic Old Courthouse where African American slave, Dred Scott, who had moved to a free state, unsuccessfully sued for his freedom here in 1847 and 1850. The case added fuel to the national debate and conflict leading to the Civil War.
George Washington Carver National Monument preserves the birthplace and early 1860s childhood home of the famed agronomist, educator and humanitarian. The first National Park Service site dedicated to an African American includes tours and a museum that tells about his work discovering hundreds of new uses for crops such as peanuts, sweet potatoes, pecans and soybeans. Visitors can wander the trails and restored prairie that rolls across more than half of the park’s 210 acres southeast of Joplin.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center archives house one of the nation’s largest collections of African-American artifacts, including Alex Haley’s typewriter and final draft of his book, "Roots," Gregory Hines’ tap shoes, and African-American artwork. A special exhibit, "African-Americans Fighting for a Double Victory," chronicles their roles during World War II, including stories of Tuskegee Airmen and the Red Ball Express, and veterans’ impact on post-war civil rights. The exhibit will be at the museum on Central State University campus, part of Ohio History Connection, through September 2022.
A few minutes away, the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument is open on weekends, and about a half an hour away, the Paul Laurence Dunbar House Historic Site (part of the Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park) commemorates the home and career of the poet who was also the first African-American to support himself as a writer.
Five buildings still remain at Nicodemus National Historic Site, which was once the largest mostly black community west of the Mississippi. Town planners convinced former slaves to emigrate from the hills and forests of Kentucky in 1877 to the sparse plains of Kansas, where they began with sod houses and built the community to 600 residents and thriving farms until being bypassed by the railroad, Dust Bowl and Great Depression poverty forced many families to relocate.