Embark on a journey of discovery and understanding when you and your family visit these destinations and landmarks that play a part in the American civil rights story.
Here are six to consider:
National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Ala.
Open since April, 2018, the six-acre memorial was conceived with the hope of creating a meaningful site where people could gather, learn and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality. Using sculpture, art and design to contextualize racial terror, the outdoor memorial, as well as the nearby Legacy Museum, were the inspiration of Bryan Stevenson, founder and executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative. Both are designed to provide comprehensive content about the legacy of slavery through contemporary issues including the mass incarceration of African-American men and the current proliferation of mass shootings. .
Located .07 miles apart, a shuttle service runs between the museum and the memorial.
Rosa Parks Museum, Montgomery, Alabama.
"In 1955, when I was arrested... I had no way of knowing what the future held,” observed the woman who would become known as the Mother of the Civil Rights Movement when this museum was named in her honor. Set in front of the bus stop where the historic moment took place, the Rosa Parks Museum features a video reenactment of her refusal to give up her seat to a white man and other interactive presentations. A children’s wing provides age appropriate history lessons for youngsters.
Rising on the banks of the historic Potomac River, Alexandria, founded in 1746, is steeped in African-American history. Visit the city to seek an understanding of civil rights from colonial times to the Civil War, illuminated by a compelling collection of sites. Originally the segregated library for Alexandria's African American residents, the Black History museum documents the local and national African American experience through exhibits, speakers and interactive programs. Visit the Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center to learn about those enslaved at nearby Mount Vernon. This exhibit explores the household furnishings, art works, archaeological discoveries, documents, and demonstrates how closely intertwined the lives of the Washington family members were with those they enslaved. Walking tours of Old Town Alexandria, offered by Manumission Tour Company, provide additional insight by sharing little-known stories from the era of slave trade.
Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, Washington DC.
Families can seek ongoing inspiration from the words and work of clergyman and civil rights leader, Dr. King, through a visit to this monument in West Potomac Park. The memorial, located adjacent to the National Mall near the FDR Memorial and framing views of the Tidal Basin, features quotes extracted from his eloquent speeches emphasizing four of King’s primary messages: justice, democracy, hope and love. Site tours and Junior Ranger badge activities are available and can help extend the experience for children.
The story of slavery and African-American culture in Natchez is one of the most complex threads of the city’s multi-faceted history. Visitors can delve into the past at the Museum of African American History & Culture on Main St. Consider a double-decker bus tour (hop on and hop off at various locations) that launches at the Natchez Visitors Center and rolls through the Southern town, passing by many of the most significant landmarks. Narration is provided from the point of view of two slaves who lived during the difficult era when slave trading at local slave markets was a part of daily life.
The National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, TN.
The museum complex includes the Lorraine Motel where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated as well as the building where James Earl Ray fired the shot. The museum seeks to open a dialogue about a history that spans the dark era of slavery through the modern Civil Rights Movement. A family guide is offered to assist adults in discussing the sensitive topics and events that are addressed within the museum.
In the Owens-Thomas House, one of the great, historic homes in Savannah, a tour of the 1819 property begins in the slave quarters, perhaps the most interesting part of the household, because of the remnants of the “haint” blue wall and ceiling colorings, the largest example of such paint known to exist in the country.
When restorers were peeling away the many decades of construction and reconstruction to get to the base, they discovered the walls and ceiling of the rooms had originally been painted haint blue, a mix of indigo, lime and buttermilk.
This was an important discovery because the slaves, remembering their African history, knew that evil spirits, called hinques, could be kept away by barriers of water. So, they re-created such barriers using haint blue pigment, which the African slaves believed had the same spiritual qualities as basic water.
On St. Simons Island, about a 90 minute drive south of Savannah, try to find the First African Baptist Church, built in1869 by former slaves of the area’s plantations, and to this day attended by the descendants of slaves. One of the distinctive features of the small church are the windows, which are haint blue – the congregation is still trying to keep away the evil spirits
I was told, although I didn’t attend a service to confirm, that the congregation still speaks Gullah, a creole language that preserves African linguistic and cultural references.
Resort, Relaxation and a Midwestern Discovery
I was visiting St. Simons Island, staying at the beautiful and historic King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, expecting a couple of days of purely leisure activity, i.e., doing nothing and eating well.
The resort was located on a quiet stretch of Atlantic beach. During mid-day, when the tide had ebbed, I could look out at the ocean and see sandbars in the shallow waters. In the evening, the sandbars disappeared and so did the beach, as the strong incoming tide arrived with waves crashing at the gates of the property.
Watching the tide was the most activity I wanted to experience – other than eating!
I had heard the resort had brought in a new executive chef, Jason Brumfiel, an American who had honed his craft in England, and was intent on shaking up the menu – mixing the Southern tradition of the hotel kitchen with more international creations. And quite frankly, he had me at my first lunch, a delectable crab-mac-cheese that was much more complicated than the simple name implies.
I thought I was going to be settled in at the King and Prince, eating and lounging away, but the hotel had arranged a trolley tour of the island – and there went my respite. For a place as small as St. Simons Island, only 12 miles long and three miles wide, it had a long and fascinating history from pre-Revolutionary War days right up through the World War II.
Part of it all was the King and Prince itself, which had started out in 1935 as a seaside dance club, but in 1941 with the addition of guest rooms became the King & Prince Hotel. The change came just in time for the onset of the World War II, and the U.S. Navy took over the property for war time training, coast watching and housing British experts in the new but arcane science of radar.
If I didn’t spend all my waking or comatose hours at the King and Prince during my three days there, it’s actually the resort’s fault because it arranged for me to take a tour of the island with a new company, Saint Simons Colonial Trolley Tours that had just bought its first vehicle.
The owners, a Midwesterner and his father-in-law, who was a transplanted local, decided running a trolley service would be a fun thing to do. On my day on the trolley, the Midwesterner, was just gearing up for the summer season, and was uncharacteristically bubbling over with enthusiasm.
There’s a lot to see on this tour – two hours worth of crisscrossing the island, but what caught my interest was post-Civil War emancipation, which continued to affect life and progress on the island.
At one time, 14 plantations (mostly growing cotton) covered the island and there are still slave quarter ruins or in one case, a slave quarter building that has been rehabbed for mercantile purposes, still standing in places on the island. The slaves working the plantations were treated as badly as elsewhere except for some noticeable benevolence. One plantation called Retreat had a slave hospital.
The hospital was conceived by Anna Matilda who married Thomas Butler King, the owner of Retreat Plantation. After the Civil War, the Retreat Plantation withered away, but the property remained in the King family until in 1926, when it was sold to the Sea Island Company. The majestic road to Retreat, lined with old oaks, can still be seen on the grounds of the Seal Island golf course. So, serenely beautiful is the line of oaks, couples often get married in the shade of the trees. I liked it so much I went to the local bicycle rental shop, got myself a cruiser with the big wide handlebars and rode my way back to the oaks so I could get a few pictures.
On St. Simons Island, you might find yourself on Neptune Road or at Neptune Park. The word Neptune had nothing to do with the Roman God, but was the name of a slave owned by the King family of Retreat Plantation. He was Neptune as a slave, but Neptune Small as a Freedman.
The reason he is so remembered on the island was because of his dedication. When the Civil War broke out, he accompanied Captain Lord King into service until the captain’s death at the Battle of Fredericksburg. He found the captain’s body on the battlefield and took it all the way back to Georgia for burial. Then he accompanied Lord King’s younger brother with his service in the war.
As a reward, the King family gave Small some property on their plantation where he built his home. In the following decade, after Small had passed away, a portion of that well-located and now valuable property was sold to the city of St. Simons where it was turned into the park that bears his name.
Now, here’s the part of St. Simons’ history that really caught my attention and made me give up the days when I should have been relaxing at the beach or the pool. First, I had wanted to trace the history of the former slaves, which was why I ended up at the First Baptist Church, but I also wanted to see the properties that were given to the former plantation slaves.
When General William Tecumseh Sherman led the Union army through Georgia on his famous March to the Sea, he issued Special Field Orders No. 15 to provide arable land to the black Freedmen (former slaves). This was sometimes known as the 40-acres-and-a-mule policy and it specifically allocated lands in the islands south of Charleston.
On St. Simons Island, Freedmen were given property and they and their families through the generations continued to live on those lands for more than 100 years. Then came the real estate boom at the start of 2000s and developers washed ashore on St. Simons offering bundles of cash to buy out those now valuable plots of land that had been in African-American families for decades and decades.
The pressure to sell must have been intense because many families put up signs on their front yards, saying, in effect, “stay away, we are not selling out.” They were saved when the real estate market collapsed in the Great Recession.
However, with the country’s economy stabilizing, it appears the developers have returned and I noticed some of those “keep away” signs are back up on front yards.
One odd effect of the real estate boom years is that if you travel through neighborhoods in the central island, you’ll see small, old homes bordering big, new homes. In the end, a kind of neighborhood integration resulted.
IF YOU GO:
Getting There: Like most tourists, I drove to St. Simons Island from Savannah, which can take 90 minutes on the Interstate, or a bit longer if you drive scenic coastal Route 17 and stop in Darien, which also boasts historic sites. www.cityofdarienga.com
Where To Stay: My wife and I stayed at the historic King and Prince Beach & Golf Resort, which sits on a quiet stretch of beach, not far from the little tourist town at St. Simons Pier. A new executive chef, Jason Brumfiel, has really livened up the menu. The property continues to renovate, with a new pool area. www.kingandprince.com
Things To Do: Two recommendations: take the Saint Simons Colonial Island Trolley Tour, which gave a great introduction to the island (www.saintsimonstrolley.com); and to get a little closer to things, rent a bike or kayak at Ocean Motion Surf Co. (www.stsimonkayaking.com).
The American Civil War, a conflict of considerable scale, was fought on home soil. Sixty percent of the battles were fought in Virginia. Communities, parks and museums, primarily in the East and South, will continue to offer living histories, lectures, and tours noting this era in our history.
1. Gettysburg. Gettysburg, VA. Visit what is perhaps the best known of the Civil War battlefields where many believe the outcome of the war was determined. Free Ranger led tours are available for various areas of the park. You and the kids will enjoy driving tours through some of the more significant areas including Little Round Top, Culp’s Hill and Pickett’s Charge. This is the well known scene of Abraham Lincoln’s famous address marking the victory and the creation of a new nation. Contact: 866-889-1243, www.nps.gov/gett; www.gettysburgfoundation.org.
2. American Civil War Center at Historic Tredegar. Richmond, VA. Situated on eight acres on the James River in downtown Richmond, this is the first museum to tell the war story from the African American, Confederate and Union points of view. Through multi-faceted education programs, including their signature exhibit, In The Cause of Liberty, the organization seeks to tell the whole story of the conflict that continues to shape the country. A National Historic Landmark, the Tredegar iron works site was the primary armament producer for the Confederacy. Contact: 804-780-1865; www.tredegar.org.
3. Antietam National Battlefield. Sharpsburg, MD. In what is deemed as the bloodiest one day battle in American history, more than 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing at Antietam. Join a park ranger for a battlefield talk and learn how the twelve hour conflict ended the Confederate Army’s first invasion into the North and resulted in President Lincoln’s first step toward the Emancipation Proclamation. It was here, in the Maryland cornfields, where the First Texas Infantry lost 82 percent of their soldiers, the highest Confederate casualty rate in a single battle. Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge and may enjoy taking part in the driving tour scavenger hunt. Contact: 301- 432-5124; www.nps.gov/anti/
". Kids can earn a Junior Ranger badge. Contact: 703-361-1339; http://www.nps.gov/mana
5. Texas Civil War Museum. Fort Worth TX. Learn about the 90,000 Texans who served in the military in the Battles of Antietam, Gettysburg and beyond. View civilian and military artifacts from the era, including a Confederate flag collection, and Victorian dress. The film “Our Homes, Our Rights”, detailing Texan’s involvement, is shown every half hour. Children under seven are admitted free. Contact: 817-246-2323; Resource: The Texas Historical Commission publishes a brochure noting Civil War sites. It is downloadable at no charge at www.thc.state.tx.us
Resource: www.civilwartraveler.com; www.CivilWar.org; www.CivilWarTrails.org.