During a film that simulates an escape from Southern slavery at Cincinnati’s National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, the heart-in-your-mouth fear feels tangible.
The poignant museum sits less than a block from a scenic suspension bridge that links Kentucky and Ohio. Crossing the Ohio River was once the last mammoth push to freedom, until the 1850 Fugitive Slave Act moved the safety line to Canada, and the slavery debate eventually exploded into the Civil War.
Emotional exhibits include the chance to walk through the crude, eerie quarters of a former slave pen, while speakers, films and rotating displays link historic slavery to modern times. “Motel X,” on view through April 5, looks at current human trafficking, and how Cincinnati sits along the busy Interstate 75 corridor, where victims are moved across the country (freedomcenter.org).
Museums across the Midwest are devoted year-round to black history, sharing stories of influential leaders, musicians, athletes, soldiers, scientists and activists whose influence rippled across the nation. Here are some more of the best.
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 possesses a rich black heritage. Check out “And Still We Rise,” an anchor of the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Midtown Detroit. The museum boasts more than 35,000 artifacts, including Underground Railroad and Harriet Tubman collections (thewright.org).
For a lighter nostalgia trip, take a guided tour through the modest home-turned-recording-studio where Barry Gordy started Motown Records. It took promising musicians and groomed them for stardom, paving the way for legends such as Aretha Franklin, Michael Jackson and Diana Ross (motownmuseum.com).
On Chicago’s South Side, the DuSable Museum of African American History opened in 1961 as the country’s first museum solely devoted to African-American history. Exhibits pull together art, culture brought from African countries and historic milestones and leaders in America (dusablemuseum.org).
Pullman National Monument (or the Pullman Historic District) preserves the country’s first planned industrial community, which built passenger cars for trains. African-Americans also served as railroad porters, who together with factory workers made history in fighting against falling wages (nps.gov/pull).
The South Side also is the expected future location of the Barack Obama Presidential Library.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center houses 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 postwar civil rights (ohiohistory.org).
In the heart of Kansas City’s 18th & Vine district, the courage, talent and innovation of African-American athletes and musicians come together in two tightly focused attractions: the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum and the American Jazz Museum. Together in the city’s historic black district — once home to 40 jazz clubs — they illustrate the post-slavery 1800s and early 1900s through the lens of daytime baseball games and late-night jazz clubs.
In the 1870s, an estimated 40,000 African-Americans moved north to Kansas City. Most were restricted to this tight district where a favorite weekend pastime was baseball, drawing crowds dressed in their Sunday best. By 1920, players went professional to form the various Negro Leagues. It wasn’t until 1947 that Jackie Robinson became the first black player recruited into Major League Baseball, playing for the Brooklyn Dodgers. Despite the scrutiny, pressure and segregation from white teammates when traveling, he earned rookie of the year and was the league’s most valuable player by 1949 (nlbm.com).
KC’s jazz clubs nurtured and showcased the talents and star power of Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Charlie Parker and others. With a wealth of listening stations, the jazz museum shows how these artists honed a fast-paced, improvisational genre that was started in New Orleans and influenced by West African drumming, but grew up in Kansas City. Visitors, including kids accompanied by adults, can catch evening jam sessions at the museum’s Blue Room, a working jazz club (americanjazzmuseum.org).
While much of Gateway Arch National Park explores the westward migration of settlers, the site also includes the historic Old Courthouse, part of the National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom linking hundreds of sites that commemorate resistance to slavery. Dred Scott and his wife, Harriet, slaves who lived with their owner at Minnesota’s Fort Snelling in the 1830s, sued for their freedom in 1847 at the Old Courthouse. The Supreme Court ultimately ruled the Scotts were property and therefore had no right to sue. Considered one of America’s most pivotal course cases, it stoked the national debate that led to the Civil War (nps.gov/jeff).
Before jazz, Scott Joplin fused European and African rhythms to create ragtime. At the Scott Joplin House State Historic Site, his most successful tunes, such as “The Entertainer,” can be heard on the player piano. Gaslit and authentic in decor, the home and nearby buildings re-create 1902, when he was on the path to fame (mostateparks.com).
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 (nps.gov/gwca).
Visitors can roam through the former classrooms of a black elementary school, where multimedia 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 (nps.gov/brvb).
St. Cloud-based Lisa Meyers McClintick has written about travel destinations across the Midwest for the Star Tribune and other publications since 2001.