Honoring Black history isn’t limited to just one month out of the year. But how many of us have actually taken the time to seek out this crucial knowledge and history of our ancestors outside of the classroom or textbooks?
Over the past 400 years, Black people in America have persevered through bondage, discrimination, persecution and ongoing institutional racism. Even while recognizing our ancestors' past trauma and triumphs, we can use this history as a source of empowerment.
While there are museums across the country that include elements of our rich legacy, there are a number of national centers reflecting this triumphant, Black history and the importance of that day in 1619 that marked the change our ancestors made on the history of this nation.
In honor of the 400 years since the arrival of the first African slaves, we gathered a list of 11 national history centers that preserve and celebrate our history that everyone should check out!
The National Museum of African American History and Culture is the nation’s only museum that solely focuses on the “documentation of African-American life, history and culture.” Since it was established in 2003 by Act of Congress, the museum has acquired more than 36,000 artifacts, including the iconic portraits of former president and first lady Barack and Michelle Obama by artists Kehinde Wiley and Amy Sherald. The museum also has a theater dedicated to beloved American TV host and executive Oprah Winfrey.
Located on the Cincinnati, Ohio River banks which once separated the slave states from the free states, The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center’s exhibits represent freedom in the nation and around the globe. Since its opening in 2004, the center’s showrooms have represented the nation’s cultural heritage.
“Rooted in the stories of the Underground Railroad, we illuminate the true meaning of inclusive freedom by presenting permanent and special exhibits that inspire, public programming that provoke dialogue and action, and educational resources that equip modern abolitionists,” according to the center’s website.
From enslavement to mass incarceration: The Legacy Museum, which opened on April 26, 2018, is located in Montgomery, Alabama. According to their website, The Legacy Museum “employs unique technology to dramatize the enslavement of African Americans, the evolution of racial terror lynchings, legalized racial segregation and racial hierarchy in America.”
The museum explores the correlation between racial inequality and contemporary issues such as mass incarceration and police brutality. Exhibitions include rare, first-person accounts of the domestic slave trade, content on segregation, exhibits on lynching, and much more.
“I would like to see more historical sites in favor of Black people, such as a museum, a shrine or a place of national history,” were the words Carroll Anderson spoke before founding The Black History Museum And Cultural Center Of Virginia in 1981. A decade later, the center opened to the district of Richmond in 1991. The BHMVA celebrates the rich history of Virginia through the eyes of African-Americans who lived there throughout history.
The galleries detail critical stories regarding the Emancipation, Reconstruction, Jim Crow, desegregation, Massive Resistance and civil rights eras. “Fighting for the Right to Fight” is an inspiring exhibit of BHMVA which examines the hope of equality for African-Americans during World War II.
For more information, click here to visit the center’s website.
The largest African-American museum in Maryland, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum opened in 2005 and gives an “authentic voice” to Maryland’s history and culture. With a collection of about 10,000 objects, including digital images from the museum's "It's Online Collection Portal." The museum tells the story of the antebellum South through an array of special exhibitions, permanent collections, a two-story theater, classrooms, meeting rooms, and more.
In honor of 1619, the Reginald F. Lewis Museum tweeted saying, “It was 400 years ago today that the first ship of captive Africans landed on the shores of the New World. More than 20 African men were traded at the Virginia colony of Point Comfort for food. It marked the beginning of a 246 year reign of brutality.”
Located in Philadelphia, the National Constitution Center is a private, non-profit center which celebrates freedom in America. Within the center lies a rare, original copy of the first, public printed Constitution from 1787. The center also holds the 150-year-old Emancipation Proclamation, which was issued by President Abraham Lincoln. Only 25 of the original printed copies Lincoln signed remain; one of which the National Constitution Center has on display for a limited time only.
“As the Museum of We the People, the Center brings the Constitution to life for visitors of all ages through interactive programs and exhibits. As America’s Town Hall, the Center brings the leading conservative and liberal thought leaders together to debate the Constitution on all media platforms. As a Headquarters for Civic Education, the Center delivers the best educational programs and online resources that inspire citizens and engage all Americans in learning about the U.S. Constitution,” the Center’s website states.
The Afro-American Historical And Genealogical Society (AAHGS) was created to preserve African-ancestored history, from family trees to cultural diversity, giving the public a sneak peek into a history that would have otherwise been lost.
“Our primary goals are to promote scholarly research, provide resources for historical and genealogical studies, create a network of persons with similar interests, and assist members in documenting their histories,” according to the AAHGS mission statement.
The society has collaborated with various organizations including HBCUs, libraries and historical societies in order to commemorate the history of 1619. On the AAHGS website, they offer resources and tools to advance communities knowledge of African-American history.
In addition, AAHGS has created a 400th commemoration preamble which states: “As part of this historic moment, we wish to not only recognize the contributions of all Americans of African descent, but it is historically significant to acknowledge that the '20 and Odd' Africans were the first recorded group of Africans to be sold as involuntary laborers or indentured servants in the English colonies. And, our charge is to highlight the resilience and contributions of Americans of African descent, as well as acknowledging the painful impact that slavery and other atrocities have had on our nation.”
Solely committed to recreating the dramatic life of African-American history in wax, The National Great Blacks In Wax Museum presents life-size, life-like wax figures as they paint a figure of African ancestry.
Standing as the first wax museum in Baltimore, the center was established in 1983 with several objectives: "to stimulate an interest in African American history by revealing the little-known, often-neglected facts of history; use great leaders as role models to motivate youth to achieve; to improve race relations by dispelling myths of racial inferiority and superiority; to support and work in conjunction with other nonprofit, charitable organizations seeking to improve the social and economic status of African Americans."
Designed as more of a department storefront, the Enoch Pratt Free Library, created in 1886, is a ground level entrance to American history.
“Our mission is access -- providing access to opportunities, services, and information for all people. We are also the state library of Maryland -- we serve a unique dual role,” the marketing and communications director Meghan McCorkell told BET.
Recently, the center decided to collaborate with their African-American department on an exhibit on the history of the 1619 Project.
“There all these panels in the display cases which explain why this year [anniversary] means so much. Starting from the beginning, we have [a] map of the trans-Atlantic Slave Trade so visitors can see how people were brought over,” McCorkell explained.
An interesting, all-encompassing experience which is open to the public during all operating hours, this centers delves deep into Black history and is definitely worth a visit.
Founded in 1977, the California African American Museum is the first state-supported African-American museum of art, history and culture in the country. According to their website, the museum “was the direct result of a sustained, multiyear campaign of activism undertaken by visionary founders and community members. Its creation was an early and tangible recognition by the State of California of the critically important role African Americans have played in the American West’s cultural, economic, and political development.”
CAAM’s permanent collection has about 4,000 objects, which include landscape paintings, modern and contemporary art such as “Adia Millett: Breaking Patterns,” historical objects and print materials like “The Liberator: Chronicling Black Los Angeles, 1900–1914,” as well as mixed-media artworks.
The Old Slave Mart Museum is quite historic for many reasons. It was built in 1859 and has been operating since 1938 in Charleston, South Carolina. It is recognized as the last surviving slave auction gallery in the South. The Old Slave Mart Museum is frequently staffed by people who can trace their history to those enslaved in Charleston.
Charleston was a major port of entry for African Americans, with about 40% of enslaved Africans entering the United States at Sullivan's Island, which is at the entrance to Charleston Harbor.
In 1975, the Old Slave Mart was added to the National Register of Historic Places for its role in Charleston’s African-American history.
(Photo: Evelyn Hockstein/The Washington Post/Getty Images)