Historical Road Trip Destinations for Understanding Race in America
Race is a difficult topic to explore for most Americans and for far too many people, the word is a trigger that raises barriers that put people in a defensive position where they pretend things didn't happen. As someone who travels constantly, I've learned that this isn't just an American reaction - it is a human one. As I travel I must be open to my views challenged as I experience new things. By talking with different people I've been blessed to see, hear, touch, and taste a lot of different perspectives. Combined with my love of history, experiences like this have given me better context to understand complex issues. Even more so though, it has given me the understanding that most things have many sides. I encourage each and every one of you to make an effort to open your minds, visit sites like these and simply take the time to listen, learn, and explore history when you do.
Unfortunately, many of these sites have been shunned as simply "Black History" or just for "Those People". In reality, people of all races played a significant role in the causes and outcomes represented. This isn't a time to cast blame or point fingers. Instead, it is a time to learn, heal, and grow closer as Americans - not just white people or black people or brown people. The reality is that we are all Americans. Right or wrong, we all share the history and pretending that things didn't happen is the wrong response. In my youth, I was very conservative - not in the current sense racially, but simply that I believed what I wanted to believe and was resistant to change. For many of us, this "change" can be frightening and even a bit scary. It's "those people" that are attacking us and telling us that we are to blame for the actions of others that came before us. Let's challenge that notion! Instead of fighting and perpetuating hate of "the other side", I invite you to explore these sites and open your mind. This is the only way that we will ever overcome the darkness that currently surrounds us and break down the barriers that divide us.
While visiting these sites, take a moment to reflect, and maybe even ask a fellow visitor what their thoughts are; have an open discussion. This can be awkward initially but they are probably as nervous about reaching out as you are. Together, we can build a better history for all of us!
Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain Georgia
For me personally, the Confederate Memorial Carving at Stone Mountain Park in Georgia, just east of Atlanta is one of the most shocking sites. It has transformed my understanding of today's controversy over eliminating Confederate monuments since it is a perfect example of a trend that ran from the 1910's through 1960's of southern defiance.
From a purely historical perspective, I appreciate the contributions that Confederate soldiers and generals did in defense of their homeland. This is especially important for the people of Georgia who suffered unspeakable terror and from Union troops wanted to utterly humiliate them. Frankly speaking, the acts that General Sherman did against the people of Georgia would be nothing less than war crimes today. That said, the Confederacy lost, institutionalized racism is unacceptable, and slavery of any kind is a terrible institution that should not be celebrated today. Nor should we celebrate the men who fought for it's right to continue. However, what many people don't understand is that the Confederate Memorial at Stone Mountain isn't simply an awesome work of art. Instead, it was intended to commemorate and celebrate Confederate heroes on the site of the founding of the second Ku Klux Klan (1915)!
It was conceptualized in 1912 on land owned by the Venable Brothers who were ultimately responsible for the resurgence of the Klan. Even are recent as last week, Klan members requested permits to burn a crucifixx here and celebrate its significance to their organization. As you look at other symbols across the United States including road signs, statues, flags, and monuments a pattern emerges of defiance and intimidation. Along with the phrase, "The South Will Rise Again!" we can no longer accept this behavior.
What is unfortunate is that the Stone Mountain carving is a stunning work of art and millions of people have enjoyed it's beauty without even considering the impact. The carving today features three Confederate figures - Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis riding their horses and is recessed 42 feet into the mountain, while towering 400 feet above the ground. It is actually larger than the carvings on Mount Rushmore and that is an incredibly impressive achievement.
The people of Georgia have an opportunity to save this monument by embracing the future and changing the direction of the conversation. However, you can do it yourself too. Take a step forward into the future by visiting it or other Confederate war memorials and share the true history with family and friends. Use places like this as an opportunity for a new generation to consider how to memorialize historic events and learn from the mistakes of our past.
Panning For Gold In Georgia
Normally, we think of the gold rush and panning for gold as a thing that happened "out west". Certainly, the California gold rush was a major transformative event for the United States that would also make for an interesting opportunity to discuss the role of immigrants, minorities, and race in America. However, before folks headed west, there was a major gold rush in Georgia too. Like all of westward expansion, this movement resulted in mass displacement of indigenous people. However, unlike later interactions between settlers seeking riches to be found in the goldfields, here in Georgia the United States Federal Government systematically relocated approximately 60,000 indigenous people between 1830-1850 and moved them to lands west of the Mississippi River.
To make this movement even more interesting from a racial perspective is that this relocation of people included not only the Native Americans but also their black slaves, which they were allowed to keep.
There isn't just one site to visit here but instead, you can visit one of several rivers in Georgia including Etowah River, Little River, Chattahoochee River, Tallapoosa River, Chestatee River, Tesnatee River, and Nacochee River and try your hand at panning for gold. While there isn't a significant amount of gold to be found in the rivers here in Georgia, determined and lucky folks will certainly be able to find some flakes to take home. While you are planning, make sure to use this opportunity to think about the impact of forced relocation in the name of greed that led to the Georgia Gold Rush and the Trail of Tears.
National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis
The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel is a critical destination for anyone looking to better understand our shared history. For many, the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. here on April 4, 1968, was a catalyzing moment in the struggle for equal rights for African Americans. However, to simply look at it as a "black and white" issue is to diminish the importance and erode an opportunity for learning. Even the museum itself faced challenges since it opened in 1991 and has evolved since that time to include not just the history surround the events that happened there, but also the broader history of civil rights in America. Visitors today will be able to view historic artifacts from the assassination including the rifle and fatal bullet as well as a replica sanitation truck and of course, Room 306 where King stayed. Additionally, the museum now contains a replica of the Supreme Court room where Brown v Board of Education arguments were held. Other exhibits trace the history of African Americans in the United States as well as the global impact of slavery and how the American experience is connected to other people around the world.
The King Center in Atlanta
The King Center in Atlanta, Georgia is also a great opportunity to explore the impact of the civil rights movement of the 1960s. The centerpiece is the Birth Home of Martin Luther King Jr. but the park also includes several other buildings and monuments including his crypt, the Eternal Flame, Ebenezer Baptist Church, and Freedom Walkway. Unlike some monuments where they simply commemorate events of the past, The King Center is a living organization working to continue the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. by being a Center for Nonviolent Social Change. This last part is key to remember as tempers flare easily when the subject of racial issues is discussed. However, while he himself was a victim of violence - that act and the strong people who surrounded him have allowed his legacy to survive!
In addition to the physical destination, visitors can also explore The King Center archives which are in the process of being digitized and shared online.
Elaine Race Riots
Compared to other sites, the Elaine Race Riot of 1919 (aka the Elaine Race Massacre) is relatively forgotten. However, it is extremely important to understanding the history of race relations in the United States and its economic roots. The conflict began in September 30 of 1919 when approximately 100 African American sharecroppers attended a meeting of the Progressive Farmers and Household Union to discuss the possibility of unionizing. Leading up to this time, the sharecroppers were being abused by the landowners and not able to get fair prices for goods sold or items purchased through loans. While these sharecroppers were no longer "slaves" the institutionalized debt created a sense of economic slavery.
Afraid of the possibility that they might gain power through the organization, as well as the overall fear of foreign influences such as Bolshevism (Russian influence following the Russian revolution of 1917), white landowners spied on the meeting. While it is unclear what exactly happened, shots were fired - killing a white security officer and wounding a white deputy sheriff. The next day, an armed mob of 500-1,000 armed white people, joined by 500 troops descended on Elaine Arkansas to "put down the rebellion". In the days that followed, hundreds of African American farmers were slaughtered indiscriminately throughout the town and surrounding farmlands.
Today, the town still has not come to accept it's history and there are few markers or memorials. Despite this, it is a hauntingly beautiful place to visit since the abandoned buildings are adorned with hundreds of birdhouses. By official count, there are more than 600 birdhouses on display here and it is called the "Birdhouse Capital of Arkansas" - though the official tourism information says little of the town's history. However, the lady who started the movement to decorate with Birdhouses - Pat Kienzle - wants to brighten the town while drawing attention to it's past so that people can have hope for the future. As you walk through the decayed buildings of this once thriving town, the chirping of birds almost gives you the feeling that the voices of the dead have returned to offer visitors a chance to learn about the horrors that happened there less than a century ago.
National Voting Rights Museum and Institution
Selma Alabama was another major center of the struggle for equality and civil rights in America. Visiting The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute is an opportunity to reflect on the importance of government-protected equality for all people. Without this protection, people lack the opportunity to have their voices heard and that leads to frustration, anger, and ultimately violent revolt. These actions not only cause collateral damage but are seldom effective and often have negative consequences for all involved. Visitors to the museum will be able to explore the history of events such as "Bloody Sunday" and other 1972 marches from Selma to Montgomery.
Caesar Chavez National Monument
Caesar Chavez led farmworkers and other supporters to form the first permanent agricultural union in the United States. While he is celebrated as being a "Latino civil rights leader", his efforts have created a better future for farmworkers across the United States of all races by securing higher wages and safer working conditions. Ultimately, the United Farm Workers of America would grow to become a national voice for poor and disenfranchised farm workers of many ethnic backgrounds in the 1970s and continuing today. The Caesar Chavez National Monument is located in the California central valley town of Kenne, approximately 2 hours north of Los Angeles.
Manzanar Japanese Internment Camp / Relocation Center
During World War II, many Americans feared Japanese families located along the west coast of the United States would turn and join with Japanese forces looking to invade the United States. Despite the fact that many had been born in the United States and or lived here most of their lives, 110,000 people were rounded up in 1942 and sent to camps across the United States. They were forced to give up their homes, businesses, neighbors, jobs, and property. While these internment camps were a far cry from the concentration camps run by the Nazi regime, it is still important to understand the motivations behind this travesty and the immediate results as well as long term results including fear, hatred, and mistrust that it caused not just for Japanese - but for all immigrants. This is especially true since there was no similar effort to roundup German and Italian immigrants despite their homelands being enemies of the United States.
Today, there are a few different sites where you can visit the grounds of Japanese Internment Camps across the United States. Most though have been erased and in some, all you will find is a historic marker. At Manzanar Relocation Center in California though, they still have the remains of a Japanese garden and the Block 14 Barracks. Manzanar is located on the Eastern side of the California Sierra Mountains just outside of Sequoia National Park.
Jerome and Rohwer Japanese Internment Camp
California wasn't the only state where Japanese citizens were rounded up. Another site exists in Arkansas and was one of the last to close in November of 1945 three months after WWII ended in the Pacific Theater (September 2, 1945). Today, the World War II Japanese American Internment Museum can be found here with exhibits designed to help people better understand what happened here with the hopes that it never happens again. Unlike at Manzanar no buildings remain here, but the Rohwer Japanese American Relocation Center museum is located in the McGehee Railroad Depot that once served as the site where more than 17,000 Japanese Americans would start their new lives in Southeastern Arkansas.
Museum of the Cherokee Indian
Like the Japanese during World War II, Native Americans suffered forced relocation as well as organized slaughter and often outright genocide at the hands of American pioneers. Those who weren't slaughtered were ultimately relocated and forced into reservations - often land of little value. The tale of Cherokee Indians and the Trail of Tears is among the more heinous examples of not just the disregard for their rights but also the failure of law to protect racial minorities in our country. Starting in 1830 and continuing through 1838, following the Georgia Gold Rush of 1928, President Andrew Jackson ignored the Supreme Court decision and forced their relocation. During this time, more than 16,000 Cherokee (as well as Chickasaw, Choctaw, Creek, Seminole, mixed-race, and black freedmen who lived among them) were forced off their land, incarcerated in stockades and forced to walk more than a thousand miles from Georgia and South Carolina into what is now Oklahoma. During this process, more than 4,000 died and are buried in unmarked graves along the route. The Museum of the Cherokee Indian, along with other monuments along the Trail of Tears National Historic Trail provides an opportunity to better understand these events.
Military History Sites of Racial Significance
Originally, I had intended to separate these each into their own section but the deeper I looked, the more I realized how much military and race has mixed over the years. In many ways, serving in the military is an opportunity for people to show ones patriotism and allegiance since in this country those serving are typically volunteers. That doesn't mean there are no abuses here, but the following are some military history sites that will spark new ways of thinking about race in America.
Fort Curtis and Battle of Helena: Across the Confederacy, more than 180,000 African American men joined the Union army's war effort and that includes an estimated 40,000 who lost their lives in the fight. One of the more striking sites where you can learn about this often ignored aspect of the war is Helena, Arkansas where black soldiers participated in all aspects of the city's defense , including manning batteries and fortifications from 1864 till the end of the war. Additionally, during this time thousands of recently freed slaves supported other aspects including construction. Today, there is a reproduction of Fort Curtis that you can explore as well as Freedom Park that tells more about the story of these brave men who helped ensure their emancipation by joining the Union Army's war against the Confederacy.
Mormon Battalion (multiple sites): While most Mormons were of European descent, their experience in American history parallels other exploited groups. As a religious sect in the Eastern United States, Mormons were discriminated against and forced out of their lands while being pushed westward. Despite these many grievances and abuses from the federal government, the Mormon settlers ultimately desired integration and to be part of the United States. When the opportunity to serve became available a group of 500 men was assembled to support the war effort against Mexico. The Mormon Battalion set off from Concil Bluffs, Iowa on July 20, 1846 and marched all the way to San Diego and eventually Los Angeles, a distance of 1,850 miles. Numerous markers exist along the route but there are great opportunities to learn about this history at both the San Diego Mormon Battalion Historic Site and the This Is The Place Heritage Park in Salt Lake City, Utah.
Tuskeegee Airmen National Historic Site: There are multiple museums and sites celebrating the Tuskegee Airmen but the National Historic Site in Alabama is a great place to start. Here you will be able to see some of the planes that these African American Airmen flew, restored hangers, and exhibits talking about the challenges that they overcame as well as the direct and lasting impact they had on civil rights in America.
Other Historical Road Trip Destinations to Help Understand Race in America
There are dozens of other destinations around the country that you can visit to get a better understanding of the history and impact of race in America. These range from small museums and memorials on "Historically Black Colleges" to artifacts in museums such as the "Rosa Parks Bus" that can be found at the Henry Ford Museum in Michigan outside of Detroit.
No matter which of these sites that you visit, it is critical to go with an open mind so that you can learn from the past and protect and embrace American values in the future. Sometimes people go crazy and make mistakes but it isn't good enough to simply say, "that won't happen again".
- Written by James Hills
- Page Views: 4417