Commemorate Black History Month in 5 Unexpected Places
National park rangers and staff are some of the nation’s best storytellers, charged with protecting the most momentous places in America’s history. Our park system preserves the legacy of visionaries like Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, and Booker T. Washington, as well as landmark sites in the struggle for equality like the Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Sites—not to mention the dozens of Civil War sites where soldiers fought and died to preserve the Union and end slavery.
Any of these parks, homesteads, and battlefields would inspire an insightful and memorable trip, yet many other lesser-known parks share compelling and unexpected stories in African-American history. Here are five fascinating but less obvious places to commemorate Black History Month this month.
1. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana. An entire park site devoted to jazz, right in the heart of the French Quarter, where even the park rangers serenade you? It’s a dream come true for music lovers who want to learn more about this distinctly American art form fused from the roots of the blues, swing, ragtime, and gospel traditions. Though relatively few national park sites are devoted to the arts, visitors to New Orleans can learn about pivotal figures like Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and enjoy live performances and ranger-led educational programs five days a week. The park’s four main sites include a jazz museum and a performing arts center at the Old U.S. Mint building, a National Historic Landmark in the French Quarter.
2. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas. The era of American pioneers conjures images of white families in horse-drawn carts making long journeys across the Midwest. However, in 1877, seven men from Kentucky—most of them formerly enslaved—set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains, inspiring many African-American families to travel west. Many of these pioneers viewed Kansas as a “promised land” and a way to escape the discrimination, Reconstruction Era racial violence, and poor living conditions of the South following the Civil War. Conditions were difficult, however, and many of the early settlers quickly left; others lived in sod houses or holes in the ground and suffered without enough food until a second wave of settlers brought horses, plows, and other resources several years later. In its heyday, roughly 600 people lived in Nicodemus, though the population declined in the 1900s and only about 60 people live there today. The site is the last African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River, and the walking tour through town traces different aspects of pioneer life in the late 1800s. The park also offers an excellent library with helpful resources for tracing area ancestry, and hosts homecoming events for descendants of residents.
3. Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas. The African-American U.S. Army regiments known as Buffalo Soldiers performed a range of challenging duties while guarding the frontier in the 1800s and early 1900s, including serving as some of the earliest national park rangers. Visitors can learn about the remarkable history of these men at several national park sites, including Yosemite, Sequoia, and Kings Canyon in California, as well as the new national monument honoring one of the most prominent Buffalo Soldiers, Colonel Charles Young, at his homestead in Xenia, Ohio. However, Fort Davis, a lesser-known west Texas fort, is the only site where all four Buffalo Soldier regiments were stationed. It is also one of the best-preserved frontier posts and an ideal place to step back in time, explore the modest barracks, look out over the vast southwestern brush, and get a sense of what life was like for these men 150 years ago.
4. Biscayne National Park, Florida. This landmark marine park is preserved today thanks in large part to the Jones family of Porgy Key. The family initially purchased Porgy Key for $300 in 1897, where they lived and grew vegetables and fruits to support themselves, including a flourishing business in limes and pineapples. The last surviving member of the Jones family, Sir Lancelot, spent his whole life on the island and eventually became known as the “Sage of Porgy Key,” sharing his naturalist wisdom with visitors and schoolchildren, particularly his love of sea sponges. In the 1960s, developers eyed the pristine islands with plans to build high-rise apartments and shopping centers. Sir Lancelot not only refused to sell his family’s land, he helped form a counter-movement against the development—and the plans were eventually defeated. Sir Lancelot later sold his island paradise to the National Park Service where it is now preserved in a similar condition to how the Jones family experienced it.
5. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, California. The worst homeland disaster of World War II happened on a dock not far from San Francisco. Thousands of African-American sailors served at Port Chicago in segregated units during the war with limited job roles; one of these roles was loading weapons and ammunition into ships. The work was extremely tedious and dangerous, and the sailors received little training. One July evening in 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds of others. Two weeks later, when sailors were ordered to return to the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court martialed and found guilty of mutiny. This terrible tragedy ultimately led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces, inspiring many people to become part of the Civil Rights movement. To date, the U.S. Navy has refused to overturn the court martial of the 50 soldiers, though a reversal is still being pursued in court. (Note: The memorial is on an active military base and reservations are required at least two weeks in advance to visit.)
-Jennifer Errick, Editor, Online Communications