Two years ago representatives from Southern state tourism departments gathered at Georgia State University to start work on what would become the nation’s first civil rights trail.
They knew their states were dotted with landmarks that commemorated significant events in the struggle for racial equality. In Arkansas, for example, there is Little Rock Central High School, where nine brave African-American students enrolled in an all-white high school. In Alabama the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site honors black pilots who risked their lives during World War II even as Jim Crow laws denied them rights at home.
While many sites were thriving on their own, some weren’t connected to one another, even ones nearby, said Lee Sentell, Alabama’s state tourism director. “No one had even done an inventory of civil rights landmarks,” he said. “They saw themselves as one-offs and didn’t realize they were part of a network.”
The group, under the umbrella of Travel South USA, decided to do something about it.
Along with research experts at the university, they made a list of 100 sites that seemed most significant. They linked them geographically, creating a map of how to get from one to another. The trail, called the US Civil Rights Trail, will be officially introduced on New Year’s Day (the date is significant: on Jan. 1, 1863, Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation).
The trail’s website will explain each landmark’s importance and feature interviews with heroes of the movement. The site also makes connections for visitors, showing how the events in one place affected those in another. For example Bruce Boynton, a law student who was arrested for refusing to leave a whites-only restaurant in Virginia (a case later heard by the Supreme Court), was the son of the woman, Amelia Boynton, who invited the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. to visit Selma and who helped plan the march from that city to Montgomery, Alabama.
“Hopefully when people hear about the civil rights trail, it will make them aware there are locations near where they are that changed the world,” Sentell said. “I’m just surprised this hadn’t been done earlier.”
In the past few years a loud debate has raged across the country over what to do with Confederate statues. While those arguments are focused on whether to tear down or remove monuments, other government officials, nonprofit groups and entrepreneurs have been more quietly constructing new ways to focus on the history of civil rights. Some efforts, like the US Civil Rights Trail, are intended to bring more attention to existing sites. Others are building structures that better explain what took place in the past.
“These projects are positive spins on the social injustice, monument discussion happening in our country,” said Jeanne Cyriaque, a cultural heritage consultant for the Georgia Department of Economic Development. “They describe a people’s movement that is very much at the forefront today.”
She played a major role in helping the state of Georgia create the Georgia Civil Rights Trail, which will launch in April 2018, in time to commemorate the 50th anniversary — April 4 — of King’s death. This initiative, which will have its own website, printed maps and signage, will take visitors to lesser-known sites like the brick house in Grady County where Jackie Robinson was born. Another stop is the First African Baptist Church in Savannah, one of the oldest operating African-American churches in North America, which has colorful stained glass windows depicting black church leaders like the Rev. George Liele, who organized First African Baptist in 1773.
“People already come to visitor centers and ask about the civil rights sites and where they can find them,” said Kevin Langston, the state’s deputy commissioner for tourism. “We expect some people will come to Atlanta for a meeting or convention, and they will seek out sites in the area. Other people who are intrigued by the civil rights movement might plan a trip to experience the whole thing.”
These projects are not just in the South. In 2016, New York state, in conjunction with the company Black Heritage Tours, began tours to teach visitors the hidden history among African, Native American and Dutch populations during colonization. The tours, which last from one to three days, go from New York City to Albany along the Hudson River. Stops include the easily missed Harriet Tubman Statue in Harlem; African burial grounds; and mansions owned by Dutch settlers who owned slaves. Visitors can see the basements, attics and kitchens where slaves slept.
L. Lloyd Stewart, a consultant for nonprofits and the author of the book “A Far Cry From Freedom,” went on one of the inaugural tours last summer with several other participants. “Americans can be very deficient in the history of their own country,” he said. “We don’t realize that enslavement began in New York state, and this tour gives you an idea about that. It gives you a picture of what life may have been like during that period.”
And there are more than just trails and tours. In Montgomery, the first capital of the Confederacy, the nonprofit group Equal Justice Initiative purchased 6 acres on which it is building a memorial to honor the victims of lynching. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is expected to open in 2018. The renderings are powerful; 800 columns, one for each county where lynching took place, are suspended in the air like a body being hanged. The names of more than 4,000 victims are inscribed on them. (The idea is for each county to bring home a column as an acknowledgment of what occurred.)
The organization also plans to open a museum, the Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration, next year.
In Jackson, the Mississippi Civil Rights Museum is scheduled to celebrate its opening Dec. 9 with food trucks, live music, free museum tours and speeches by civil rights veterans. The museum includes eight galleries that explore the experience of African-Americans in Mississippi from the end of the Civil War until today.
In Nashville, Tennessee, one notable project is more entrepreneurial. Tom Morales, who owns the live-music venue Acme Feed & Seed, leased the historic building that once was the home of a Woolworth store where sit-ins occurred during the ‘60s and civil rights leader John Lewis was arrested. He is turning the 16,000-square-foot space into a live music venue and restaurant called Woolworth on 5th that will pay homage to the civil rights movement. It is expected to open in January.
Morales said the sit-in counter would be fully reconstructed and would look as it did in the ‘60s. The menu will feature African-inspired recipes and Southern comfort food. The music, spanning from 1950 to 1979, will include different genres, including funk music.
The most effective way he can honor the past, he said, is to be inclusive as possible.
“The best thing we can do right now is create a place where anyone can come,” he said. “We are creating a welcome table that doesn’t ignore the past but salutes it and brings it into the future. We are going to serve great food and dance and invoke the strongest emotions of peace and fun.”