Downtime

How a Wave of Honest History Museums Is Changing Black Tourism

A black man sits on a bench and looks into a fountain in the National Museum of African American History and Culture.
Visitor Dwayne Wilson sits in the Contemplative Court at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington on Sept. 7.
Evelyn Hockstein/For the Washington Post via Getty Images

On a walking tour of the New Orleans Garden District, my husband and I exchanged meaningful glances after the fourth or fifth time our guide delicately referred to the slaves who once worked in those elegant old homes as “servants.” To our ears, the reference was absurdly, offensively inapt, as if those enslaved people had been voluntary, paid employees. When we lingered after the tour to ask our guide why he chose that word, we were disappointed—but not surprised—by his explanation that he shied away from the word slave for fear of offending tour group members.

Through years of tours of historic colonial sites, antebellum-era plantation houses, and more, we’ve been that black couple in the background raising our eyebrows and keeping a running commentary of sotto voce corrective facts and cynical asides. Of course, that’s when we have the mental energy to visit these kinds of attractions in the first place. More often, we’re just not up for the whitewashing and the unchallenged Founding Fathers boosterism that pervades so many American history sites.

Navigating those historical spaces is inevitably exhausting for black tourists like us. Sometimes we’re worn out simply from deciding whether to “Well, actually” a plantation tour guide who claims that master and Miss Anne treated their “servants” like family. For others, it might mean buying extra books and doing background research before a trip to help a young child understand historical figures who were less heroic than the reverent museum renderings would have us believe. As black travelers in the U.S., we’re certainly used to all of this—but that doesn’t make it any less tiresome.

Still, black travel is big business, contributing more than $48 billion annually to the national economy, according to a 2011 study by Mandala Research. A significant part of that is heritage tourism, which the National Trust for Historic Preservation defines as “traveling to experience the places, artifacts, and activities that authentically represent the stories and people of the past and present.” “Authentically” is where most of these sites probably fall short for black tourists.

While 30 percent of black leisure travelers consider learning about history and local culture to be an important part of vacation, black travelers are less likely than others to spend their time visiting museums and historical sites. That shouldn’t be surprising. After all, black travelers have the same vacation goals as anyone else: relax, recharge, hopefully learn a bit along the way. But there’s a feeling of tension inherent in walking through a space knowing there’s something you aren’t being told, and working out whether and how to respond. For so long, that tension is exactly what the typical history museum has offered black visitors by peddling incomplete representations of American history. Who needs that kind of extra baggage on vacation?

Thankfully, the opening of the Legacy Museum and the associated National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama, represents a growing wave of historical attractions aiming to look squarely at American history. A memorial and museum “dedicated to the legacy of enslaved black people, people terrorized by lynching, African Americans humiliated by racial segregation and Jim Crow, and people of color burdened with contemporary presumptions of guilt and police violence” may not be relaxing in the traditional sense—but it is refreshingly honest. The Legacy Museum and attractions like it are transforming the experience of historical tourism for black people.

For us, it was a surprisingly candid walking tour of Charleston, South Carolina, that suggested something has changed. During the leisurely stroll through the city, our tour guide matter-of-factly told the group not just about the aesthetically and morally pleasing parts of the city’s history—like the bright, multicolored old homes of Rainbow Row—but also about the less savory truths inherent to Charleston’s role as the primary U.S. port of entry for enslaved Africans. Our guide even took us past the Old Slave Mart museum, opened in 2007, which was once the site of slave auctions. That tour was among the most enjoyable and educational we’ve taken, because our guide’s frankness eliminated the need for us to take on the task of wondering and questioning as we had in New Orleans. Instead, we had the mental space to simply listen and learn.

Places like the Old Slave Mart museum cut through the cognitive dissonance by honestly confronting this country’s history of white supremacy and its attendant atrocities. In a similar vein, 2014 saw the opening of the Whitney Plantation in Louisiana, which bills itself as “the only plantation museum in Louisiana with a focus on slavery.” Far from the typical plantation-museum, which is usually nothing more than a chance to ooh and ahh over the fancy big house and pretty gardens, the Whitney Plantation doesn’t let visitors ignore the moral rot behind the beauty. In Washington, tourists weary from the white stone memorials to dead white men can head across the river to Alexandria, Virginia, where Manumission Tours—founded in 2016—offers 90-minute walks through Old Town, exploring the story of urban slavery.

Lest we forget the American North’s complicity in some of the country’s worst history, change has come to Philadelphia, too: There, just steps away from the Liberty Bell, sits the President’s House pavilion. Completed in 2010, the site is a partial reconstruction of George Washington’s presidential mansion that fully centers the stories of the black people he enslaved.

This reckoning isn’t confined to newly opened museums—some of the old places we all visited as kids have evolved to better reflect historical reality. At Monticello, Thomas Jefferson’s estate, an exhibit opened in 2012 that acknowledges the paradox of a self-proclaimed liberty enthusiast owning 600 people and gives visitors a window into their lives. And during a 2016 visit to Colonial Williamsburg, I stumbled upon a new stage show, Journey to Redemption, which told the brutal tale of one slave’s abortive escape attempt. To the extent it’s possible to be pleased by a slavery story, I really was. The truth has a way of changing the entire tenor of a place.

I suspect I’m not alone in feeling this way. There is a palpable hunger for museums that more authentically represent the history of the American black experience. Indeed, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in D.C. is among the hottest tickets in the capital. NMAAHC has hosted more than 3.5 million visitors since its 2016 opening, and the monthly (free) ticket allotment often sells out in just a few hours.

To be sure, the history grappled with by all these new and updated museums and historical sites can be complicated and painful—not necessarily what you’d consider tourist-friendly content. But for black tourists and visitors, these places are valuable not only because they’re honest but also because they open up space for us to just be. No extra legwork, no correcting the historical record, no deciding whether to visit a museum based on how much we can tolerate being lied to on that particular day of our trip. As I look toward planning my next trip, it’s heartening to know that I can choose from more than a few places where honesty has found a foothold and visitors like me are no longer tasked with sifting out historical truths from expedient fictions.