Stories of African American history and culture are told powerfully and authentically at many black history museums. Some focus on the brutal history of slavery and its legacy of racial violence. Many commemorate the efforts of human rights champions. Most celebrate the resilience, achievements, creative contributions, scholarship, and traditions of African American individuals and communities.
If you can’t travel or visit any of these museums and attractions at the moment, you can also explore your African American heritage right from home! You can read about and plan for future trips to the following top African American history museums.
African American Stories at Black History Museums
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.
The National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is a Smithsonian museum where visitors can explore in black heritage. History-themed galleries illuminate issues of slavery and freedom, the era of segregation, and change since 1968. Rotating exhibits, a theater, a research library and archives, an interactive gallery space, a media arts center, and a family history center round out the experience.
In addition, museum staff members share Collection Stories online about their favorite NMAAHC collections. A digital resource guide, video-recorded curator chats, and the museum’s YouTube channel are also within reach of virtual visitors.
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio
The National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center opened more than 30 years ago as one of the first national museums of its kind. Located near two historically black universities—Wilberforce University and Central State University—the museum houses thousands of artifacts, artwork, and a rich archive and hosts an impressive number of special programs and changing exhibits.Virtual visitors can enjoy hundreds of digitized artifacts, such as military unit photographs, football game programs, news clippings, letters, and more.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center sits near the banks of the Ohio River, which was crossed by refugees from slavery on their flight to freedom. Films, storytelling, and hands-on activities and exhibits recount the everyday experience of slavery and the heroic and harrowing efforts of those who attempted to free themselves—and those who helped them. One unforgettable artifact is an early building used as a holding pen for enslaved people.
Online learning experiences on the center’s website extend the center’s reach to virtual audiences. Learn the stories of an enslaved woman, view the pen used to imprison enslaved people, read about African Americans in World War I and World II, and see resources for combating the legacies of slavery today.
Whitney Plantation, Edgard, Louisiana
Before emancipation, the Whitney Plantation was a forced-labor sugar, rice, and indigo farm. Today, it is a museum. Tours lead visitors through original cabins in which enslaved people lived, as well as the outbuildings and enslaver’s home where they labored. Memorials honor the lives of those held in bondage in the state, representing over 100,000 enslaved residents of Louisiana.
A visitor’s center at Whitney Plantation hosts a “Slavery in Louisiana” exhibit as well as temporary, rotating exhibits. Learn more virtually via a series of articles on the Whitney Plantation’s website.
National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel, Memphis, Tennessee
The National Civil Rights Museum shares the culture and lessons of the civil rights movement and explores its effects globally. The museum is located at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Visitors learn via films, oral histories, interactive media, and special events about the ongoing battle for civil rights.
Can’t visit in person? Take a virtual tour of the museum’s current and past exhibits.
The DuSable, Chicago, Illinois
The DuSable Museum of African American History, in existence since 1961, preserves and shares the achievements and culture of people of African descent through exhibits, workshops, and lectures. This Smithsonian-affiliate institution houses over 15,000 artifacts, artworks, and memorabilia. While national in scope, the museum also emphasizes stories local to the Chicago area. Virtual events reach those who can’t visit in person.
Black History Museums, Tuskegee, Alabama
The city of Tuskegee, Alabama, is home to several notable African American historical attractions:
- Tuskegee University, a leading historically black college, is the only college campus designated by the National Park Service as a national historic site. Take a historic campus tour, or visit the university archives.
- The National Park Service hosts the George Washington Carver Museum and the home of Booker T. Washington, the Oaks. The Carver Museum offers films about Carver and Washington, as well as exhibits about Carver’s career and the growth of the Tuskegee Institute. Guided tours are available of the Oaks.
- The Tuskegee Airmen Museum honors the stories of men and women, mostly of African descent, who served in and supported the military despite segregation and racial injustice.
- The Legacy Museum commemorates African Americans who were exploited in early public health experiments: Henrietta Lacks and men whose illnesses were deliberately left untreated.
Legacy Museum and National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama
The Equal Justice Initiative operates two companion destinations for learning the history of racial injustice and violence in the United States.
- The Legacy Museum sits atop a former warehouse where enslaved people were imprisoned. Visitors learn about the slave trade, the Jim Crow South, racial terrorism, and mass incarceration through video, interactive media, and other exhibits.
- The National Memorial for Peace and Justice is a six-acre site on a quiet hilltop that memorializes over 4,400 African Americans who were brutally murdered by white mobs between 1877 and 1950.
An online resource portal offers videos, articles, a timeline, and curriculum for virtual visitors.
Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Houston, Texas
The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum commemorates the history of African Americans in the United States military through exhibits, performances, reenactments, and other programming. Though named for the famous post-Civil War-era buffalo soldiers, the museum also highlights the participation of black Americans in other conflicts. Learn about the buffalo soldiers, and catch glimpses of the museum’s collections on its website.
International African American Museum, Charleston, South Carolina
The International African American Museum is scheduled to open in 2022. It is located on the site of Gadsden’s Wharf, where an estimated 100,000 kidnapped Africans were forced into lifelong slavery.
The museum will tell the stories of what happened at Gadsden’s Wharf—and beyond—with interactive, innovative exhibits and educational programs. The Center for Family History will help visitors explore their family trees. The African Ancestors Memorial Garden will commemorate the shoreline and wharf area in a quiet, contemplative atmosphere.
Until the museum opens in 2022, you can keep up with articles and news on the museum’s website.
Learn Your Own African American History
Learn the stories of your African American relatives through historical documents, family trees, and other resources.
Special thanks to Ohio Genealogical Society Trustees and African American genealogy specialists Stacey Adger and Deborah Abbott for their contributions to this article.
Feature photo courtesy of Whitney Plantation
Sunny Morton teaches personal and family history to worldwide audiences. She’s a Contributing Editor at Family Tree Magazine, past Contributing Editor at Lisa Louise Cooke’s Genealogy Gems, and the author of How to Find Your Family History in U.S. Church Records (co-authored with Harold Henderson, CG); Story of My Life: A Workbook for Preserving Your Legacy; «Genealogy Giants: Comparing the 4 Major Websites,» and hundreds of articles. She has degrees in history and humanities from Brigham Young University. Read her work at sunnymorton.com.
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