2/1/2022 | By John Levan

Increasingly, Black history is being incorporated into the American story in museums across the United States, through permanent and rotating exhibition. Other museums, large and small, focus on the African American experience. What these Black history museums have in common is helping visitors understand the historical eras, major figures, and defining events that made up lived Black history of the last five centuries.

Some Black history museums focus on the challenges that Blacks have faced, such as slavery, Jim Crow, and the Civil Rights Movement. Others celebrate African American culture, arts, music, and sports.

The Collage Museum was founded in Hampton, Virginia, in 1868, making it the first African American museum in the country. Today, more than 100 of these museums share stories of Black history and culture. Here are five of the most noteworthy:

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Cincinnati, Ohio

The Underground Railroad was not a real railroad but a secret network of individuals who guided and gave aid to fleeing slaves along their perilous journey to freedom in the North. Although no one knows how many runaway slaves the railroad helped to escape, some estimates indicate it was more than 100,000.

Since Ohio was along one of the railroad routes, it’s only fitting that this state should be the home to one of the museums presenting the story of this flight to freedom. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center tells of heroic figures like Harriet Tubman, a formerly enslaved woman who returned to the South several times to help dozens of others escape, and John Brown, the abolitionist who lost his life in a quest to end slavery.

National Museum of African American Music

Nashville, Tennessee

The National Museum of African American Music opened its doors in 2021. This Black history museum is on a mission “to educate the world, preserve the legacy, and celebrate the central role African Americans play in creating the American soundtrack.” It is the only museum informing visitors of the substantial impact African American music has had on American culture.

The museum holds collections of instruments, photographs, sheet music, stage costumes, and recording equipment. And several galleries help to celebrate the more than 50 music genres created and influenced by African Americans, including spirituals, blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop.

National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

The Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is the largest African American museum in the U.S., covering an area of about 350,000 square feet on ten floors. Opened to the public in 2016, NMAAHC details the 500 years of Black history and culture in America.

Visitors can explore exhibits on Black history, community, and culture and examine topics such as slavery, Blacks in the military, visual arts, and a digital display featuring the writer James Baldwin. Various programs throughout the museum provide learning that expands the knowledge and understanding of the people, places, and events of African American history.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Kansas City, Missouri

Watching a major league baseball game today, it’s hard to imagine that there were no Black players on the field in the not-too-distant past. That’s because, like many other aspects of society, the baseball diamond was segregated, forcing Black athletes to play in leagues designated for them.

The first of these leagues, the Negro National League, was formed in 1920, with seven more existing over the next thirty years. It wouldn’t be until 1947, when Jackie Robinson joined the Brooklyn Dodgers, that a Black player would participate in a professional game outside the Negro Leagues.

The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum allows visitors to stand among the bronze versions of Negro League hall-of-famers like Satchel Paige, Buck O’Neil, Cool Papa Bell, and, of course, Robinson. The museum tells the story of exceptional athletes traveling across the country and playing the Great American Pastime despite society’s injustices.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel

Memphis, Tennessee

By learning the realities of the past, we can better understand the present and work toward a brighter future. The National Civil Rights Museum makes its home at the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King was assassinated on April 4, 1968.

A Smithsonian affiliate, this Black history museum offers 260 artifacts, more than 40 films, oral histories, interactive media, and external listening posts that guide visitors through five centuries of history – from the beginning of the resistance during slavery, through the Civil War and Reconstruction, the rise of Jim Crow, and the seminal events of the late 20th century that inspired people around the world to stand up for equality. Permanent exhibits take visitors to student sit-ins, the Montgomery bus boycott, freedom rides, and the Black power movement.

Visitors have a chance to walk through history and learn more about a tumultuous and inspiring period of change.

Related: Tips for safe travel while COVID still lurks

Put these Black history museums on your itinerary. And in the meantime, check out local museums near you, including many of more general subject matter that shed light on this important information.

John Levan

Freelance writer John Levan focuses on insurance, finance, and manufacturing as well as senior living topics. Based in Pennsylvania, he earned his Bachelor of Arts in English from Alvernia University and Master of Arts in humanities from California State University, Dominguez Hills.