Learn about black history in 9 unexpected places National Parks Conservation Association

These fascinating sites share important and often overlooked stories about the people who shaped the history and culture of the United States.

National parks preserve the legacies of visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, as well as iconic sites of the struggle for equality, including the Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Sites and dozens of Civil War battlefields where soldiers fought and died to end slavery and preserve the union.

Yet many other lesser-known parks share captivating and unexpected stories. Here are nine fascinating but less obvious places to learn about black history.

Note that the pandemic may continue to cause temporary closures at some sites, although all offer more information and historical context online.

1. Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, New Jersey

Home to the second largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Paterson Great Falls preserves the history of America’s first planned industrial town. In 2014, the park was expanded to include Hinchliffe Stadium, a venue with strong ties to Negro League Baseball and 20th-century African-American history. Iconic clubs including the Newark Eagles (pictured above), New York Cubans and New York Black Yankees have all played at Hinchliffe, and Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby – the League’s first black player American baseball – started their career there. Legendary composer and bandleader Duke Ellington played one of his last major concerts with his orchestra at Hinchliffe in the early 1970s. Within a few decades, however, the stadium fell into disuse and disrepair. Extensive renovations began in 2021, with a planned reopening in late 2022. Learn more about Hinchliffe Stadium’s famous history in the recent NPCA podcast.

2. National Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial, CA

The worst inland disaster of World War II happened on a wharf not far from San Francisco. Thousands of African-American sailors served at Port Chicago in separate units during the war with limited professional roles; one of these roles was to load weapons and ammunition into ships. The work was extremely tedious and dangerous, and sailors received little training. One evening in July 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds more. Two weeks later, when the sailors were ordered to return under the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court-martialed and convicted of mutiny. This terrible tragedy eventually led to the desegregation of the United States Navy and subsequently all of the United States Armed Forces, inspiring many to join the civil rights movement. To date, the US Navy has refused to overturn the 50-soldier court-martial, though families and some members of Congress continue to seek overturns. (Note: The memorial is on an active military base and reservations are required at least two weeks in advance to visit.)

3. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas

The American pioneer era conjures up images of white families in horse-drawn carts making long journeys across the Midwest. However, in 1877, seven Kentucky men – most of them formerly enslaved – set out to create the first all-black settlement on the Great Plains, inspiring African-American families to travel west. Many of these pioneers saw Kansas as a “promised land” and an escape from the discrimination, racial violence, and poor living conditions of the post-Civil War South. Conditions were harsh, however, and many of the early settlers soon left; others lived in mud huts or holes in the ground and suffered from lack of food until a second wave of settlers brought horses, plows and other resources several years later. At its height, around 600 people lived in Nicodemus, although the population dwindled in the 1900s and only around 60 people live there today. The site is the last African-American settlement west of the Mississippi River, and a 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 the area’s ancestry and organizes homecoming events for residents’ descendants.

4. Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts

Five years before the Revolutionary War began, a dispute between local settlers and British troops turned deadly. In the skirmish, known as the Boston Massacre, British troops killed three people on a downtown street that is now part of the Boston National Historical Park. The first to fall was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American descent who had escaped slavery more than two decades earlier. While much about Attucks remains shrouded in mystery, his death is remembered today as part of an event that turned colonial attitudes against the Crown and planted the seeds of the American Revolution.

5. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama

Over 80 years ago, African Americans were barred from flying in the US military. But in 1941, under pressure from civil rights organizations and members of the black press, the Army Air Corps started a “Tuskegee Aviation Experience” to train African Americans to fly and maintain fighter planes. during WWII. The program, which took place at the distinguished Tuskegee Institute, trained more than 1,000 black pilots, navigators, bombers, instructors and other associated personnel. These men flew more than 1,500 missions during the war and earned more than 850 medals, challenging prevailing stereotypes and opening up more opportunities for African Americans in the military. Although they did not receive pilot training, black women also participated in the program and became mechanics, technicians, control tower operators and other specialized personnel. The national historic site, operating at reduced capacity due to the pandemic at the time of this writing, contains a restored hangar and museum, which includes a replica of a red-tailed plane that airmen were known to fly.

6. Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas

The African-American regiments of the United States Army known as the Buffalo Soldiers performed a series of difficult duties while guarding the frontier in the 1800s and early 1900s, including as some of the earliest park rangers national. 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 a national monument honoring one of Buffalo’s most prominent soldiers, Colonel Charles Young, at his property in Xenia. , Ohio. Fort Davis in West Texas is the only site where the four Buffalo Soldier regiments were stationed. It’s also one of the best-preserved border posts and a great place to step back in time, explore the modest barracks, admire the vast scrubland of the southwest, and get a sense of what life was like for these men 150 years ago. .

7. New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park, Louisiana

A park site all about 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 quintessentially American art form fused to the roots of blues, swing, ragtime and gospel traditions. Although relatively few national park sites are devoted to the arts, visitors to New Orleans can learn about key figures such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and enjoy live performances and educational programs led by rangers five days a week. Note that some parts of the park are temporarily closed for repairs, but staff schedule performances at other locations, so check the website before you visit.

8. Pullman National Monument, Illinois

Few sites preserve the history of American industry, labor and city planning as well as Pullman. Industrialist George Pullman started the Pullman Palace Car Company in Chicago’s South End in the 1880s to manufacture wagons, creating a company town with stores, schools, and a church. At the start of the 20th century, the Pullman Company was the nation’s largest employer of African Americans. After decades of unfair and abusive labor practices, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at the Pullman Company – the first African-American union to win bargaining rights. In 1894, after George Pullman cut wages without cutting rent, employees launched a strike that spanned the entire railroad industry, disrupting national railroad and postal service and inspiring a national dialogue about workers’ rights. Later that year, Congress unanimously established Labor Day as a national holiday. Pullman porters were instrumental in the rise of the black middle class in America. The NPCA and our supporters and allies have been instrumental in preserving the site, where most of the original buildings of the planned industrial city still stand, as part of the national park system.

9. Biscayne National Park, Florida

This historic marine park is preserved today in large part thanks to the Jones family of Porgy Key. The family first purchased Porgy Key for $300 in 1897, where they lived and grew vegetables and fruit, including a successful lime and pineapple business. The last surviving member of the Jones family, Lancelot, spent his entire life on the island and eventually became known as the “Sage of Porgy Key”, sharing his naturalistic wisdom with visitors and schoolchildren, especially his love of sea sponges. In the 1960s, developers eyed the Virgin Islands with plans to build high-rise apartments and shopping malls. Jones not only refused to sell his family’s land, but he helped form a counter-movement against development – and the plans were ultimately undone. Jones then sold his island paradise to the National Park Service where it is now kept in a condition similar to that of his family.

Andrew B. Reiter