There is no better way to bring history to life than through experience. And that experience should go way beyond textbooks. For those looking to delve into the rich stories of black culture, whether widely celebrated or barely whispered of, there are countless museums, communities, and cultural sites to explore. Here, a selection of lesser-known spots in six cities to discover via Amtrak.
New York City
The Story of a Free Community
Tucked away in Brooklyn’s Bedford-Stuyvesant, one of the country’s oldest and most famous black communities, is Weeksville, the black community New York forgot existed. Founded by James Weeks, a Virginia freeman who bought a plot of land there in 1838, it grew into a thriving village populated by African-Americans who were able to take refuge not only from the danger of being a runaway slave, but also from racial discrimination and violence in bustling NYC. Since being “re-discovered” in 1968, a major restoration effort by Brooklynite Joan Maynard led to the creation of the Weeksville Heritage Center, a place that, among other things, allows tours of some of the oldest original — and intact — black-owned structures in America.
The Ultimate African American Experience
In 1926, Arturo Alfonso Schomburg, a Puerto Rican intellectual and author, donated his collection of several thousand writings and artworks to what was then a special collection of a Harlem branch of the New York Public Library. The Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture has since grown into an exploration hub around all things related to the African diaspora. A search through its archives could turn up anything from early recordings by George Washington Carver to FBI files documenting surveillance of the Black Panther Party.
An Underground Railroad Station
Second-generation Dutch immigrant John Johnson built this modest home in Philly’s Germantown neighborhood in 1768. The Johnson family, who held ownership of the home for 140 years, were staunch Quakers, and they set up what would become a prominent stop on the Underground Railroad. Rumor has it that Harriet Tubman and William Still were a couple of the black-history heroes who stayed at the house. Today you can retrace their stories at the Johnson House Historic Site.
The “We The People” Place
So no, The National Constitution Center doesn’t house the actual Constitution (you’ll find that at D.C.’s National Archives), but it’s definitely still worth a stop for its rare artifacts and creative approach to breaking down the intricacies of our nation’s most important document. Head over during February for Black History Month must-sees such as signed copies of the Thirteenth Amendment and the Emancipation Proclamation. There’s even an original print of the Supreme Court’s Dred Scott decision, which denied the formerly enslaved Scott his freedom in 1857 and moved the U.S. closer to Civil War.
Correcting a Great Wrong in History
A monument to over 200,000 soldiers who fought as members of the United States Colored Troops marks the entry of the African American Civil War Museum, a place that honors the black veterans who fought in the Civil War — many of whom did so when their freedom hadn’t even been sanctioned by the country they were battling for. Notable honorees include Jerry Suttor, a United States Colored Troops soldier whom the museum’s curators discovered is an ancestor of Michelle Obama.
For Those Who Built the Ships
Two of Baltimore’s native sons — legendary activist Frederick Douglass and black trade-union forefather Isaac Myers — both worked as caulkers in the Baltimore shipyards in the mid-1800s, a time when that job was commonly held by both free and enslaved African-Americans. Myers went on to establish the first black-owned shipyard in the country. The Frederick Douglass-Isaac Myers Maritime Park, located at historic Fell’s Point on the city’s waterfront, gives you a primer on Baltimore’s industrial history — and lets you try your hand at boat-building.
The First African American Man of Science
Benjamin Banneker, born in Baltimore County in 1731 to a Guinean slave father and an indentured British servant mother, grew up as an educated free black. He was a math and science prodigy who once built a clock that lasted for four decades after only having seen a sundial and a pocket watch before. He was influential in the development of the land that would eventually become the Baltimore we know today, and he was a prolific astronomer and writer who published six almanacs. He once even wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson that was critical of the Founding Fathers’ belief in the intellectual inferiority of black people. The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum gives a well-preserved (and rare) glimpse into black Colonial life.
A Celebration of The First Black Union
Though there had been a decades-long effort to preserve the history of Pullman, a Chicago neighborhood established by railroad magnate George Pullman, no substantial memorial existed for the Pullman Porters prior to 1995. These black service workers kept the Pullman Car Company dynasty up, running, and highly regarded. Asa Philip Randolph, the porter whom the National A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum is named after, was the founder of one of the first and most influential African-American labor unions in the country.
Tribute to The Bravest
The history of African American service in the Los Angeles Fire Department stretches way back — to at least 1892, when Sam Haskins, the city’s first black firefighter on record, was hired and worked alongside white colleagues. Today, his legacy, along with the legacies of the generations of fellow black firefighters—male and female—who followed in his footsteps, is celebrated at the African American Firefighter Museum. It operates out of Fire Station 30, a 104-year-old building nestled downtown that existed as a segregated firehouse from 1924 to 1955. Its hallmarks of black valor include original photographs, uniforms, and even a hose wagon from 1890.
The Art of Our Ancestors
On the third floor of a Macy’s department store in the historically black enclave of Baldwin Hills, you’ll find this totally unexpected bastion of African-American art history. A permanent collection named after influential Harlem Renaissance painter Palmer C. Hayden includes several of his notable works. And through March 17, the Museum of African American Art showcases “And I Still I Rise,” an exhibit by local artists Eric Hall and Patrick Jewett that spotlights the heroes of the American civil-rights movement.
For the best way to visit each of these cities, visit Amtrak, which provides easy routes to access these little-known treasures of black history.
Rachel Mosely is an editor and writer covering entertainment and pop culture and living in Brooklyn.