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Black History Month TRAVEL TIPS & INTEL

Where to Learn About Black History…and Enjoy the Outdoors!

Written by Dhinesh Manuel

This blog post was updated on February 9, 2023.

African-American history in our nation is not necessarily confined to the walls of museums and the granite curves of artistic monuments. No, this history is too tumultuous to be tamed by man-made structures, too complex to be hidden away on shelves or even showcased on stages.

Perhaps black history belongs, like the stories of African oral tradition, out in the world. After all, how could the African-American story not be intertwined with the rugged nature that was the backdrop to early settlers and frontiersmen? How could black history not be a part of the tales of pioneers and trailblazers of the outdoors, echoing in parks, mountains, gardens, and caves?

Here are some outdoor experiences that can teach you about black history. Come along, and take a walk with us as we visit.

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument – Church Creek, Maryland

Harriett Tubman was a pioneer in the fight against slavery. Known as the “Moses of her People,” Tubman played an important role in the Underground Railroad — the network of abolitionists that helped people escape slavery.  While visitors can learn all about Tubman and the Underground Railroad at this monument, a more significant backstory is told at the neighboring Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It was here that Tubman spent years as a farm slave and timber laborer before she escaped slavery herself.

During her time working in this rough and unforgiving environment, Tubman honed her outdoor survival skills and confidence, maneuvering stealthily in both day and night. These skills would come to save her life and the lives of dozens of men, women, and children when she guided people to safety in Canada. Over 11 years, Tubman kept daringly coming back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rescuing some 70 slaves in about 13 perilous expeditions. 

Image used via of Public Domain

“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.”  —  Harriett Tubman

Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park – Three Rivers, California

Path through the Sequoia Forest, The Giant Forest, Sequoia National Park, California

Colonel Charles Young was already a legend in black military circles. Being only the third black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1884 and the first African American to reach the rank of colonel, he had broken a lot of barriers to get to where he was. In 1903, the highly decorated colonel was given a new assignment: he was to be the first black military superintendent of a national park.

Arriving in Sequoia National Park along with about 500 Buffalo Soldiers, he knew he had his work cut out for him. For almost a decade the park had not had the funding or resources to be maintained by the military. Roads were nonexistent, while wildlife poachers and illegal grazing were rampant. Young and his men rolled up their sleeves up and got to work. They completed the first usable road in Sequoia into the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees. Young and his men went on to extend the road to the base of the famous Moro Rock, and then went on to build an arboretum in Yosemite.

colonel charles young-african american military legend

Image modified from “Colonel Charles Young” by TradingCardsNPS licensed under CC BY 2.0

While you can traverse many of these trails today, you need to remember the harsh terrain that these Black soldiers had to face during their hectic schedule of planning and construction. An additional challenge would have been the institutionalized racism they had to face even within the military they served. Whatever odds they faced, Colonel Young and his men made their mark on some of the most beautiful places in the U.S., making these places accessible to visitors for as long as the park’s giant sequoias continue on.

Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park – Atlanta

There is no way to overstate the importance of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that helped knock down the door of inequality. All throughout the U.S., there are numerous monuments and museums dedicated to this bold visionary, but none does a better job of highlighting key passages of his life than this national historical park in Atlanta.

You can see King’s childhood home — a place where he spent hours listening to his father, Martin Luther King Sr., a pastor, talk about faith and action against injustice. You can stop by Ebenezer Baptist Church where both King and his father served as ministers. You can even see King’s final resting place alongside that of his wife Coretta Scott King. But one of the most interesting stops amidst a serene and colorful natural backdrop is the “I Have a Dream” International World Peace Rose Garden.

“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King Jr.

Mammoth Cave National Park – Kentucky

stalagmite and stalactite with color light in the cave

Have you ever heard of Stephen Bishop? How about Mat Bransford or Ed Bishop? If not, you’re not alone. Every year, thousands of visitors come to see the world’s largest known cave system at Mammoth Cave National Park. The very first guides to these wonders — which span three separate counties in Kentucky — men who knew these caves like the back of their hands, were African American slaves. These guides had a passion for cave exploration and were instrumental in mapping out some of its most hard-to-reach parts.


Image modified from “Mammoth Cave Guide Mat Bransford” by TradingCardsNPS licensed under CC BY 2.0

These guides took great joy in their work but often found hardship and heartbreak in their personal lives. Stephen Bishop gained his freedom in 1856 but died the very next year — at the age of 37. Mat Bransford (pictured above), despite his faithful service, could not stop his wife’s owner from selling three of their four children as slaves. You can still pay your respects to many of these guides, as they chose to be buried near the caves to which they dedicated most of their lives.

Booker T. Washington National Monument – Hardy, Virginia

Trail Bridge - Booker T. Washington National Monument

One of the finest African-American orators and educators, Booker T. Washington was one of the last black leaders born into slavery. He spent some of his childhood on a 207-acre tobacco farm, which now serves as a historical site under his name. Washington was determined to make the most of the few opportunities afforded him. Determined to get an education, he enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute — now Hampton University — in Virginia and even worked there as a janitor to help pay for his expenses. Washington would later come back to join the staff at this very same institution.

Washington was also the first president and chief developer of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute — now Tuskegee University. With hard work and his knack for rallying support and gaining funds, he turned around the once-rundown institute into a well-equipped facility that could educate and empower young African Americans.

Booker T Washington
Image used via Public Domain

“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” — Booker T. Washington

When you visit the area today, you can learn all about Washington’s life, his achievements, and his thoughts on how African Americans could gain the respect they deserved in America. Amid the area’s quaint log cabins and lush greenery, you could almost forget the horrors and hardships experienced by slaves as they toiled day in and day out. The grounds of the park have plenty of scenic spots for quiet reflection and picnicking, but there are also great guided tours, live farm animals, and vegetable gardens, as well as some amazing hiking trails through the woods.

Do you know of any other outdoor spots where you can experience black history? Share them with us in the comments.

About the author

Dhinesh Manuel

Socialite, philanthropist, costumed crime fighter by wait...that's bad ...

Musician, writer, travel junkie, dog lover, and database of useless information. I love to learn about new cultures, experience new cuisines, meet new people, and have a few laughs along the way!

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