– This post was written by Liam McGarry –
Black history museums across the United States are endeavoring to tell the African-American story. From highly funded national institutions to volunteer-aided communal initiatives, museums play a significant role in documenting and remembering historic eras, leaders, and injustices that have shaped the Black experience over the last five centuries.
Many well-known museums deal with the lasting legacy of slavery, the cruel, sustained anti-Black system of Jim Crow in the Southern States, and the stories of the Civil Rights Movement. But there are also spaces dedicated to lesser-known heroes, sporting pioneers, legendary musicians, and African-American art and culture.
Below is a selection of stand-out Black history museums and civil rights museums, as well as a state-by-state list of Black history museums near you.
1. National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis, Tennessee
“I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land.”Martin Luther King Jr. giving his Promised Land speech the night before his murder in 1968.
On April 4th, 1968, the morning after delivering his well-remembered Promised Land speech, civil rights hero Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis. Dr. King’s murder sent shockwaves across the world, but rather than break the will of activists, it galvanized Black Americans to continue their demand for freedom. The National Civil Rights Museum is located steps from the site of MLK’s death.
Through hundreds of artifacts, videos, and oral histories, the museum’s exhibits detail the Black American experience, from the advent of slavery to life under Jim Crow and the Civil Rights Movement.
Visitors can board a bus to relive the experience of Montgomery bus boycott leader Rosa Parks and sit at the original lunch counter where Greensboro students staged sit-ins in 1960.
2. Whitney Plantation, Wallace, Louisiana
“The history of this country is rooted in slavery. If you don’t understand the source of the problem, how can you solve it?”Ibrahima Seck, Director of Research at the Whitney Plantation.
Louisiana’s history is marred by slavery and the plantation system. In the view of retired white lawyer John Cummings, Louisiana, and the wider United States, has yet to seriously reconcile its past.
Having originally purchased Whitney Plantation with what he concedes were purely real estate-based motives, Cummings helped transform the derelict site, located between New Orleans and Baton Rouge along the Mississippi River, into a one-of-a-kind Black history museum focused entirely on slavery.
On arrival, guests are allocated a card detailing the name and story of an enslaved person. Visitors are shown around the very grounds on which slaves toiled in the Southern heat to cultivate sugar and rice during the 18th and 19th centuries. Original slave cabins, the Big House, and several powerful memorials are part of a moving, deeply insightful tour.
3. The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration / The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama
“Our nation’s history of racial injustice casts a shadow across the American landscape. This shadow cannot be lifted until we shine the light of truth on the destructive violence that shaped our nation, traumatized people of color, and compromised our commitment to the rule of law and to equal justice.”Bryan Stevenson, Founder, Equal Justice Initiative.
In the middle of the 19th century, Montgomery was a hub for the slave trade in Alabama, itself one of the USA’s most entrenched slave-owning regions. In 2018, the Equal Justice Initiative opened the doors to The Legacy Museum, built on the site of a former slave warehouse, and just a short walk from what was one of the busiest slave auction houses in America.
From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration is an unflinching retrospect of the Black experience in the United States, chronicling the history of slavery, lynching, segregation, and civil rights, as well as highlighting a legacy of economic and penal injustices for Black communities.
Through digitalized first-hand accounts, videos, artworks, and interactive exhibits, the museum provides an insight into systemic inequalities suffered by the Black community throughout history, with a present-day focus on mass incarceration and the Black Lives Matter movement.
4. The National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma, Alabama
“Their cause must be our cause too. Because it’s not just Negroes, but really it’s all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice. And we shall overcome.”Former US President Lyndon B. Johnson on the introduction of the 1965 Voting Rights Act.
In March 1965, America was coming to terms with the events of “Bloody Sunday”. Civil rights activists, silently and peacefully marching from Selma to Montgomery in the name of voting rights, were set upon by state troopers with clubs, bullwhips, and tear gas.
Borrowing a line from civil rights activists, President Lyndon B. Johnson gave his groundbreaking “We Shall Overcome” speech the next week, in an impassioned voting-rights plea to the US Congress.
Martin Luther King Jr. and other activists are said to have wept openly after the speech – the passing of the Voting Rights Act, which banned practices used in Southern states to systemically deny the Black vote, is seen as a legislative landmark for the Civil Rights Movement.
Selma’s National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, located at the Edmund Pettus Bridge where violence erupted all those years ago, is more than a civil rights museum. It’s a time capsule and a dedication to those who marched for justice in 1965. See cast footprints and the original torn clothing of those who marched. Peer through time at powerful black and white photographs, and learn about the unsung leaders of the movement.
5. The Studio Museum, Harlem, New York
“I’m most proud that we were able to give exposure to a variety of diasporic artists. It wasn’t about being a museum or being this, that, or the other. It was about making a human connection with people who were interested in the same things that we were, but out of another culture.”
From occupying a cramped space above a liquor store in 1968 to building a brand-new, multi-million-dollar home that is set to open in 2021, the Studio Museum’s original aim of championing Black art and culture has been a huge success.
The Studio promotes the work of both up-and-coming and established artists of African descent. Every year the museum hosts an artist in residence, many of whom have gone on to forge hugely successful careers.
The permanent collection boasts thousands of pieces including everything from drawings and prints to photographs and installations, all by Black American artists and members of the African diaspora.
6. National Museum of African American Music, Nashville, Tennessee
“We’re not focusing on a particular genre, artist or label. We’re really going back through American history and saying, ‘Let’s help the American public understand how critical African American contributions have been to American music since the 1600s.”Henry Beecher Hicks III, President & CEO of the National Museum of African American Music, speaking to one37pm.com
Nashville, Tennessee. Nowhere in the United States is more synonymous with the sounds of the nation than Music City. In 2021, the long-awaited National Museum of African American Music opened its doors for the first time.
The museum details how the development of music in the United States (and often around the world) is intrinsically linked to Black culture. The most popular American genres – blues, rock & roll, country, jazz, et al – can all be traced back to the forced arrival of Africans, who brought with them strong musical traditions.
This state-of-the-art African American museum is home to seven distinct galleries housing over 1,500 authentic artifacts from American music’s various heydays. You can see B.B. King’s guitar Lucille, and a whole load more memorabilia from across the decades. There are opportunities to create your own hip-hop beats and flex your vocal cords to the tune of Oh Happy Day with a virtual gospel choir.
Aside from the interactive elements, America’s story and music history are woven masterfully through curated galleries like Rivers of Rhythm, Wade in the Water, and One Nation Under a Groove.
7. National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati, Ohio
“The American people have this to learn: that where justice is denied, where poverty is enforced, where ignorance prevails, and where any one class is made to feel that society is an organized conspiracy to oppress, rob and degrade them, neither persons nor property will be safe.”Frederick Douglass, former slave, abolitionist, and Underground Railroad Agent, 1886.
It’s estimated that over 100,000 people escaped slavery via the Underground Railroad. This network of dedicated abolitionists provided safehouses and onward passage for those seeking refuge in American free states and Canada.
Ohio was a well-trodden state on the path to freedom for many escaped slaves. The National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati celebrates and tells the stories of ordinary people who risked imprisonment, and in some cases their lives, in the name of justice.
Visitors learn about heroic railroad agents and passengers like Harriet Tubman, a former slave who guided escapees to free states and Canada; Henry ‘Box’ Brown, whose journey to freedom was endured over 27 hours in a large wooden box, and John Parker, who actively sought slaves in Kentucky and aided their escape to neighboring Ohio.
This unique Black history museum also aims to fight the continued scourge of slavery and trafficking around the globe through education and outreach programs.
8. National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington DC
“And, yes, a clear-eyed view of history can make us uncomfortable, and shake us out of familiar narratives. But it is precisely because of that discomfort that we learn and grow and harness our collective power to make this nation more perfect. That’s the American story that this museum tells — one of suffering and delight; one of fear but also of hope; of wandering in the wilderness and then seeing out on the horizon a glimmer of the Promised Land.”Former US President Barack Obama, opening the NMAAHC in 2016.
Located in the US capital, right on the National Mall, the Smithsonian Museum of African American History and Culture aims to highlight every aspect of the African-American experience.
Exhibits tell deeply moving stories of slavery, detail the immeasurable influence that Black artists had on music, remember the efforts of Black soldiers, trace the victories and struggles of the Civil Rights Movement, and so much more.
Its collection is one of, if not the most extensive in existence, detailing 500 years of constantly evolving Black history and culture in America. Activists, politicians, musicians, sportspeople, and the regular Black folk of the United States are remembered and celebrated here.
The museum exhibits artifacts detailing the good, bad, and ugly of America’s past and present. See Chuck Berry’s red 1973 Cadillac and the remnants of a slave ship. Find headgear worn by sporting hero Muhammad Ali, and the glass-topped casket of murdered teenager Emmet Till on this all-encompassing journey through Black history.
9. The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City, Missouri
“I won’t ‘have it made’ until the most underprivileged Negro in Mississippi can live in equal dignity with anyone else in America.”Major League Baseball star and civil rights activist Jackie Robinson speaking in 1960.
The world of American sports that we see today, led by Black athletes, is in stark contrast to the segregated playing field of the past.
From the turn of the 20th century, having been barred from participating in the Major Leagues, talented Black baseball players were forced to organize their own games and competitions, with professional leagues eventually spawning in the 1920s. It wasn’t until Jackie Robinson took his place at first base for the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947 that a Black player would play non-segregated professional baseball again.
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum is one of the most intriguing Black history museums, detailing a story that transcends sport. It documents the tale of defiant Black baseball players who traveled across the United States, refusing to let the injustices of society stop them from enjoying America’s pastime.
Visitors can stand among great Black players like Buck O’Neil, Satchel Paige, and, of course, Jackie Robinson on the Field of Legends. Watch the history of the Negro Leagues come to life in a documentary narrated by James Earl Jones, and see exhibits full of clay-stained memorabilia belonging to these unsung sporting and cultural pioneers.
10. The Buffalo Soldiers National Museum, Houston, Texas
“We are home now though our flame flickers low. Will you fan it with the winds of freedom, or will you smother it with the sands of humiliation? Will it be that we fought for the lesser of two evils? Or is there this freedom and happiness for all men?”James Harden Daugherty, author and former Buffalo Soldier during World War II.
If you never paid much mind to Bob Marley’s posthumous hit Buffalo Soldier, you might not have made an immediate connection between the song and US military history. The true story of the Buffalo Soldiers is one laced with cold irony, injustice, and bravery.
Despite fighting in Union Blue during the American Civil War, it wasn’t until 1866 that African Americans were permitted to become full-time soldiers as part of all-Black cavalry units. The United States was still an openly hostile place for “free” African Americans, and with few real opportunities, many saw joining up as a rare path to a better life. Largely, they were treated with the same contempt they had been up until that point.
In an example of oppressed people being forced to oppress others, these units were tasked with, among other things, protecting the Western Frontier from Native American warriors seeking to reclaim their lands. It’s believed it was the Native Americans who coined the term “Buffalo Soldiers” for these units. Why they did so is still a source of debate.
Located at the Houston Light Guard Armory in Midtown Houston, the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum aims to highlight the stories of all Black military personnel who have fought for their country, including during the American Civil War, both World Wars, and the war in Vietnam.
11. Northwest African American Museum, Seattle, Washington
“Our minds are nurtured, our spirits are touched and inspired, our sense of self is enhanced and validated by Black museums.”LaNesha DeBardelaben, Executive Director at NAAM.
Aptly located next to a park dedicated to one of Seattle’s most famous African American sons, Jimi Hendrix, the Northwest African American Museum does an exemplary job of showcasing the history, art, and culture of the African-American community in the Pacific Northwest.
The museum works to think globally, act locally mantra in its mission to promote an often underrepresented Black history in the American West.
Visitors can explore the Northwest’s history through a deep-diving permanent collection that includes exhibits on everything from African-American settlers in the area to Seattle’s golden age of Jazz in the 1920s. This, plus an ever-changing line-up of award-winning temporary exhibitions, sees NAAM stand-out as a bastion of Black heritage in the Northwest.
12. California African American Museum, Los Angeles
“There remains an inarguable need to create inclusive, accessible, and dynamic spaces where all people can see Black lives and experiences valued and reflected.”Cameron Shaw, Deputy Director and Chief Curator at CAAM.
Los Angeles’ free-to-enter CAAM leads the way in championing the pivotal contribution of African Americans to the cultural landscape of California and the American West.
Located in the museum oasis that is Exposition Park, this 40-year-old African-American art museum is home to thousands of important pieces, dating as far back as the 1800s. Paintings, photographs, sculptures, and installations by African-American artists and those from the African diaspora fill its airy halls.
One of its stand-out exhibits, From Women’s Hands, displays the art of five women of color depicting their life experiences. A yearly social media initiative challenges people to name #5WomenArtists, highlighting the underrepresentation of women in art spaces.
Insightful tours, led by experts, take place throughout the day, and these are the best way to take in a brief introduction to Black cultural history on the West Coast.
Where can I find Black History Museums near me?
Across the United States, the cultural history and heritage of Black and African Americans are preserved in museums, through historical societies, and by tireless local activists and volunteers.
Below is a state-by-state list of locations where you can find Black history museums and/or delve into African African history in your local area.
National Voting Rights Museum and Institute, Selma
The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration / The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Birmingham
In the absence of a dedicated Black history museum in Alaska, the University of Alaska’s Consortium Library is a good resource, as is this article spotlighting African American history in Anchorage.
George Washington Carver Museumm, Phoenix.
Mosaic Templars Center, Little Rock.
California African American Museum, Los Angeles
Museum of the African Diaspora, Los Angeles
Black American West Museum, Denver
Prudence Crandall Museum, Canterbury
Mitchell Center for African American Heritage, Wilmington
African-American Research Library and Cultural Center, Fort Lauderdale
Old Dillard Museum, Fort Lauderdale
The Blanchard House Museum of African-American History & Culture, Punta Gorda
LaVilla Museum, Jacksonville
The National Center for Civil and Human Rights, Atlanta
Apex Museum, Atlanta
Obama Hawaiian Africana Museum, Honolulu
Idaho Black History Museum, Boise
Pullman Porter Museum, Chicago
DuSable Museum of African American History, Chicago
Freetown Village, Freetown
African American Museum of Iowa, Cedar Rapids
The Kansas African American Museum, Wichita
Kentucky Center for African American Heritage, Louisville
Whitney Plantation, Wallace
New Orleans African American Museum, New Orleans
Abyssinian Meeting House, Portland
Reginald F. Lewis Museum, Baltimore
Howard County Center of African American Culture, Columbia
Museum of African American History, Boston
Tuskegee Airmen National Historical Museum, Detroit
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History, Detroit
Minnesota African American Heritage Museum & Gallery, Minneapolis
Mississippi Civil Rights Museum and Museum of Mississippi History, Jackson
Ozarks Afro-American Heritage Museum, Ash Grove
The Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, Kansas City
In the absence of a dedicated Black history museum in Montana, the Montana African American Heritage Resources Project provides details on the subject.
Great Plains Black History Museum, Omaha
The Walker African American Museum & Research Center on the west side of Las Vegas closed in 2017 due to water damage but plans to reopen in the future.
Black Heritage Trail of New Hampshire, Portsmouth
Afro-American Historical Society Museum, Jersey City
African American Museum and Cultural Center of New Mexico, Albuquerque
Studio Museum Harlem
African Burial Ground National Monument and Visitor Center
International Civil Rights Center and Museum, Greensboro
In the absence of a dedicated Black history museum in North Dakota, this article from Prairie Public News is a good introductory resource.
National Underground Railroad Freedom Center, Cincinnati
The Cleveland African American Museum, Cleveland
Oklahoma Black Museum & Performing Arts Center, Oklahoma
Oregon Black Pioneers, Salem
African American Museum, Philadelphia
Stages of Freedom, Providence
Old Slave Mart Museum, Charleston
South Dakota African American History Museum, Sioux Falls
National Museum of African American Music, Nashville
National Civil Rights Museum, Memphis
Withers Collection Museum and Gallery, Memphis
Slave Haven Underground Railroad Museum, Memphis
Green McAdoo Cultural Center, Clinton
The Buffalo Soldiers Museum, Houston
African American Museum of Dallas
Houston Museum of African American Culture
Utah Black History Museum
Rokeby Museum, Ferrisburgh
Black History Museum & Cultural Center of Virginia, Richmond
Northwest African American Museum, Seattle
National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington D.C.
Black Voices Museum, Harpers Ferry
Wisconsin Black Historical Society/Museum, Milwaukee
Milton House, Milton
The Wyoming State Museum’s traveling exhibit on Black homesteaders, Empire: A Community of African-Americans on the Wyoming Plains, tours the state regularly. Check local events calendars for more information.