All Articles 8 must-visit Black culture and history museums to visit across the US

8 must-visit Black culture and history museums to visit across the US

From baseball museums to the history of hip-hop, there are history lessons in every corner of the country.

Shayla Martin
Jennifer Douglass for TravelCoterie in partnership with Tripadvisor
By Shayla Martin and Jennifer Douglass for TravelCoterie in partnership with TripadvisorJan 26, 2024 6 minutes read
Exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture, Washington, D.C.
Exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture
Image: Alan Karchmer

The Black community’s cultural influence over society in the U.S. is as vast as the land itself. Sometimes hidden, but increasingly revealed, there are a variety of museums and institutions across the country that honor Black contributions old and new, across a multitude of industries. From D.C. to Oklahoma, we’ve pulled together eight museums to visit that pay tribute to the Black experience in America.

The National Museum of African American History and Culture

Washington, D.C.

Exhibit at the National Museum of African American History in Washington, D.C.
Exhibit at the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.
Image: Alan Karchmer/Courtesy of the National Museum of African American History and Culture

There’s one museum that simultaneously encompasses the new and the old, the obscure and the mainstream. To date, the National Museum of African American History and Culture (also known as the NMAAHC or “The Blacksonian”) has collected more than 40,000 artifacts, covering history from indentured and chattel slavery through modern times.

The museum journey is best experienced chronologically, and begins three stories below ground with a moving exhibit that focuses on the daily lives of enslaved people and the wealth their enslavement created for America. As you rise, so does the narrative of Black history. Events and artifacts range from the seemingly mundane—like a pair of Run DMC Adidas sneakers—to the historic lunch stools and counter from Greensboro, NC. Niche collections from the now-defunct Black Fashion Museum showcase the work of acclaimed designer Ann Lowe and the famous costume designer for The Wiz, Peter Davy.

Be sure to plan ahead and reserve your free tickets in advance because the timed-entry spots can book up quickly, especially on weekends.

Tip: Wear comfortable shoes and, if you can, make it a two-day trip. The museum is filled with so much detail that it’s difficult to take it all in with a single visit.

Gullah Museum

Georgetown, SC

Exhibit at the Gullah Museum
Exhibit at the Gullah Museum
Image: Barbara Earth/Tripadvisor

The Gullah Museum is dedicated to Gullah Geechee heritage, a unique blend of traditions passed down from West and Central African cultures. Today, the Gullah community is known for its hearty, delicious Lowcountry food; sweetgrass-basket weaving and story-quilt making; and a distinct knowledge of rice farming that’s been passed down through generations.

The late Gullah Museum founder Vermelle "Bunny" Smith Rodrigues used her storytelling skills to create her famous family history quilts, which hang in the museum. (Former First Lady Michelle Obama is a proud owner of one of these quilts.) Today, her husband keeps her legacy alive at the museum, with exhibits that educate visitors from around the world on Gullah culture. Expect to learn about open-land Geechee cowboys, rice farming, Lowcountry history, and more.

Greenwood Rising

Tulsa, OK

Exhibit at Greenwood Rising in Tulsa, Oklahoma
Exhibit at Greenwood Rising in Tulsa, OK
Image: Foodange/Tripadvisor

Much of the Black experience in America is never taught in classrooms and is often obscured from the public in general. When these stories are brought to life, they often bring with them disbelief and shock—as is the case for the history of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street. At Greenwood Rising, the history of this once-thriving Black community comes to life, bringing its full story out of obscurity. This immersive, interactive museum uses a combination of static exhibits, film, and holograms, as well as voices of survivors and witnesses of the Tulsa Race Massacre to create an incredibly moving experience. After, be sure to explore the surrounding Greenwood neighborhood, which is experiencing a revitalization thanks to Black-owned businesses like Fulton Street Books and Coffee next door to the museum.

Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Kansas City, MO

Exhibit at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Exhibit at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum
Image: Courtesy of Negro Leagues Baseball Museum

Many people are familiar with the story of Jackie Robinson, the incredibly talented Brooklyn Dodgers baseball player who integrated Major League Baseball back in 1947, but plenty of people aren’t aware of the entire league of Black baseball players that were arguably equally, if not more talented, than those in the MLB. You can learn all about these trailblazing individuals at the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum in Kansas City, where the league was first formed in 1920.

The museum details the league's eight founding teams, including the Chicago Giants, Detroit Stars, and the Kansas City Monarchs, where Robinson played, but also highlights lesser known superstar players including pitcher, Satchel Paige; center fielder, James Thomas “Cool Papa” Bell; and first baseman, John “Buck” O’Neil. O’Neil is credited with leading the effort to establish the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, and you can stand next to a life-sized bronze statue of him and other famous players at the museum’s baseball diamond.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Cincinnati, OH

Museum tour at the National Underground Railroad Freedom C
Museum tour at the National Underground Railroad Freedom C
Image: Mark Bealer Photography

You may wonder, of all of the potential places to open a museum dedicated to the Underground Railroad, why Cincinnati? The simple reason is geography. Located a few steps from the Ohio River, the museum stands near the natural barrier that separated the slaveholding states of the South from the free states of the North. Inside, you’ll find stories of the enslaved: who they were, why they were stolen to the Americas, how they were treated, and how some of them eventually became free. Exhibits can be hard to stomach, like the 19th-century wood and shackles pen recovered from a farm in Mason County, KY, but these artifacts are key to understanding the brutality of this era of American history. And don’t miss the Invisible: Slavery Today exhibit, which details modern day slavery and human trafficking, helping museum-goers to spot the signs of an exploited person and providing them with resources to help the victim get the help they need.

Tip: If exploring the museum on your own seems overwhelming, plan your trip for the first Saturday of each month to book a 90-minute guided tour (available at 10 a.m. and 2 p.m.).

National Museum of African American Music

Nashville, TN

Exhibit at the National Museum of African American Music
Exhibit at the National Museum of African American Music
Image: Courtesy of National Museum of African American Mus

Nashville may be known as the home of country music, but the roots of country music are deeply influenced by and intertwined with Black music. You can learn all about the connection at the National Museum of African American Music, where the tagline is “one nation under a groove.” It’s hard not to describe a visit to this museum as one giant dance party. Yes, of course there are incredible exhibits that showcase historic audio recordings, memorabilia, and interactive technology that detail the societal eras that led to the rise of blues, jazz, gospel, R&B, and hip hop—but the core is the music itself. Put on a pair of headphones and immerse yourself in deeply moving African American spirituals from the time of enslavement like “Wade in the Water” and “Take my Hand Precious Lord” by Mahalia Jackson and the Mississippi Mass Choir, or sway to the velvet voice of Marvin Gaye singing “What’s Going On?” in the R&B gallery. As a child of the 1980s, my personal favorite is “The Message” gallery that chronicles the origins of hip-hop from the South Bronx in 1976.

International African American Museum

Charleston, SC

Exhibit at the International African American Museum, in Charleston
Exhibit at the International African American Museum, in Charleston
Image: abroadwithashley/Tripadvisor

In perhaps the definition of a full circle moment, Charleston’s International African American Museum sits on the site where Gadsen’s Wharf once stood, the disembarkation point of up to 40 percent of all enslaved Africans arriving in the U.S. Although the museum features artifacts, images, and storytelling surrounding the period of enslavement, particularly in South Carolina, the museum is intentional about making the point that the history of African Americans did not start with enslavement. Guests can explore the diverse empires, cultures, and historic figures of West and Central Africa, including masks, currency, and jewelry and connect how these cultures stayed alive even through the trauma and displacement of slavery in groups like the aforementioned Gullah Geechee.

The content of the museum may fill you with contradictory emotions: sadness, joy, heartbreak, celebration, anger, and pride, but you'll leave the sacred space better for having visited. Best of all, there is a peaceful African Ancestors Memorial Garden filled with Palmetto trees outside the museum if you need room to process those emotions.

National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis, TN

Lorraine Motel at dusk at the National Civil Rights Museum
Lorraine Motel at the National Civil Rights Museum
Image: Courtesy of National Civil Rights Museum

Memphis’s National Civil Rights Museum is housed in the former Lorraine Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. The experience kicks off with an upbeat, 12-minute film that features actors and spoken word poets sharing the history of—but also the crucial need for—various civil rights movements across the United States in the forms of marches, protests, and sit-ins. (A warning, the following exhibits start during the violent period of Reconstruction leading into Jim Crow, and the museum does not sugarcoat any of the necessary, yet horrific, imagery from that time.) From there, you’ll follow the Civil Rights Movement with immersive artifacts like a Montgomery city bus you can board where a statue of Rosa Parks sits, or have a seat in Dr. King’s recreated Birmingham jail cell as audio from his “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” surrounds you. The final stop in the museum is the hotel room and balcony where Dr. King was murdered, which has been painstakingly recreated to be historically accurate to the time complete with his imagined belongings, dishware, and suitcase. To say it is a moving experience is an understatement.

This article was created in partnership in TravelCoterie, a Black-owned publication featuring travel news, tips, and cultural experiences.

Shayla Martin
Shayla Martin is an award-winning travel and culture journalist based in Washington, D.C. Find her work in outlets including The New York Times, Architectural Digest, Coastal Living, Hemispheres, Veranda Magazine, and many more. She is also the founder of The Road We Trod, a bi-weekly newsletter that explores travel destinations through the Black gaze.
Jennifer Douglass for TravelCoterie in partnership with Tripadvisor
Jennifer J. Douglass is a freelance writer and content provider with years of experience in the travel, tourism, and convention industry. She has a penchant for uncovering and highlighting the narratives of those indigenous to the places she covers. She is an astrology buff who also enjoys studying and writing about cosmology and astrocartography.