Historical tours go deeper and include the people long left out

Then the CEO called. “His question to me was, ‘What is all that black stuff?'” Michael-Banks recalled.

Today, Michael-Banks runs her own tour company, A Tour of Possibilities, in Memphis, which visits the birthplaces and workplaces of cultural icons, including Aretha Franklin and black investigative journalist Ida B. Wells, landmarks of the civil rights movement and sites of the city’s slave markets and lynchings.

“History can be uncomfortable, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it,” Michael-Banks said.

Powered by the social and racial justice movement — and even as historians begin anew in their annual effort to correct the New England mythology of Thanksgiving — such offers are popping up all over the country, by and about people who are often excluded from the stories that are on those jump-on, jump-off bus and trolley tours.

There are women’s history tours of Philadelphia, St. Louis, Buffalo, and Detroit, and LGBTQ tours of Charleston, SC, St. Louis, New York’s West Village, and San Francisco’s Castro District.

Native Americans tell their own stories about Navajo Tours USA in New Mexico and Nez Perce Tourism in the Pacific Northwest. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience in Seattle offers tours of Chinatown that cover not only its history, but also its food.

There are more and more tours focused on black history and culture, not only in Memphis, but also in Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Alaska; Charleston; Chicago; Miami; Savannah, Georgia; Selma, Ala.; and Washington. Atlanta has black history and civil rights tours and a bike ride through off the beaten track neighborhoods called Civil Bikes. In Tulsa, Oklahoma, there are now tours of the sites where the Tulsa Race Massacre took place.

Michelle Browder leads a “Truth and Reconciliation” tour of Montgomery, Ala.Art Meripol

A “Truth and Reconciliation” tour of Montgomery, Ala., is led by a nonprofit from an office in a building where the words “white” and “colored” are still chiseled into the wall above a water fountain. And Alexandria, Virginia, launched a Black History Trail and an Underground Railroad themed tour last year. Equally noteworthy, mainstream historical societies, visitor agencies, museums, and others are adopting this more inclusive view of America’s past.

Louisville Tourism launched an “Unfiltered Truth Collection” this year that features exhibits about black’s contribution to that city’s history and culture, including the black bartender who perfected the Old Fashioned, a pre-Negro League Black baseball team that has been the subject of a new exhibit at the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Black jockeys, trainers, and grooms involved in the Kentucky Derby.

“It is essential to celebrate these contributions. And it took a while to find a way to do that in an encouraging, positive and uplifting way,” said Stacey Yates, vice president of marketing for Louisville Tourism.

Even Colonial Williamsburg added to his repertoire of historical reenactments this year a short play about a romance between women, based on the true story of an 18th-century gay relationship.

“Ladies of Llangollen” by Colonial Williamsburg.Wayne Reynolds

Several home and plantation museums, including Monticello and Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia and the Belle Meade Historic Site and Winery near Nashville, have begun to tell more about the enslaved people who built and worked them. The state of Nevada converted the Stewart Indian School into a museum last year to illustrate the story of how Native American children were taken there to be assimilated.

And the Missouri Historical Society acquired a St. Louis company called Renegade STL to offer tours of Black, women’s (“Brick City Broads”) and LGBTQ histories, among other things. “Old town, new views”, read the T-shirts on the guidebooks.

“Especially in St. Louis, a city that has been on the national scene for major movements and changes, so many people wanted to know the context of those things,” said Amanda Clark, owner of Renegade and now directs the tours for the society. . — where, she noted, she’d been trying to get hired for 12 years.

At a time when a committee created in response to the New York Times’ “1619 project” narrowed the “false and fashionable” focus on systemic racism in favor of “patriotic education,” in which state lawmakers forbid teaching critical race theory and when former Senator Rick Santorum said, “There isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” this broadening of history is not universally embraced.

“They make everything about slavery, which is depressing,” wrote a Yelp reviewer of the Owens-Thomas House and Slave Quarters in Savannah, Georgia, which has expanded its information guides about the enslaved people who worked there.

But there is a growing consensus that much was left out.

“All my childhood people were reluctant to talk about things that made them uncomfortable,” Yates said. “It would have been rude to talk about enslaved people in Locust Grove. So we erased that history.”

When historic sites are treated solely as places of entertainment, says Stephanie Rowe, executive director of the National Council on Public History, “it becomes easier to focus on the furnishings and the stories of success and wealth. But as we approach these sites as places to learn about our past, we are called to “broaden the stories” by including things like who did the work and under what conditions.

In fact, said Paul Melhus, CEO of ToursByLocals, whose guides increasingly focus on the people who have been left out, “The history of America is the history of black people. And gays are part of American history, and Hispanics. is all real, and you don’t understand it if you just look at the beautiful houses.”

Others want to do more than change the script. The Better Together Project demands an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses and the use of their lands for parties and weddings.

“These were working-class homes,” said Kirk Brown, founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps, which launched the project. “People were raped, murdered, sold. Why is there this glorification of these houses? It is depressing and disrespectful and it prevents us as a country from really healing.”

How whitewashed such stories have been sometimes surprises even historians. David Rotenstein, a historic preservation consultant, found that the words “Black” or “African American” do not appear in major historical records in his hometown of Silver Spring, Maryland, where Rotenstein has since developed a black history walk.

“Whites in the United States place great value on our identities, and those identities get wrapped up in myths like Thanksgiving or the Founding Fathers,” he said.

Renewed focus on social and racial justice is beginning to change this.

“We haven’t been able to proudly express ourselves,” said Stacia Morfin, a member of the Nez Perce, or Niimíipuu, tribe and CEO of Nez Perce Tourism, which she started after discovering that none of the tourism-related businesses in her portion of Idaho were run by descendants of native tribes. Now, she said, “the marginalized and the indigenous people are taking that power back.”

There is a growing demand for the full story, Michael-Banks said in Memphis.

“It’s too late,” she said. “But it’s finally going to happen.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at [email protected]

Leave a Reply