From Preservation Issues, Volume 7, Number 3

African American Heritage Tourism


by Angela da Silva
Out of the 11 components of the White House Conference on Tourism held in 1995, the most important may be the one having to do with cultural tourism. The term "cultural tourism" had not become a buzz word at that time, but was still a rather radical concept with origins in the late '80s multi-cultural education movement. This was an educational philosophy that stressed that being different had its advantages, and we should recognize, cultivate and celebrate those differences. And from a preservation viewpoint, that difference did not happen in a vacuum, but developed and had a history of its own and historic places of its own within the larger culture. For the first time, it was okay to be culturally different, and genuine efforts were made to seek out and understand our cultural differences and to find and recognize the historic places associated with the lives of minority cultures.

No longer is tourism just a form of leisure activity. There are now different types of tourism. Studies have recently been complete that show people travel now with purpose and specific goals and objectives. Tourism is now a primary form of economic development in the private sector. Here are some of the facts. In 1994, the U.S. Department of Commerce stated that three out of five new jobs created in the coming millennium would be in travel and tourism. And the fastest growing sector in that area is heritage tourism. Heritage tourism is currently a $30 billion a year industry. The most recent Travel Industry Association report stated that as a small segment of the total tourism picture, the African-American market is a $10 billion a year market. It also stated that African Americans are more likely to visit heritage sites and ethnic museum exhibits than any other segment of the market. There is a quest for historical knowledge that is fueling this travel.

African American heritage tourism would include, for example, the black history tours of St. Louis and Detroit; historical areas like Kansas City's 18th and Vine; the Plantation Project in Hancock County, Georgia, and Bronzeville in Chicago. All of these areas are significant in African American history, either regionally, or in the case of 18th and Vine, internationally. These places are tangible proof of the contributions that blacks made to American society; and black tourists want to see them.

Like the Holocaust Museum, the boundaries of segregated black neighborhoods where they were contained, surrounded by racially restrictive deed covenants that limited their housing options, help serve as reminders of the struggle for equality, lest it be forgotten. In the '60s and '70s, a number of black sites of historic significance were torn down wholesale, and the demolition continues today. Many pre-Civil War, Reconstruction Era and early 20th century black cultural resources were destroyed because they were a painful reminder of injustice and racism. But though much of the built environment is gone, the memories still continue.

The rich oral tradition is what has kept black culture alive today --- with almost pinpoint accuracy. This trait is culturally inherent in the griots of Africa, who preserved every nuance of the village's history and could recant 40 generations of history for the asking. In pre-Civil War America, the tradition had to be preserved, as families were often separated and sold, and reading and writing were prohibited by law. For an example, there was a black town on the Missouri River near Washington, Missouri, called Dundee. Today, only one house remains of what was once a thriving ferry crossing that supported more than 70 black families. Because of the stories that have been handed down, and a few old photos, we know of that town today, and what Saturday night and wash-day Mondays were like there also.

Painful history, such as slavery, the underground railroad and plantation life are viewed differently by African Americans and the majority culture. There is now a healthy curiosity among black people about what their ancestors had to endure that ensured their own survival today. We must take action now to preserve as much as the built environment as possible. The Ville Neighborhood in St. Louis, for example, was the first fully self-contained black neighborhood in the Midwest, complete with its own hospital, schools, churches, and fire department. But only in recent years have there been serious preservation efforts made. Sadly, just one marble pillar remains of the old Poro College, which was the social focal point of the community for more than 50 years. For truly, heritage tourism works best when there is a tangible, historic building, structure, or object on which to hang the cultural aspects of what happened at the site. There must be something to see that will make a tourist want to drive 50 miles off the interstate.

There are some basic principles that should be adhered to for the true experience of heritage tourism. First, the site must be authentic and be a quality presentation. Second, the site must be preserved at all costs; and the very tourism that it was meant to attract must not adversely affect it. The site administrators and presenters must be of that ethnic persuasion. It cannot be perceived as a majority culture version of the sites. The way to sum up what this means is something my grandmother once said. She often lamented, whenever some of the rich women she worked for would say something like "I know how you feel," that "they's only one way you could possibly know, heart or hearth." She meant you had to be born black and lived black to understand black. Most ethnic cultures take as an affront what they consider a distortion of the truth. And last, when you are accessing the sites for possible development, collaboration with the local ethnic community is a must. Many times only the local ethnic community has the emotional understanding of the significance of a building, or even a corner or a vacant lot. One example is a corner in north St. Louis where, if you were black, you had to catch a service car, because taxi cabs would not go into the black community. That is heritage information that would have no meaning to anyone who wasn't black.

Heritage tourism is American Indian, Hispanic, and Asian-American. It can happen in Greek town, the Italian Hill or any other ethnic enclave where the traditions, the culture and everything about them that is unique and identifies them as who they are still exist. We have discovered that touring a plantation, an American Indian reservation or an old one-room African American schoolhouse can be a rich and rewarding experience. And preservation in its many forms is a must to ensure that our ethnic, cultural heritage remains intact for future generations to explorer and experience.


ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Angela da Silva is currently the president of the National Black Tourism networks, with offices in Detroit and St. Louis. The Black Tourism Networks specialize in developing heritage tourism.

All text and photos are taken from Preservation Issues
Missouri Department of Natural Resources
Historic Preservation Program, P.O. Box 176, Jefferson City, MO 65102
Editor: Karen Grace
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