These fascinating sites share important and often overlooked stories about people who shaped U.S. history and culture.
National parks preserve the legacies of visionaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Harriet Tubman, Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington, as well as landmark sites in the struggle for equality, including the Brown v. Board of Education and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Sites and dozens of Civil War battlefields where soldiers fought and died to end slavery and preserve the union.
Yet many other lesser-known parks share compelling and unexpected stories. Here are nine fascinating but less obvious places to learn about Black history.
Note that the pandemic may continue to cause temporary closures at some sites, though all offer more information and historic context online.
1. Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park, New Jersey
Home to the second-largest waterfall east of the Mississippi, Paterson Great Falls preserves the history of America’s first planned industrial city. In 2014, the park was expanded to include Hinchliffe Stadium, a venue with deep connections to Negro League Baseball and 20th-century African American history. Iconic clubs including the Newark Eagles (pictured above), New York Cubans and New York Black Yankees all played at Hinchliffe, and Hall of Famers Monte Irvin and Larry Doby — the first Black player in Major League Baseball’s American League — began their careers there. Legendary composer and bandleader Duke Ellington played one of his last major concerts with his orchestra at Hinchliffe in the early 1970s. Within a few decades, however, the stadium fell into disuse and serious disrepair. Hinchliffe Stadium is now undergoing extensive renovations, and park staff are planning a reopening in late 2022. Learn more about this storied history in NPCA’s recent podcast.
2. Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial, California
The worst homeland disaster of World War II happened on a dock not far from San Francisco. Thousands of African American sailors served at Port Chicago in segregated units during the war with limited job roles; one of these roles was loading weapons and ammunition into ships. The work was extremely tedious and dangerous, and the sailors received little training. One July evening in 1944, more than 5,000 tons of munitions exploded, killing 320 men and injuring hundreds of others. Two weeks later, when sailors were ordered to return to the same dangerous conditions, 258 men refused and 50 were court-martialed and found guilty of mutiny. This terrible tragedy ultimately led to the desegregation of the U.S. Navy and, subsequently, all U.S. armed forces, inspiring many people to become part of the civil rights movement. To date, the U.S. Navy has refused to overturn the court-martial of the 50 soldiers, though families and some members of Congress continue to pursue reversals. (Note: The memorial is on an active military base, and reservations are required at least two weeks in advance to visit.)
3. Nicodemus National Historic Site, Kansas
The era of American pioneers conjures images of white families in horse-drawn carts making long journeys across the Midwest. However, in 1877, seven men from Kentucky — most of them formerly enslaved — set out to create the first all-Black settlement on the Great Plains, inspiring African American families to travel west. Many of these pioneers viewed Kansas as a “promised land” and a way to escape the discrimination, racial violence and poor living conditions of the South following the Civil War. Conditions were difficult, however, and many of the early settlers quickly left; others lived in sod houses or holes in the ground and suffered without enough food until a second wave of settlers brought horses, plows and other resources several years later. In its heyday, roughly 600 people lived in Nicodemus, though the population declined in the 1900s and only about 60 people live there today. The site is the last African American settlement west of the Mississippi River, and a walking tour through town traces different aspects of pioneer life in the late 1800s. The park also offers an excellent library with helpful resources for tracing area ancestry and hosts homecoming events for descendants of residents.
4. Boston National Historical Park, Massachusetts
Five years before the start of the Revolutionary War, a dispute between American colonists and British troops turned deadly. In the skirmish, which became known as the Boston Massacre, British soldiers killed three people on a downtown street that is now part of Boston National Historical Park. The first to fall was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of African and Native American descent who had escaped slavery more than two decades earlier. While much about Attucks remains shrouded in mystery, his death is remembered today as part of an event that turned colonial attitudes against the Crown and planted the seeds of the American Revolution.
5. Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Alabama
More than 80 years ago, African Americans were barred from flying in the U.S. military. But in 1941, under pressure from civil rights organizations and members of the Black press, the Army Air Corps launched a “Tuskegee Aviation Experience” to train African Americans to fly and maintain combat aircraft during World War II. The program, which took place at the distinguished Tuskegee Institute, trained more than 1,000 Black pilots, navigators, bombardiers, instructors and other associated personnel. These men flew more than 1,500 missions during the war and won more than 850 medals, defying prevailing stereotypes and opening African Americans to more opportunities in the military. Although they were not trained as pilots, Black women also participated in the program and became mechanics, technicians, control tower operators and other specialized staff. The national historic site, operating at reduced capacity due to the pandemic as of this writing, contains a restored hanger and a museum, which includes a replica of a red-tail plane the airmen were known for piloting.
6. Fort Davis National Historic Site, Texas
The African American U.S. Army regiments known as Buffalo Soldiers performed a range of challenging duties while guarding the frontier in the 1800s and early 1900s, including serving as some of the earliest national park rangers. Visitors can learn about the remarkable history of these men at several national park sites, including Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon in California, as well as a national monument honoring one of the most prominent Buffalo Soldiers, Colonel Charles Young, at his homestead in Xenia, Ohio. Fort Davis in West Texas is the only site where all four Buffalo Soldier regiments were stationed. It is also one of the best-preserved frontier posts and an ideal place to step back in time, explore the modest barracks, look out over the vast Southwestern brush, and get a sense of what life was like for these men 150 years ago.
7. New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park, Louisiana
An entire park site devoted to jazz, right in the heart of the French Quarter, where even the park rangers serenade you? It’s a dream come true for music lovers who want to learn more about this distinctly American art form fused from the roots of the blues, swing, ragtime and gospel traditions. Though relatively few national park sites are devoted to the arts, visitors to New Orleans can learn about pivotal figures such as Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton and enjoy live performances and ranger-led educational programs five days a week. Note that parts of the park are temporarily closed for repairs, but staff are scheduling performances at alternate venues, so check the website before you visit.
8. Pullman National Monument, Illinois
Few sites preserve the history of American industry, labor and urban planning as well as Pullman. Industrialist George Pullman launched the Pullman Palace Car Company on Chicago’s South Side in the 1880s to manufacture rail cars, creating a company town with shops, schools and a church. In the early 20th century, the Pullman Company was the nation’s largest employer of African Americans. After decades of unfair and abusive labor practices, A. Philip Randolph organized the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters at the Pullman Company — the first African American labor union to secure bargaining rights. In 1894, after George Pullman cut wages without reducing rent, employees launched a strike that spread across the railroad industry, interrupting national rail and mail service and inspiring a nationwide dialogue on workers’ rights. Later that year, Congress unanimously created Labor Day as a national holiday. Pullman porters were instrumental in the rise of the Black middle class in America. NPCA and our supporters and allies were instrumental in preserving the site, where most of the original buildings from the planned industrial town still stand, as part of the National Park System.
9. Biscayne National Park, Florida
This marine park is preserved today thanks in large part to the Jones family of Porgy Key. The family initially purchased Porgy Key for $300 in 1897, where they lived and grew vegetables and fruits, including a flourishing business in limes and pineapples. The last surviving member of the Jones family, Lancelot, spent his whole life on the island and eventually became known as the “Sage of Porgy Key,” sharing his naturalist wisdom with visitors and schoolchildren, particularly his love of sea sponges. In the 1960s, developers eyed the pristine islands with plans to build high-rise apartments and shopping centers. Jones not only refused to sell his family’s land, he helped form a counter-movement against the development — and the plans were eventually defeated. Jones later sold his island paradise to the National Park Service, where it is now preserved in a similar condition to how his family experienced it.
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- Fort Davis National Historic Site
- New Orleans Jazz National Historical Park
- Nicodemus National Historic Site
- Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial
- Biscayne National Park
- Pullman National Monument
- Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site
- Boston National Historical Park
- Paterson Great Falls National Historical Park