Here's a Southern Road Trip to Explore Black History & Culture
USA Travel Destinations
Arkansas, Mississippi & Alabama
With protests spreading across the nation and the recent celebration of Juneteenth, you may be wanting to learn more about black history and culture in the United States. From small towns to big cities, the US South offers a plethora of educational opportunities at key Civil Rights Movement landmarks and museums, as well as a variety of cultural experiences at historic black-owned restaurants that are destinations in and of themselves. Below I've curated (with the help of my college professor daughter:) a COVID-friendly road trip highlighting some of the most notable of these destinations across the US South.
Little Rock, Arkansas
Begin your journey at Little Rock Central High School, in the heart of Arkansas’s capitol. In the fall of 1957, nine black students enrolled in the previously all-white Little Rock Central High School. The Little Rock Nine faced more than a thousand white protesters, prompting President Dwight D. Eisenhower to send federal troops to escort them to class. The building continues to house an operating high school while also serving as a National Historic Site, featuring a visitor center, museum, and ranger-led tours.
En route to your next destination, don’t miss out on the James Beard Award winning Jones Bar-B-Q Diner, the oldest known black-owned restaurant in the United States. This no-frills barbecue joint sells barbecued meats on white bread (with or without coleslaw) or by the pound. Pair your sandwich with a bag of chips and a soda for a cheap, delicious lunch.
Just under three hours southeast of Little Rock, continue your exploration in small-town Mississippi at the Emmett Till Interpretive Center. In September 1955, an all-white jury acquitted Roy Bryant and J.W. Milam of murdering fourteen-year-old Emmett Till in Money, Mississippi, the previous month, after Till allegedly offended Bryant’s wife, Carolyn. The courthouse where their trial was held now serves as a museum and interpretive center.
On the road to your next stop, be sure to visit a different type of small-town Mississippi, the college town of Oxford, home of Ole Miss. While you’re there, check out the Oxford Community Market, Tuesdays 3:00 to 6:30 p.m., and Square Books, a series of independent bookstores on the main town square. Enjoy your fresh eats and new reads on a bench in the square for a relaxing afternoon.
Four hours southeast of Sumner, arrive at the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church in Alabama’s largest city. On Sunday, September 15, 1963, four Ku Klux Klan members bombed the church, killing four black girls and injuring many others. While no perpetrators were prosecuted until 1977, the tragic act of terrorism inspired Congress to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The church remains an active site of worship and leads historic tours.
While downtown, if you’re feeling hungry, stop in at Yo’ Mama’s Restaurant, a short one-mile walk from the church. This black-owned brunch and lunch spot is famous for its southern classics like chicken and waffles and shrimp and grits.
Two hours south of Birmingham puts you in Selma to continue your journey at the Edmund Pettus Bridge. In March 1965, protesters marched from Selma to Montgomery, the state capitol, to demand black voting rights. On the first day, now known as Bloody Sunday, state troopers violently attacked unarmed marchers on the bridge. Widespread media coverage of horrific violence contributed to passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The bridge, now a National Historic Landmark, is still named after a former Confederate and Ku Klux Klan member.
Continue your Civil Rights education while also eating some of Alabama’s best barbecue at the black-owned Lannie’s Bar-B-Q Spot in Selma’s historically black neighborhood. While chowing down on their famous pulled pork and ribs topped with their tangy barbecue sauce, imagine Civil Rights activists congregating in the restaurant, open since 1942.
Driving US Route 80, the path of the Selma to Montgomery marches, lands you in less than hour in the state capitol, home of the Freedom Rides Museum. On May 20, 1961, the Freedom Riders—black and white activists who rode southern buses to protest segregated terminals—were attacked by a white mob at the Montgomery Greyhound Station. Today, the station has been restored to its 1961 appearance and serves as a museum.
While in Montgomery, pick up some of Mrs. B’s Home Cooking, a black-owned soul food restaurant whose classics like oxtail, fried catfish, and liver and onions live up to its tagline “Taste like Grandma’s!”
Finally, end your journey at the Equal Justice Initiative’s National Memorial for Peace and Justice. This newly-opened memorial brings your trip full circle, tracing the legacy of enslavement, lynching, segregation and Jim Crow, and police violence in the United States.
For more ideas and information, please visit the Civil Rights Trail. As always, I'm wishing you fun, educational, and safe travels.