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TRENDSPOTTING

Historical tours reach deeper to include the people long left out

There’s growing demand for the full story.

Kirk Brown is the founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps. The group launched The Better Together Project, which is demanding an end to what it calls the glorification of plantation houses, and the use of their grounds for parties and weddings.

After she graduated from Clark University in Worcester, Carolyn Michael-Banks worked as general manager for a tour company in Washington, D.C., where she quickly noticed that certain people and events were being left out of the script.

“We had absolutely nothing in there about African-American history,” said Michael-Banks, who is Black. “It just didn’t exist.”

So she added information about the Black abolitionist and writer Frederick Douglass. About Benjamin Banneker, a Black surveyor who helped lay out the district. About how enslaved people were among the builders of the White House.

Then the CEO called. “His question to me was, ‘What’s all this Black stuff?’” Michael-Banks remembered.

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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 it doesn’t mean we shouldn’t talk about it,” Michael-Banks said.

Propelled by the social and racial justice movement — and even as historians embark again on their annual effort to correct the New England mythology of Thanksgiving — offerings like these are popping up all over the country, by and about people often excluded from the narratives delivered 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, S.C., St. Louis, New York’s West Village, and San Francisco’s Castro district.

Native Americans tell their own stories on 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 its history and not just its food.

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There are growing numbers of tours focused on Black history and culture, not only in Memphis, but in Austin, Texas; Birmingham, Ala.; Charleston; Chicago; Miami; Savannah, Ga.; Selma, Ala.; and Washington. Atlanta has Black history and civil rights tours and a cycling tour of off-the-beaten-track neighborhoods called Civil Bikes. In Tulsa, Okla., there are now tours of the places where the Tulsa Race Massacre occurred.

Michelle Browder runs a “truth and reconciliation” tour of Montgomery, Ala.Art Meripol

A “truth and reconciliation” tour of Montgomery, Ala., is run by a nonprofit from an office in a building where the words “white” and “colored” are still chiseled in the wall above a water fountain. And Alexandria, Va., last year launched a Black history trail and an Underground Railroad-themed tour. Equally noteworthy is that mainstream historical societies, visitors’ bureaus, museums, and others are adopting these more inclusive takes on America’s past.

Louisville Tourism this year launched an “Unfiltered Truth Collection” of exhibits about the Black 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’s the subject of a new display at the Louisville Slugger Museum, and the Black jockeys, trainers and grooms involved in the Kentucky Derby.

“It’s essential to celebrate these contributions. And it just took this moment in time for there to be 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 this year added to its repertoire of historical re-enactments a short play about a romance between women, based on the real-life story of an 18th-century same-sex relationship.

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"Ladies of Llangollen" at Colonial Williamsburg.Wayne Reynolds

Several house and plantation museums including Monticello and Belle Grove Plantation in Virginia and the Belle Meade Historic Site and Winery near Nashville, have started telling more about the enslaved people who built and worked at them. The state of Nevada last year converted the Stewart Indian School into a museum 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 deliver tours of Black, women’s (“Brick City Broads”) and LGBTQ history, among other things. “Old City, New Views,” read the T-shirts on the tour guides.

“Especially in St. Louis, a city that has been on the national stage for big movements and changes, so many people wanted to know the context of those things,” said Amanda Clark, who owned Renegade and now runs the tours for the society — where, she noted, she had tried for 12 years to get hired.

In an era when a commission set up in response to the New York Times’s “1619 Project” disparaged “false and fashionable” attention to systemic racism in favor of “patriotic education,” when state legislatures are banning the teaching of critical race theory and when former senator Rick Santorum said “there isn’t much Native American culture in American culture,” this broadening of history isn’t universally embraced.

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

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

“My whole childhood, people were reluctant to talk about things that made them uncomfortable,” Yates said. “To talk about enslaved people at Locust Grove would have been impolite. So we erased that history.”

When historic sites are treated solely as places for entertainment, said 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 riches. But when we approach these sites as places to learn about our pasts, we’re called to broaden the narratives” to include such things as 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. It’s all real, and you don’t really understand anything if all you’re doing is just looking at the pretty houses.”

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

“These were labor homes,” said Kirk Brown, founder and CEO of the Black think tank Melanin MeetUps, which launched the project. “People were raped, murdered, sold off. Why is there this glamorization of these homes? It’s depressing and it’s disrespectful and it prevents us as a country from truly healing.”

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How whitewashed such stories have been sometimes surprises even historians. David Rotenstein, an historic preservation consultant, found that the words “Black” or “African American” did not appear in key historic documents in his home town of Silver Spring, Md., where Rotenstein has since developed a Black history walking tour.

“White folks in the United States are very heavily invested in our identities, and those identities get wrapped up in myths like the ones about Thanksgiving or the founding fathers,” he said.

Renewed attention to social and racial justice is beginning to change this.

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

There’s growing demand for the full story, said Michael-Banks, in Memphis.

“It’s overdue,” she said. “But it’s finally happening.”


Jon Marcus can be reached at jonmarcusboston@gmail.com.