Detroit Preserves Its Rich African-American Heritage

Detroit Preserves Its Rich African-American Heritage

You can literally go in any direction from Detroit’s riverfront and see why this is such a major center for African American culture. From the world’s largest museum of African American history or Hitsville U.S.A., where all Motown stars were born, when it comes to African American culture and history, all roads eventually lead to Detroit.

Near the riverfront, trace the turbulent and dramatic history of the Underground Railroad at the Second Baptist Church, the Midwest’s oldest African-American church and major Underground Railroad in the 19th century. More than 5,000 slaves passed through Second Baptist on their way to Canada. Tours of the basement, which served as the station, are available by appointment.

Just eight miles east of the Windsor/Detroit border, visitors can also explore the John Freeman Walls Historic Site and Underground Railroad. The property is owned by descendants of John and Jane Walls, former slaves who made the trip from slavery in North Carolina to freedom in Canada in 1846. Tour leaders, or “Conductors,” together with historic buildings provide a first-hand look at what kind of challenges fugitive slaves faced.

Also in Ontario, Uncle Tom’s Cabin Historic Site offers visitors a look at what it was like to live as a former slave in the 19th century. Visitors look through the settlement’s original buildings, including the home of Reverend Josiah Henson, who found the settlement for escaped slaves. There’s also an interpretive museum and galleries providing information on early African-American communities in Canada.

The world’s largest museum dedicated to African American history, the Charles H. Wright Museum features “And Still We Rise,” an interactive walk-through exhibit that begins on a slave ship where casts of slaves lay crowded together and simulated sounds of the Atlantic surround you. In another section of the exhibit, visitors find themselves on an early 20th-century city street in the middle of the museum. Guests can walk into the Horseshoe Bar and Grille or watch black and white TV through an appliance store window. A replica of the Paradise Theatre allows visitors to check out a classic black movie playing on the theater screen.

Part museum, part vibrant historical village, The Henry Ford is the largest indoor/outdoor history attraction in North America. Here, visitors can enter the restored bus where Rosa Parks made history by refusing to give up her seat to a white man in Montgomery, Alabama on Dec. 1, 1955. The act galvanized the American Civil Rights Movement. The bus is the centerpiece of the “With Liberty and Justice For All” exhibit, which focuses on the American struggle for freedom. In Greenfield Village, the Mattox House was the home to three generations of the Mattox family who lived outside of Savannah, Georgia from Reconstruction through the 1930s.

Aside from the automotive industry, perhaps nothing put Detroit on the map like Motown. Revisit the glory years that produced such stars at Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, the Temptations, the Supremes, and the Jackson Five in Detroit’s cultural center. Motown’s headquarters, founded by Berry Gordy, a one-time auto line worker, has been restored to its 1960s glory. Originally converted from a photographer’s studio, the Motown headquarters and studio stayed open 22 hours a day and 7 days a week during its peak years. Visitors are able to see the upstairs offices and the studio where vocalists and the Funk Brothers created the Motown Sound. Rare photographs, gold records, and Michael Jackson’s sequined glove are on display.

The nation’s fifth-largest art museum, the Detroit Institute of Arts was one of the first major art museums to have a permanent showcase for African art. The DIA collection features works from more than 1,000 African cultures placing it among the most extensive collections in North America. The DIA’s Egyptian collection features a wide range of artifacts including linen-wrapped mummies, sculptures, and coffins. The museum’s selection of West African art includes amazing Benin royal brass sculptures and a wood palace door carved from wood by the artists Olowe of the Ise culture. The museum’s modern and contemporary art collection features African American artists including Augusta Savage, Hughie Smith-Lee, and Benny Andrews.

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