Black History Becoming a Star Tourist Attraction

Sandhya Somashekhar, Washington Post, Aug. 15

Some clutch their stomachs or weep when they step into one of the galleries at a Baltimore museum of African American history. The so-called lynching room is a stomach-turning display of newspaper photos and body parts and cruel scenes captured in wax. On a recent afternoon, a young man fainted upon hearing the story of a black couple who were hanged and mutilated by an angry mob, the woman’s fetus torn from her and crushed.

Yet despite the horrors they face at the National Great Blacks in Wax Museum, located on an East Baltimore street corner across from a boarded-up shopping center, visitors keep streaming in. Attendance has grown from 100,000 visitors in 1995 to more than 200,000 currently, and its owner plans to expand it from one building to an entire city block by 2008.

“Black people are beginning to find out the truth about black history, not just from a white perspective,” said Howard E. Stinnette, who designed part of the lynching exhibit. “They want to learn.”

More and more, the tourism industry is awakening to the interest—and profitability—of African American history, from the concrete steps in Fredericksburg, where slaves were bought and sold, to the black pioneer towns in the West to the scenes of the civil rights struggle in Alabama and Mississippi.

In Maryland, a slate of new attractions connected with blacks’ history has opened recently. One is the Reginald F. Lewis Museum of Maryland African American History and Culture in Baltimore, which opened in June. A new museum and cultural center dedicated to Harriet Tubman is planned for the slave-era hero’s birthplace in Cambridge, on the Eastern Shore.

The District and Virginia also have started courting black visitors. Last year, a D.C. tourism agency published an African American heritage brochure, and this year, the city began running ads in African American publications inviting readers to “discover D.C. from your perspective.” A new Smithsonian museum centered on African American history is scheduled to open in 2013.

Since May 2004, Virginia has spent more than $300,000 to lure African American tourists to the state, which last year was the sixth most-visited state in the country among that group, tourism officials said. A national slavery museum scheduled to open in Fredericksburg is expected to draw even more.

And tour operators who focus on black heritage say the new offerings have translated into more business for them.

“It’s really in vogue right now,” said Virgie M. Washington, a tour guide in Hampton, Va., who said her business has more than doubled in the past few years. “We’re hungry for it. We’re tired of listening to everybody else’s history but our own.”

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