By Renée S. Gordon
ABOVE PHOTO: John Henry statue in John Henry Park near the Great Bend Tunnel, West Virginia.
(Photo: John Mueller)
” I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!”
I am often asked to list my favorite US heritage sites and people are always as surprised, as am I, with my answers. My favorites change often and sometimes they are located in places where people tend to think no African Americans ever had an impact. Based on that belief I decided to list an array of lesser-known favorites by state. A visit to and interpretation of these locations will add substantially to an individual’s knowledge of the scope of the history of people of the African Diaspora in America.
ALASKA- The vast majority of early black settlers in Alaska were men who were whalers, fur traders or, in the 1890s, gold seekers. The lawlessness of some gold seekers warranted the stationing by the U.S. of 158 African Americans in the L Company of the 24th Infantry in Skagway. In 1942, Roosevelt sanctioned the construction of the 1,523-mile, $135 million, ALCAN Highway, now the Alaska Highway. The black units, the 93rd, 97th and 95th Army Engineers Corps, constructed what is believed to be the most dangerous portion. They were not allowed to enter the towns and were billeted in tents. Against the odds they completed their task in record time. In 1993, The Black Veterans Memorial Bridge was dedicated in their honor. The University of Alaska in Anchorage houses the George T. Harper collection of Blacks in Alaska History Project.
ARIZONA- Fort Huachuca Military Base has a long and glorious history as the base for the 10th Cavalry, the Buffalo Soldiers. Built in 1877 the 70,00-acre fort served as Arizona’s bastion against Geronimo and his Apache forces. From 1913 until 1947, the fort was segregated, with only African American soldiers stationed here. Scheduled guided tours are offered, begin at the Sierra Vista Visitor’s Center and include the home of “Black Jack” Pershing, the Historical Museum and Buffalo Soldier Legacy Plaza. An 8-ft. bronze sculpture of a 10th Cavalry soldier continues to guard the main gate.
COLORADO- One in three cowboys were black and The Black American West Museum seeks to preserve their legacy. Situated in Denver, the museum was established in 1971 by Paul Stewart in the former home of the state’s first African American female doctor, Justina Ford. Mr. Stewart began collecting artifacts from clients of his barbershop and displaying them in his window. Ultimately the collection outgrew the space and he founded the museum. The collection is stunning and includes objects that represent all of the endeavors in which black pioneers engaged. A visit also includes admission to the Hall of Education where visitors can watch early black westerns. A highlight of the museum is the story of Nat Love known as Deadwood Dick.
HAWAII- Much like Alaska, the first blacks to reach Hawaii were 18th century seamen, many from the Cape Verde Islands near West Africa, and the U.S. Unlike many other ports, there were no restrictions on shore leave in Hawaii and some took this opportunity to attain their freedom. One of the most famous of these settlers was Anthony Allen who fled servitude in 1800. He established a home on the island of Oahu and became a prominent citizen.
The most visited memorial in Hawaii is Pearl Harbor where WWII’s greatest African American hero is honored. Doris “Dorie” Miller was a mess attendant aboard the USS West Virginia on Dec. 7, 1941 when the Japanese attacked. Miller manned a 50-caliber Browning anti-aircraft gun, bringing down at least one plane, and was awarded the Navy Cross, the Purple Heart and the WWII Victory Medal. He was killed two years later when the USS Liscome Bay sank with 646 crewmembers aboard. Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority placed a plaque on the Pearl Harbor Naval Base in 1991.
Barack Obama was born in Queen’s Medical Center, Honolulu, Hawaii, on August 4, 1961 and lived there until the age of 6. He returned to Hawaii in 1971 and lived with his maternal grandparents until 1979. There are, of course, a number of guided tours offered that explore Obama’s island world. Several include meals at his favorite eateries, all feature Punahou School and the Baskin & Robbins where he held his first job.
IOWA- Salem, the first Quaker settlement west of the Mississippi, was established in 1835 and by the 1840s was infamous as a stop for freedom seekers. The entire group was not in agreement and those with strong beliefs established their own meeting house and burial ground. Among the most ardent among them was Henderson Lewelling. His home is now a museum that relates the story of the Underground Railroad. The house features a trapdoor and a tunnel. There are four other documented houses that served as stations in the town and additional Quaker structures that can be seen on a driving tour.
MICHIGAN- Battle Creek is the home of two sites important to the story of Sojourner Truth. Born Isabella Baumfree in 1797 New York, she fled slavery, joined the evangelical Christian movement and took up the abolitionist cause. She took the name Sojourner and began speaking out for the rights of women and the enslaved. The Kimball House Museum mounts an exhibit on Truth that contains clothing, documents, photographs and wood from her area home. Oak Hill Cemetery contains the Sojourner Truth Memorial.
WASHINGTON- Arguably the most iconic musician of the 60s was born James Hendrix on November 27, 1942, in Seattle. He served in the army for one year prior to embarking on his incredible musical career. He died in London on September 18, 1970, under mysterious circumstances and his body was returned to America and placed in Greenwood Memorial Park in Renton, Washington. He was relocated, within Greenwood, in 2002 and his current monument is a domed granite pavilion. The headstone is etched with a replica of his Stratocaster guitar.
WEST VIRGINIA- The Great Bend Tunnel in West Virginia was carved out of the West Virginia rock in the 1870s and it is believed that 20% of the workers died. The Chesapeake and Ohio Railroad laborers were required to drive the metal spikes in by hand in preparation for blasting the shale apart. Legend and research by folklorists indicate that this is the location of the contest between John Henry, supposedly a former slave, and a steam drill. Though Henry won the contest, his heart burst and he died. John Henry Park near the tunnel’s entrance is a showcase for a 1972 statue of the man, complete with sledgehammer, and an interpretive plaque.
For many years Lincoln, King, Tubman, Brown, Douglass and Washington were the only names we consistently heard when taught African American history. I think it is time to add to the list. Black history has been made every day and the heritage of the people of African ancestry can be found in various guises woven throughout the tapestry that is U.S. history. When you travel broaden your horizons, seek out the stories. I promise you will not regret it.
I wish you smooth and expansive travels!