Across the U.S., the National Park Service preserves more than just wilderness. Equally pivotal to the American experience is the history and preservation of its citizens, especially those who endured hard-fought struggles to expand human rights and forge new freedoms, and no national parks capture this ethos like those dedicated to Black history. From the childhood homes of iconic Civil Rights figures to sites honoring successful westward expansion, here are nine must-visit national parks tied to Black history.
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument
Before he left office in January 2017, President Barack Obama designated a portion of the Birmingham Civil Rights District as Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument, further highlighting the Civil Rights legacy of Alabama’s largest city. The monument includes the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute—an extensive, emotionally-charged Smithsonian-affiliated museum—along with other buildings like the 16th Street Baptist Church, which was the site of a bombing on September 15, 1963. Together, they tell the tragic tale of events that catapulted Birmingham into the international spotlight in 1963, when peaceful Black protestors and children were violently attacked by police. The reason for the assault? Police were clashing against Project C, an organization that sought to challenge racist laws restricting freedoms for Black residents, headquartered at the A.G. Gaston Motel, a structure that’s included in the national monument and is currently being rehabilitated for visitors.
Located in downtown Birmingham, the park is easily accessible from the airport and numerous area hotels, and thanks to its mild winters and extensive indoor facilities, it’s easy to visit year-round. After you’ve perused the various gallery spaces of the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, stroll through Kelly Ingram Park across the street, where statues and monuments point out important figures and events in Birmingham’s battle for Civil Rights.
Harriet Tubman National Historical Park
Few figures in Black history are as iconic as Harriet Tubman. In central New York, the Harriet Tubman National Historical Park celebrates the legacy of the Underground Railroad pioneer at the Thompson A.M.E. Zion Church, Harriet Tubman Residence, and the restored Harriet Tubman Home for the Aged, which represented her dream of establishing a home for elderly Black Americans; she was admitted there in 1911 and lived out the rest of her days until 1913.
Tours are available for the Home for the Aged, departing from the Harriet Tubman Visitor Center, and travelers can explore the grounds of the church and residence on their own from dawn to dusk (the interiors are inaccessible due to current rehabilitation efforts). The visitor center and homes are all located on the same campus about 1.5 miles from the city center of Auburn, while the church is a mile down the road.
The easiest way to visit the park is via Syracuse, 28 miles northeast of Auburn, where rental cars are available at Syracuse Hancock International Airport. Nestled in the Finger Lakes region of New York, the climate is warm in the summer, crisp in the fall, and cold and snowy in the quiet winter, each lending distinct beauty to a place of historical significance, making this park an apt destination year-round.
Pullman National Monument
On the south side of Chicago, Pullman National Monument is an homage to architecture, city planning, and Black American labor history. Now part of the Pullman neighborhood—so named for railroad car manufacturer George Pullman—this historic district was the first planned industrial community in the country, and the national park includes the opulent Pullman factory, the Hotel Florence, and the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum, which focuses on the area’s Black workforce. During construction, Pullman was the largest employer of Black Americans in the U.S., with 44 percent of workers hailing from the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters instated by A. Philip Randolph. The union of Black workers reached contract agreements with Pullman enterprises, becoming the first labor agreement between a company and a Black union.
The monument is accessible via car, rideshare, CTA bus #111-Pullman, or the 115th Street-Kensington Station stop on the Metra. The Historic Pullman Foundation visitor center provides exhibits and a video, while the Pullman Factory Complex has limited tours. The Hotel Florence is closed for renovations, but the A. Philip Randolph Pullman Porter Museum (open seasonally from April 1 to Dec. 1) is an enlightening place to explore the Black labor history of the area, their important contributions to an architectural marvel, and the social progress of the Black union.
Being Chicago, weather can be an issue—summers can be hot and humid and winters can get unbearably frigid. Dress accordingly, though, and you’re sure to enjoy yourself regardless of the forecast.
Fort Monroe National Monument
Virginia’s Fort Monroe National Monument is the largest stone fort in American history as well as the site of Chief Black Hawk's detainment, Civil War salvation, and the first arrival of Africans to the continent. Along the coast, a historical plaque reads, “First Africans in Virginia,” denoting the time in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans made landfall in present-day Fort Monroe. Although mired in tragedy and struggle, which would continue for centuries, the arrival of these “First Africans” would have a lasting—and meaningful—impact on the development of the burgeoning nation. When they arrived, American chattel slavery did not yet exist, and they employed skills like farming, herding, and blacksmith work, in addition to introducing cultural traditions like dancing and crop cultivation.
Most popular in the summer and fall, visitors to Fort Monroe can peruse the Casemate Museum, located within the fort, to delve deeper into the history of the fort, go fishing at Engineer Wharf, and swim at Outlook Beach. Visitors can embark on a self-guided walking tour in and around the monument, to sites like the Old Point Comfort Lighthouse, Continental Park, Fort Monroe Arsenal, and The Main Gate. The latter was constructed in 1820, and stands as an ode to the thousands of enslaved people who found freedom at Fort Monroe during the Civil War under provisions of contraband policies, thus earning it the nickname “Freedom’s Fortress.”
The nearest major city is Richmond, Virginia, about 80 miles northwest of Fort Monroe via I-64. Flying into Richmond International Airport is convenient for rental cars, and the coastal drive to the national monument is a scenic one.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park
Across the U.S., Martin Luther King Jr.’s enduring legacy is celebrated with monuments, memorials, and museums aplenty, from the nation’s capital to Selma, Alabama. To discover this great man’s origin story, however, you'll need to visit his childhood home in Atlanta, Georgia.
Start at the visitor center, where you can sign up for a free guided tour of King’s birth home, check out rotating exhibits in the D.R.E.A.M. Gallery, and see the “Children of Courage” exhibit, focusing on children of the Civil Rights Movement. A main attraction of the park is the birth home, a two-story Queen Anne-style house where King spent the first 12 years of his life. Other sites to see include the “I Have a Dream” World Peace Rose Garden, a tranquil oasis next to the Peace Plaza by the visitor center; the Ebenezer Baptist Church where King was baptized; and The Martin Luther King, Jr. Center for Nonviolent Social Change, Inc., to visit King’s grave.
Located near downtown Atlanta, all sites in the park are within a few blocks of one another, making it easy to explore on foot. The park—and the rest of Atlanta—are accessible via Hartsfield-Jackson International Airport, about 12 miles south of the park via I-85.
African American Civil War Memorial
An ode to the thousands of Black soldiers who served during the Civil War, the African American Civil War Memorial is a somber reminder of those who sacrificed their lives to enable freedom for others. Located on Vermont Avenue in the city’s U Street neighborhood—an area historically important to Black American culture—the memorial is the only one of its kind dedicated to the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and sailors. At its center is a bronze statue of three infantrymen and a sailor fighting for freedom, adjoined by inscriptions of nearly 200,000 Black soldiers and sailors who fought to preserve the Union.
The memorial can be found at 1925 Vermont Avenue Northwest, accessible via rental car, cab, or rideshare, or off the U Street/Cardozo Metro station. The outdoor memorial can be seen for free 24 hours a day. Though unaffiliated with the National Park Service, the adjoining African American Civil War Museum is well worth a visit as well.
Booker T. Washington National Monument
One of the most inspiring figures in the Civil Rights Movement, Booker T. Washington was a former slave born in 1856 on the Burroughs plantation who found freedom following the Civil War. He went on to achieve greatness as the first principal of Alabama’s Tuskegee Normal and Industrial School, before cementing his legacy as a prolific author, orator, and voice in the ongoing fight for rights. This Virginia monument marks the birthplace of Booker T. Washington and his lifelong journey from enslavement through war, emancipation, and his social justice work that followed.
The visitor center features insightful exhibits and an A/V presentation of Washington’s life. From there, explore the 1/4-mile Plantation Trail through reconstructed farm buildings, and the Jack-O-Lantern Branch Heritage Trail, a 1.5-mile trek through peaceful meadows and forests. There’s also a picnic area, a functioning farm, and a garden modeled after those that existed in the area in the 1850s.
Located in central Virginia, Booker T. Washington National Monument is best accessed through Roanoke, Virginia, 25 miles northwest of the park. An under-the-radar park in an area with moderate weather year-round makes the national monument a good destination at any time of year.
Nicodemus National Historic Site
After the Civil War, Black Americans left Kentucky in search of expanded freedoms in the “promised land”: Kansas. After selecting this new townsite in 1877, Nicodemus was presided over by the Black-dominated Nicodemus Town Company, and early settlers like Reverend Simon P. Roundtree and W.R. Hill touted the area as a refuge for Black Americans, actively encouraging and recruiting new residents from Kentucky. As more settlers arrived, the community grew to include schools, churches, and general stores. By 1880, the Black population in the county was between 500 and 700, while Nicodemus town was home to nearly 300 Black people and 83 white people. Today, Nicodemus is the only remaining Black settlement west of the Mississippi River.
The park has five buildings to visit, representing different elements in the establishment of the community. There’s the Township Hall, representing self-government and home to a visitor center with exhibits and a bookstore; the St. Francis Hotel, representing business and family life; the Old First Baptist Church; the African Methodist Episcopal Church; and School District Number 1.
When visiting the park, note that summers are long and hot, and winters are cold, with abbreviated spring and fall seasons. April, May, September, and October are optimal months to visit in order to avoid the extremes. A road trip is essential in order to access the park, whether by Kansas City (308 miles east of the park), Topeka (245 miles east of the park), Lincoln, Nebraska (250 miles northeast of the park), or Denver (310 miles west of the park).
Boston African American National Historic Site
In the 1700s, Boston played a pivotal role in the American Revolution and the fight for independence. A century later, the city once again found itself fighting for freedoms, as Boston’s Black community retaliated against slavery and discrimination with a battle on Beacon Hill; aptly nicknamed “Boston’s Second Revolution.”
The national park consists of 15 Civil War-era structures that tell the story of Boston’s Black community in the 19th century, including numerous sites along the 1.5-mile Black Heritage Trail. These include the African Meeting House, the oldest Black church in the country; the Abiel Smith School, now a museum; the John Coburn House, the residence of a Black abolitionist who worked with the Underground Railroad; and the house of John J. Smith, another abolitionist who helped slaves escape on the Underground Railroad. Rangers offer free guided tours along the Black Heritage Trail in the summer, and self-guided tour maps are available at the Boston African American Historic Site visitor center and the Abiel Smith School.
Considering its downtown Boston location, the national historic site is easy to get to from anywhere in the city, suburbs, or Boston Logan International Airport, where rental cars or rideshare can be picked up. Or simply take the MBTA subway to the Park Street stop on the Red or Green lines. Summer and fall are the best seasons to visit for weather purposes, as winter can be icy, snowy, and cold, especially if you’re planning on a self-guided walking tour.