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Black history becoming a star tourist attraction

The tourism industry increasingly is awakening to the interest -- and profitability -- of African American history.
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

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 the slave couple who, with their unborn child, were hanged and mutilated by an angry mob.

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 out 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.

'We're hungry for it'
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."

Blacks spent $30.5 billion on travel in 2002, said Allen Kay, spokesman for the Travel Industry Association of America, citing the firm's most recent statistics. Leisure travel among African Americans rose 4 percent between 2000 and 2002, twice the rate of Americans as a whole.

Blacks on vacation are also more likely than other travelers to visit a historical or cultural site, he said.

"One of the reasons we have seen growth in minority travel, and particularly African American travel, is these are groups that the travel industry has identified and particularly targeted," Kay said. "They have found that when they promote themselves to African Americans, they get more business."

Not everyone reaping the rewards
Although African American tourism is up in general, not everyone is reaping the rewards.

Colonial Williamsburg, for instance, recently opened Great Hopes Plantation, built in part to attract more minority visitors, spokesman Tim Andrews said. The 10-acre farm depicts the lives of poor white farmers as well as free and enslaved blacks.

Although the public has responded well to Williamsburg's new offering, Andrews said, a disproportionately large number of visitors are white.

The problem, critics say, is that Williamsburg -- which for decades had an all-white cast of characters even though the town itself was historically 51 percent black -- offers a sanitized view of slavery.

Andrews said that in 1979, Williamsburg was the first mainstream history site to provide a glimpse of 18th-century black life. Over the years, he said, the reaction from minority visitors has become more positive.

Still, he said, just as the battles are not bloody and old Shields Tavern serves skim milk lattes, the scenes of slavery are sanitized to appeal to an audience of sunblock-slathered families stopping by on their way to the beach.

"The balance between historical authenticity and providing a compelling and enjoyable experience is a balance we struggle with every day here," he said. "We feel we actually strike that balance pretty well."

Although African Americans applaud more realistic portrayals of slavery, many also want to see uplifting aspects of their history, said James O. Horton, a professor of history and American studies at George Washington University.

"People focus so much on the way in which slaves were victimized," said Horton, an author and contributor to books and a documentary on African American history. "However, no human being is simply a victim, and when you start to see the way in which slaves resisted, it's a different situation entirely."

Washington, the tour guide in Hampton, said her most popular offering follows the eastern route of the Underground Railroad, winds up the East Coast into Canada and ends at Harriet Tubman's grave in Upstate New York.

Other tours take visitors through Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee, highlighting the history of jazz and blues. A civil rights tour takes travelers through Alabama and Georgia. Other journeys explore the culture of the black Seminoles of Florida, the black cowboys of the Old West, and the historic churches and theaters of Harlem.

All offer a rare glimpse of history through the eyes of blacks, said Louise and Donald Ellis of Fort Washington, who have taken several of Washington's tours.

Learning 'the history that's not written about'
Although they consider themselves history buffs, they tend to avoid such places as Mount Vernon and Williamsburg, they said. They prefer to learn about the colonial era by visiting such places as the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, a more solemn venue in which the photos of limp men dangling from trees capture the true horror of what many blacks had to deal with and overcome, they said.

While on the Underground Railroad tour, Donald Ellis, 72, marveled at the ingenuity of the runaway slaves who navigated hundreds of miles of wilderness to reach the Canadian border, marking the trees so they always knew which way was north and communicating through quilts made in various patterns.

"They went through woods and trails and dells with no food and no water," he said. "See, that's the history that's not written about. And that's the history I spend my money to go and learn."