The arts provide a window into the soul of Black America.
For travelers looking for more meaningful experiences, arts and culture encounters can provide unique insight into the past and present of the Black community.
From Philadelphia to Mississippi, here are some arts and culture institutions that will help bring Black culture to life for your travelers.
YMI Cultural Center
Asheville, North Carolina
Nestled within the southern Appalachian Mountains, the city of Asheville, North Carolina, radiates scenic beauty. The YMI Cultural Center (initially branded the Young Men’s Institute), provides a central hub supporting Black arts and culture businesses in the area, generating a ripple effect of growth and support for Black entrepreneurs.
“While most incubator programs assist with business plans and financing, our design is deliberate in providing leadership for scaling up small businesses and advising on some of the pitfalls that often lead to premature closures,” said Alexandria Monque Ravenel, the center’s managing director.
The center features retail spaces for small Black-owned businesses. Among participating businesses are the Penny Cup coffeehouse and a boutique and art gallery, Noir Collective AVL.
The gallery features work by local artists of color, some of whom don’t have much following in the community. The center staff matches them with experienced and well-resourced artists of color who act as curators or coaches and consult on executing an exhibition.
The historic building also features displays of artifacts that are rotated out from the organization’s archives. The artifacts range from masks and instruments to advertising posters from events like Goombay (a festival celebrating Black life in Asheville), as well as sculptures, historical maps and original paintings.
Visitors can view the work of the resident artists, meet with staff, enjoy a YMI specialty beverage and pick up souvenirs at the boutique next door.
Houston Museum of African American Culture
Groups looking for an affordable way to experience Black culture will find it in the Houston Museum of African American Culture. It is the most visited African American cultural asset in Houston, and it attracts visitors with thought-provoking exhibits, films and engaging programs.
“The current economic times do not adversely impact the museum’s commitment to free admission,” said John Guess Jr., the museum’s CEO. “We are supported by the income we receive from our museum store, the Culture Shoppe. When visitors buy from the store, they, in effect, subsidize free admission.”
The Stairwell of Memory is the museum’s permanent exhibition. It provides a clear message to younger generations while also confirming memories for older visitors.
“It is the museum’s way of making sure that everyone feels themselves a part of American issues and hopefully elicits thoughtful possible solutions,” Guess said. “Our lobby sets the tone with its portrait of HMAAC founder and former Mayor Lee P. Brown. Immediately one understands that history is an important part of our culture and that we are not simply a visual arts museum but rather a museum dedicated to the broader impact and importance of culture.”
Exhibitions, films and programs tend to be contemporary and thought provoking, dealing with issues of race, gender and ethnicity — reflecting the culture of its surrounding communities. There is also a strong commitment to community involvement.
“The museum is known as ‘Houston’s Black Film House,’” Guess said, “and our decades-old film series captures a dedicated film audience with films that are both topical and historical.”
Mississippi Blues Trail
When it comes to African American arts and culture, the Mississippi Blues Trail’s sites run the gamut from city streets to cotton fields, train depots to cemeteries, and clubs to churches. The trail encompasses sites all over the state. Groups will find two noteworthy sites in the towns along the Mississippi Gulf Coast
Jazz and blues fans shouldn’t miss the Ground Zero Blues Club. Both the original location in Clarksdale and the newly opened location in Biloxi are co-owned by Oscar-winning actor Morgan Freeman and feature live performances from local, regional and national musicians almost every night of the week. The clubs are fashioned in the style of a juke joint. The extensive lineup of live music, Southern dining and an afternoon happy hour make this a great stop for groups craving authenticity.
The 100 Men Hall in Bay St. Louis is another jewel among the outstanding sites on the Mississippi Blues Trail. Legendary musicians such as Ray Charles, Etta James, James Brown, BB King, James Booker and more played there.
“The hall tells a more nuanced story than the ones you hear about Mississippi outside of this state,” said Rachel Dangermond, director of the 100 Men Hall. “It tells of Black self-reliance and self-directness. The music that evolved inside this hall is purely Black American music, ranging from blues to bounce.”
Visitors love the 100 Men Hall People Project, a series of 274 portraits of locals who have a history with the hall. Also, there is a giant mural scaling one side of the building that tells a visual story of the hall’s history.
The Colored Girls Museum
In Philadelphia, the Colored Girls Museum, founded in 2015 in a historic Germantown home, is the only museum that shares the stories and perspectives of “ordinary” girls and women of the African diaspora. Each room of this exquisite three-story Victorian home features art and artifacts significant to ordinary Black girls. Each year exhibitions shift to consider another aspect, concern or story impacting the well-being of ordinary girls and women of the African diaspora.
The museum features art and cultural experiences including exhibitions, performances and other programming.
“We are the first and only institution of our kind distinct for collecting, exhibiting, honoring and decoding artifacts rooted in the experiences and herstory of Black girlhood,” said associate director Ian Friday. “One of the museum’s great strengths is that while we nurture many Black femme artists and are proud to be part of the ecosystem that helps early and midcareer artists build their careers, our primary goals are not focused on success within the art world. We exist to help communities unlock the latent power that we already possess.”
The museum is a community institution that carries out its mission in a collaborative way.
“We museum differently,” Friday said, “and are open to all who are ready for a conscious revolution. The experience is multi-layered and multi-sensory, so one can expect to explore sights, sounds and smells in what you see and what you imagine.”
Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center
Niagara Falls, New York
The Niagara Falls Underground Railroad Heritage Center is an experiential and public art museum that presents the stories of Black freedom seekers and abolitionists at the forefront of Underground Railroad interpretation.
“The Heritage Center’s approach to Underground Railroad interpretation is not to ask how communities of African descent survived,” said interim director Ally Spongr, “but rather to demonstrate how these communities thrived.”
Visitors leave with an expanded understanding of the value of Niagara Falls and their own role in a movement for social justice that continues today. Traditional history lessons about the Underground Railroad focus on white abolitionists and Harriet Tubman, but the museum seeks to highlight the contributions of others.
“The reality is that the Underground Railroad existed because countless ordinary Black individuals took extraordinary risks to advance the freedom of themselves and others,” Spongr said. “The stories of resistance and resilience that occurred in Niagara Falls before the Civil War are as inspiring as they are astonishing.”