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Pioneering Spirits

The best way to get to know a historical figure is to step inside their world.

A person’s home is their most intimate space. From the furnishings to the fixtures, homes are curated by their inhabitants. And around the country, travelers can get to know some of America’s most extraordinary Black citizens by exploring their homes, schoolhouses and other significant settings during their formative years.

Consider visiting some of these notable sites for revealing looks at the lives of famous Black figures.

Louis Armstrong House Museum

Queens, New York

The timeless melody carried by trumpet in “La Vie en Rose” can transport even the most musically disinclined to a brighter world. Such is a good starting point for unpacking the legacy of musician, vocalist and barrier breaker Louis Armstrong.

“His home is important because of the influence he had across the world,” said Regina Bain, executive director for the Louis Armstrong House Museum in Queens, New York. “Not just on music, but on culture. He was America’s first pop music icon and had hit songs in five decades. He was the first Black American to have featured billing in a major Hollywood film — the list goes on and on.”

During his life, as Satchmo’s popularity increased, opportunities for other artists of color also increased. As the first Black artist to secure the contracted right to stay in the venues he played at in the South, he paved the way for better compensation and respect for other Black artists.

Exploring the home introduces visitors to the larger story of Black artists in the 20th century. The house was purchased by Louis’ wife, Lucille, in the 1940s, a time when Queens was one of the few places Black families could live — the exception, not the rule.

“Around the corner, Dizzy Gillespie, James Brown, all these Black leaders lived in Queens,” Bain said. “That’s where they could afford and were allowed to be. So many of the homes of our icons have disappeared. No one has lived in this house since the Armstrongs and it is still here. That is significant.”

While every inch of the home is interesting, Bain has a special fondness for Satchmo’s den.

“The den is the place he called his own and where he created his reel-to-reel tapes,” Bain said of the prodigious recordings Armstrong made. The museum currently houses 60,000 hours of his archives.

All tours are ticketed, guided and limited to groups of 10. Across the street from the Historic Home, the museum has erected the state-of-the-art Armstrong Center, a modest yet thought-provoking jewel in the middle of this historic residential neighborhood. Larger groups can split up, and while 10 or fewer tour the home, the rest can experience the exhibits, concerts and artifacts in the Armstrong Center.

Tina Turner Museum

Brownsville, Tennessee

The Queen of Rock ’n’ Roll had a larger-than-life career, but understanding that she came from a rural town with a tiny, one-room schoolhouse makes her achievements all the more impressive. Tina Turner, born Anna Mae Bullock, attended Flagg Grove Elementary School in the 1940s. When the school was at risk of being demolished for an irrigation project decades later, proud local Brownsville residents and passionate Tina Turner fans all over the world banded together to save it.

Today the Flagg Grove School houses the Tina Turner Museum and makes up one-third of the West Tennessee Delta Heritage Center.

“You see the glitz and the glamor from her career; you see costumes, records, awards, photographs and memorabilia,” said Sonia Clark, director for the center and museum. “But you turn the corner and you see the old desk, the chalkboard, the cubbies on the wall and the teacher’s desk.”

The Tina Turner Museum puts the importance of education on display in its effort to preserve the legacy of African American one-room schoolhouses. “And because it was part of Tina Turner’s legacy, we’re showcasing her career and the phenomenal impact she had on the music industry,” Clark added. “We’re showing her humble background and telling people whatever their dream is, it is achievable.”

The schoolhouse, built in the aftermath of the Civil War, illustrates the critical component of education in Tina Turner’s story and in the broader African American story.

“Even though slavery had been abolished, things had not gotten much better,” Clark said. “Tina, in an interview, talks about the importance of education. An African American took the initiative to plot their own course in a time when it wasn’t the popular thing to do, and it was definitely dangerous to do, and that was important.”

Frederick Douglass National Historic Site

Washington, D.C.

A key part of telling America’s stories is having the right places to share them. One of the most climactic parts of the plot in that story is the abolition of slavery, and no one more embodies the fight for abolition than public figure, orator and prolific writer Frederick Douglass. The right place to tell his story? His home, Cedar Hill, now a National Park Service Historic Site in Washington, D.C.

Douglass saw evil and dedicated his life to destroying it, becoming known the world over as a champion for equality. The last 17 years of his life, he lived in the home in D.C.’s Anacostia neighborhood with his wife, Helen Pitts Douglass.

After his death, a fascinating story unfolded: His wife led the funding of the Frederick Douglass Memorial and Historic Association to preserve the home, but she passed away soon after, and the association was unable to complete its goal. A vast network of visionary Black leaders including Ida B. Wells and the National Association of Colored Women’s Clubs led by Mary B. Talbert rallied together to fundraise for the home, purchasing it, paying off its mortgage and making needed updates. The two organizations owned the home until 1962, when the federal government took over Cedar Hill to protect and restore it through the National Park Service.

Today, groups can access the home through guided tours that take place Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays. Specific times are set for groups larger than 10. Guests begin their tours at the visitor center then walk to the top of a large hill, where the home overlooks the street. Tour participants will explore the first and second floors of the home, which Douglass expanded significantly in his time there, as well as artifacts and furnishings owned by Douglass and the family.

Paul Laurence Dunbar Home

Dayton, Ohio

“I Know Why The Caged Bird Sings” is the inimitable memoir by Maya Angelou. What some may not know is the writer drew her title from a line in one of Paul Laurence Dunbar’s writings. That’s just a tiny piece of evidence of the impression Dunbar left on American society. In Dayton, Ohio, the Paul Laurence Dunbar Home is one of America’s oldest state memorials dedicated to an African American and makes an excellent opportunity for groups to explore his story.

“The Paul Laurence Dunbar Home is a place we can continue to tell the story of what life was like for the first generation of Black people born free from slavery,” said Ryan Qualls, site manager for the Dunbar House. “He lived for a short period, and in that time he wrote a ton. He was hailed during his time and after for his ability to capture the experience and to share what life was like.”

The home is a living exhibit, focusing on the day-to-day lives of the Dunbars. Nearby, the visitors center expands on that experience.

“Dunbar was in a culture that was trying to find meaning and understanding and trying to develop equal rights,” Qualls said. “He championed home ownership and the ability of Black Americans to get loans. He wrote in the New York Times challenging the nation to rethink about July 4th and think about liberty in the face of the lynchings in the South at that time.”

Qualls recommends planning for about two hours to roam the property and watch a short film about Dunbar’s life.

George Washington Carver National Monument

Joplin, Missouri

“When you think about when he was born and when he died and everything in between, George Washington Carver lived in one of the worst times in our country,” said Diane Eilenstein, a ranger at the George Washington Carver National Monument in Joplin, Missouri.

The monument comprises Carver’s 1864 birth site and childhood home, as well as a visitor center and other sites with exhibits and activities.

“We do both self-guided and ranger-led tours,” Eilenstein said. “We take them on guided tours of the trail, which is right at a mile. As they go, they learn specifically about his birth and those circumstances and the first 10 to 12 years of his life, and why things were like they were. He was set free when the war ended, and we talk about his life’s accomplishments. As we go along the trail we expand the story.”

Not long after Carver’s birth, outlaw gangs abducted him and his mother. Baby George was ransomed for a horse and returned to the white family who had purchased his mother. They ended up raising him and sending him to school.

“Everybody takes away what they need and can handle from the home,” Eilenstein said. “We have an amazing film called ‘Struggle and Triumph,’ and we find our adult groups really enjoy and get meaning from it. Our museum has a lot of artifacts: his paintings, his writings and interactive exhibits that are more kid friendly. To me, to go stand in the place where it physically happened makes it real.” 

Rangers try to zoom in on specific aspects of Carver’s life to deliver what groups are interested in.