Virginia promotes African-American sites

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RICHMOND, Va. -- Virginia is getting serious about developing and promoting its African-American heritage sites, which are said to go back further than those of any other state.

The first Africans landed in Jamestown in 1619 as indentured servants. African-American heritage sites in Virginia range from historic sites of the Revolutionary and Civil War eras to the homes of prominent black Americans of the past two centuries.

Products are coming on the market that feature new interpretations of the U.S.'s past, and the state has made developing this aspect of tourism a priority.

"We have a new focus, a new way of looking at our history, and operators always are looking for something new," said Barbara Ramos, Virginia Tourism Corp.'s marketing manager responsible for group travel. The VTC is the state's tourism agency.

In February, Ramos led a group of 20 tour operators and travel agents on the firm's first African-American Heritage fam trip.

"[The group was] amazed at the quality of what we have, that our sites go back so far," she said.

The group also expressed hope, she said, that African-American attractions will become more intertwined with tourism's mainstream and not just be promoted during February's Black History Month, after which many exhibits end.

The group was familiar, she said, with Birmingham, Ala., and Atlanta, prominent for Civil Rights-era attractions, but not Virginia.

In Richmond, Ramos' party took a guided walking tour along the Slave Trail, from where slaves were landed on the James River. They were enthralled, she said, with the Maggie L.Walker National Historic Site.

An activist and community leader, Walker was the first black (and female) president of a bank, which she founded in 1903. Her home, restored to the way it was in the 1930s, has an elevator; she was wheelchair-bound after a 1907 accident.

The group also visited the Black History Museum & Cultural Center, which commemorates the lives and accomplishments of African-American Virginians. Virginia Tourism's five-day fam trip also included the Tidewater Peninsula.

At Newport News, the group took in the Newsome House Museum and Cultural Center, home of Thomas Newsome (1869-1942), an African-American lawyer and journalist.

The role of African-Americans in the Revolutionary War was interpreted at Yorktown Battlefield, where Cornwallis surrendered to Washington in 1781.

The group visited Fort Monroe, a Union stronghold at which Gen. Ben Butler took in escaping slaves and made them "contraband of war," a first step to freedom.

Lunch in Portsmouth included an abolitionist play, with actors portraying Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass, among others.

At Hampton University Museum, the group viewed a collection of traditional African, Asian and North American art, and contemporary works by African and African-American artists.

They also visited Monticello, Thomas Jefferson's home in Charlottesville and George Washington's Mount Vernon estate near Washington.

One notable attraction not included on Virginia Tourism's program was the Booker T. Washington National Monument in Hardy in southwest Virginia. The state also is working on several new African-American Heritage projects:

  • Last year, the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities embarked on an African-American heritage trails project with a $400,000 state grant.
  • It is completing a database of sites, festivals and special events and will produce a brochure later this year.

  • The Tredegar National Civil War Center in Richmond is a future project backed by a mix of state and private funds.
  • To be built in three phases during 10 years, it will be located at the Tredegar Iron Works, the main armaments factory of the Confederacy.

    Visitors will be able stroll along the three different pathways of the Civil War era: Union, Confederate and African-American.

    The $10 million first phase, a 12,000-square-foot general exhibit, is expected to open in 2003.

  • Also in a Tredegar building is the Richmond Civil War Visitor Center, opened by the National Park Service last June.
  • Tredegar is at one end of the mile-long Kanawha Canal Walk, which opened in 1999 and is part of a 32-acre James Riverfront rejuvenation project.

  • On March 31, a permanent outdoor exhibit on Richmond's African-Americans opened on the walk.
  • VTC includes suggested African-American heritage tours in its 2001 group travel planner.

    For more information, VTC's travel agent number is (800) 759-0886.

    Its Web sites are at www.vatc.org (trade) and www.virginia.org (consumer).

    Exploring heritage attractions

    RICHMOND, Va. -- New attractions exploring Virginia's African-American heritage have opened with others planned.

  • The 422-acre Pamplin Historic Park in Petersburg, south of Richmond, will open the Banks Home, an antebellum building, to the public later this summer.
  • Gen. Ulysses S. Grant stayed there the night of April 2, 1865, before Richmond fell. Behind the home is a former slave dwelling, one of an estimated 50 left in Virginia, according to a spokesman.

    On Oct. 6, the park will open the Field Quarter, an outdoor slave-area exhibit, with replica homes and buildings manned by costumed interpreters.

    Pamplin, a 5-year-old, privately owned attraction opened the $10 million National Museum of the Civil War Soldier in 1999.

  • The Museum of the Confederacy in Richmond last year unveiled a permanent display on the role played by African-Americans who served with Confederate armies.
  • The Legacy Museum of African-American History opened in a Victorian house last year in Lynchburg in central Virginia. Also, the Lynchburg Regional Convention and Visitors Bureau printed an eight-page brochure, A Guide to African-American Heritage in Lynchburg and Central Virginia. .
  • The Robert R. Morton Museum: A Center for the Study of Civil Rights in Education opened on the 50th anniversary of a student walkout protesting school segregation at the formerly all-black Robert R. Morton High School. The museum, which opened in April, is in Farmville, Va.
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