African American history tour

My name is Dennis but most people call me DJ. I am a fairly simple guy and like many of you who are currently reading this article, I have a passion for riding motorcycles and also enjoy nature and the great outdoors.

I consider myself to be very fortunate to have been able to visit some of the most interesting and beautiful places across this country. What makes it even more gratifying and enjoyable is the fact that I am able to share these experiences with my better half, Jacki Davis, who rides a 2000 Honda VFR. To do what you love with the one you love is the icing on the cake. Follow me as I share some of my travels to national parks, historic sites and cultural landmarks from the best vantage point imaginable, from the seat of the best touring motorcycle ever produced.

Speaking of the best touring motorcycles, I currently own six Gold Wings. Yes, I know I need an intervention to address this addiction! I purchased my 1978 GL1000 back in 2012 for $400 from a guy who had it stored in his father’s garage since college (about nine years). It is by far the nimblest of the Gold Wings I own (of course, it only weighs about 650 pounds full of gas). I also own a 1979 GL1000, which is practically identical to the ’78 (with a few cosmetic differences) and I am in the process of converting it to a café-style bobber. Next is my 1982 GL1100 Interstate, which is a joy to ride and is almost as nimble as the GL1000s (even though it weighs about 80 pounds more). I purchased my 1985 GL1200 Interstate in 2010 and, while it doesn’t handle as well as the other bikes that I have mentioned, it is one of the most comfortable Gold Wings in my stable.

My collection is rounded out with a 1995 GL1500 Interstate (purchased in 2011 and currently with 180K miles) and a 2006 GL1800 Audio/Comfort/NAV/ABS that I purchased in February 2020. Even though my GL1500 is not a match for my GL1800 in handling, it is by far the most comfortable bike I own in terms of long-distance touring. I guess you could call me a “Gold Wing nut”!

I’m not sure which one manifested itself first, my love of motorcycles or my love of history. I had a high school teacher who always preached the value of knowledge and experiences — once you obtain them, no one can take them away. Being a bit of a nerd from my early days, reading has always been one of my favorite pastimes. I’ve always enjoyed reading about different branches of history, but cultural and social history have always been the most interesting to me. As an African American, I was even more interested in how African American history (which is also American history) was depicted.

As I learned more of the history, struggles and triumphs of African Americans, I felt an urge to visit the actual locations and literally walk in the footsteps of my forefathers. Considering my love for history and my love for motorcycling, it was a natural progression that I would embark upon a journey to visit African American historic sites and monuments on the seat of a Honda Gold Wing.

When I initially started visiting African American sites, there were many must-see locations that were very significant in the history of African Americans in this country. Also, there were even more locations that were painful, but important reminders of the struggle for equality that people of color have faced in America. However, there are also many sites that depict a rich history of triumphs, accomplishments and numerous contributions to the arts, sciences and culture of this land in which we live.

HISTORY

Even though much of the history of African Americans in the United States is centered around enslavement, there are several historic sites that depict a slightly different narrative. Two such places are found in what is now the state of Florida. While planning a road trip to Daytona Beach Bike Week, I did a bit of research on Fort Mose, which was the first free African settlement in what would later become the United States. Originally under Spanish rule, Fort Mose was a military outpost that was inhabited by Africans from the Kingdom of Kongo and also believed to have inspired the Stono Rebellion of 1739 (one of the earliest known organized resistance to enslavement from the southern United States). Also located in Florida and a short distance from Fort Mose, is the city of Saint Augustine, which contains many sites that delineate a history of independence and self-reliance of African Americans. The Lincolnville Museum and Cultural Center is an excellent resource about the community of the same name that was built by formerly enslaved people of color.

As my road trips head west, two other sites that reveal the triumphs of African Americans can be found in the states of Kansas and Oklahoma. In Nicodemus, Kansas, I had a chance to visit (in 2018) the first African American community west of the Mississippi (it is still a living community to this day). It is a national parks historic site and many of the original buildings are still standing.

In the state of Oklahoma, the Greenwood section of Tulsa (also known as Black Wall Street) was a shining example of a bustling African American community that was economically, socially and culturally independent. This community had its own retail shops, medical practices, entertainment venues, school system, hospital and banks. Tragically, the Greenwood Community was destroyed and hundreds of African Americans were killed in what is known as The Tulsa Race Massacre. There is a monument to this once thriving community at the Tulsa Historical Society and Museum.

I did not have to travel far from home to find another example of an African American historic site that represented economic and financial prowess. The Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site is located in her former residence and is less than a mile from where I grew up in Richmond, Virginia. Mrs. Walker was the first woman to charter a bank in the United States (and also served as its president).

THE STRUGGLE FOR EQUALITY

Many of the struggles for civil and human rights occurred in the South in general and Alabama in particular. One of the most iconic and heartwrenching events in the struggle for equal rights occurred in Selma, Alabama, on the Edmund Pettis Bridge. I’m sure I don’t have to go into the details of the tragic events that occurred there in 1965. It was imperative to me to visit Selma and literally walk in the footsteps of my ancestors as they marched to secure the right to vote that I exercise today. After spending some time in Selma, we then rode the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail to visit the destination of this monumental march, the Alabama State Capitol in Montgomery.

After riding from Selma to Montgomery, the next location along what I will call the civil rights trail is Birmingham. Here you will find Kelly Ingram Park and the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a museum that includes many artifacts from the 1950s, including the actual door to a jail cell that held Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Both of these sites are a stone’s throw from the 16th Street Baptist Church, where a tragic bomb blast in 1963 killed four little girls.

In the area of education equality, one could embark upon a month-long road trip across this country visiting historic sites on this subject. Many of the most notable locations have a connection to the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education case; either before or after the Supreme Court ruled on the case. My road trip began by visiting Topeka, Kansas, where you will find two of the schools that were central to the case. The Brown vs. Board of Education National Historic Site is housed in the former Monroe Elementary School (the Black-only school where Linda Brown was ordered to attend). The other school central to this case was Sumner Elementary School (the White only school that was in Linda Brown’s neighborhood) and can be found about three miles away.

Traveling a little further southeast, my road trip led to another location that was the site of the well-known resistance/opposition to the Brown vs. Board of Education decision — namely, Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas. There you can visit another national historic site to learn about The Little Rock Nine and their struggle for equal education.

As this road trip continued south to Louisiana, I got a chance to visit William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans, where Ruby Bridges was the first African American child to desegregate that school. The last stop on my educational road trip would lead me back to my home state of Virginia at the Robert Russa Moton Museum (formerly, Robert Moton High School), which was one of the schools involved in the original Brown vs. Board of Education case.

There are many cities around the country that have designated areas, streets and landmarks as civil rights trails. These trails are a great way to discover the history of civil rights either through self-directed or guided tours. Some of the most noteworthy that I have visited are the Mississippi Civil Rights Trail (that includes the home of Medgar Evers and the sites surrounding the lynching of Emmitt Till) and the Boston Black Heritage Trail (which includes the African Meeting House and a monument to the all-Black 54th Regiment that fought in the Civil War). Also, there is an excellent website, http://civilrightstrail.com that lists over 100 sites that are of significance to the African American civil rights struggle. I have visited about 80 locations on this trail and plan to visit them all in the very near future.

TRIUMPHS AND ACCOMPLISHMENTS

In addition to visiting historic sites that depict the struggles of African Americans, I have also visited many sites that represent just as many outstanding accomplishments. I begin this part of my road trip with a visit to Tuskegee, Alabama, home to both the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Tuskegee Institute. The heroic exploits of “The Red Tails” have been well-chronicled in a couple of movies; however, visiting the actual site where these pilots lived and trained was indeed a treat. Tuskegee Institute is a bit lesser known but is still very important in the accomplishments of two significant African Americans: Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver.

The Buffalo Soldiers Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, is one of several sites that honors the memory of African Americans who served in our nation’s military. At this location, you will find the busts of men like General Roscoe Robinson Jr., who was the first African American four-star general in the United States Army. There is also a bust of General Collin Powell, who needs no introduction but was the originator and driving force behind the creation of the Buffalo Soldier Monument. African American women of the military are also honored here with a monument to the 6888th Central Postal Directory. This battalion, whose motto was “No mail, low morale,” sorted and processed a backlog of mail for approximately 7 million soldiers in the European Theatre (all the while, suffering the ills and hardships of segregation). Speaking of Buffalo Soldiers, did you know that you can visit a monument in Wilberforce, Ohio, that is dedicated to Colonel Charles Young, a member of the Buffalo Soldiers and the first African American national park superintendent (Sequoia National Park in California)?

African Americans have made major contributions in the areas of American music genres and other forms of culture. You can take a road trip and visit the childhood home of the great Ray Charles in Greenville, Florida. Continuing on that road trip, you may want to visit the home of W. C. Handy (known as “The Father of the Blues”) on Beale Street in Memphis. A short ride to St. Louis will take you to the former residence (also a museum) of Scott Joplin, who was dubbed the “King of Ragtime.” Heading south on this road trip will take you to the Big Easy and the birthplace of Louis Armstrong. There you will also find a 32-acre park named in honor of Big Satchmo, which includes the Mahalia Jackson Theatre (a legendary African American gospel singer) and the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.

I would be remiss if I did not mention one of the truly great pioneers of the motorcycling community. Bessie Stringfield was an American motorcyclist and the first African American woman to ride solo across the United States, which she did a total of eight times. However, what is even more astonishing is the fact that she did this starting in the 1930s, when gender and racial discrimination was running rampant in this country. Bessie Stringfield also served as a civilian motorcycle dispatcher during World War II. In 2018, I had the privilege of participating in an Iron Butt Ride in her honor. This ride (known as the Bessie Stringfield All Female Ride) was organized by Tameka Singleton (aka “Kurvez”), who is a very prominent African American motorcyclist in her own right. The ride began in Morrow, Georgia, and 1,000 miles later, we ended in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. One of the highlights of the weekend was the dedication of a Bessie Stringfield display at the entrance of the Harley-Davidson Museum.

I also had a chance to take a road trip to visit Bessie Stringfield’s former residence in Opa Locka, Florida, earlier this year. For those of you who are interested in Iron Butt challenges, “Kurvez” and the Bessie Stringfield All Female Ride organization have created the Bessie Stringfield Civil Rights Saddlesore 1000 Ride. To meet the requirements of this ride, one must visit all of the following locations for a total of 1,000 miles within 24 hours:

1. Central High School – Little Rock, AR
2. Lorraine Motel – Memphis, TN
3. Edmund Pettus Bridge – Selma, AL
4. Kelly Ingram Park – Birmingham, AL
5. Freedom Riders National Monument – Anniston, AL
6. Dr. Martin Luther King’s Birthplace Home – Atlanta, GA
7. February One Monument – Greensboro, NC

I would like to thank the ladies of the Bessie Stringfield Female Ride committee for all they have done (and continue to do) to honor the legacy of a truly remarkable American motorcycling icon.

For those of you who may not have the time or resources to travel to all the individual sites that I have mentioned in this article, a lot of knowledge and experiences can be obtained by visiting the many museums, national parks and interpretive centers across the country. The list of such places is rather expansive, but I can personally attest to content and historical relevance of the following places:

 

1. The National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Motel. In addition to containing several collections on the struggle for voting rights, this museum marks the tragic end of one of the great leaders of the civil rights movement.

2. The Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Chronicles the civil rights history of one of the important cities in the movement; contains the actual jail cell door from behind which Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote his famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

3. The Mississippi Civil Rights Museum. Located in Jackson, Mississippi, this museum has many artifacts of the struggle and triumph of civil rights in what was probably the most racially oppressive state in the union.

4. The National Memorial for Peace and Justice & The Legacy Museum. Located in Montgomery, Alabama, these two sites are the most touching and emotionally challenging of any museum that I have visited. The memorial contains 800 6-foot steel monuments that represent (and names) each county where a lynching occurred. The museum is full of artifacts and modern visual technologies that trace the history of African Americans from enslavement to mass incarceration. These two sites should be on the to-do list of every American, regardless of ethnicity.

5. The National Museum of African American History and Culture probably contains the most extensive collection of artifacts and information on the history and culture of African Americans in the country. I would put this museum at the top of historical repositories to visit. I have personally been there five times and discover new items with each visit.

In addition to visiting historic locations, national park sites and museums on our motorcycles, Jacki and I make it a point to include historic markers in our road trips. The Historic Marker Database (http://hmdb.org) maintains an expansive database of historic markers categorized by location (state, city, county, etc.) and/ or by topic (including African Americans, the Civil War, colonial America, etc.). When I am planning the route for a road trip, I search this database for markers that are near the places we would be traveling. Oftentimes, these markers can be found adjacent to existing historic sites or where such sites once stood. Some of the most memorable historic markers that we have visited include the Oliver W. Hill marker in Roanoke, Virginia; the location of the Emmitt Till murder trial in Money, Mississippi; and the marker at Ray Charles’ boyhood home in Greenville, Florida.

To date, we have personally visited over 400 historic markers and over 98% of them were visited on motorcycles. I could go on and on talking about the many sites and locations around the country that tell the story of the African American experience. I hope that this article will motivate some of you to include some of the aforementioned locations on your next road trip. So, the next time you’re on your way to Daytona Bike Week, Sturgis or Wing Ding, make it a point to visit a national park, museum or historic site that speaks to the diversity, inclusion, and equality of all Americans.

Editor’s note: Read more about African American history here: https://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/. Also find more photos and information in the back of February’s online magazine.


Like what you've read? Share it!

Get in on the conversation

Leave a Reply

  • (will not be published)