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Trails into the past: The pathways of African American history stretch across the US

The United States is crisscrossed by historical trails, both physical and virtual, that follow the journey of the African American experience. There are also trails yet to be blazed.

Naomi Carrier is hoping to see her dream of an Emancipation National Historic Trail realized in her native Texas. The trail would start in Galveston and run 51 miles north to Houston, tracing the path that people newly freed from slavery took after word of emancipation reached them in June 1865 – the occasion now celebrated as Juneteenth.

“We believe in the concept that there should be a trail because our stories are not being told, and this is a way to tell some of those stories,” Carrier said.

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New trails in the making

Carrier spent more than 30 years as a schoolteacher, devoting much of her time educating students about the rich history of African Americans in the Lone Star State. She has not stopped teaching that history since she retired a decade ago, and the proposed trail is a continuation of those efforts.

“The impetus for the Emancipation Trail is that Texas Black history is virtually unknown,” Carrier said. Among the events, she points to the Battle of Palmito Ranch, considered by many to be the last Civil War battle, which was fought in Texas in May 1865.

If designated by Congress after a study by the National Park Service by the end of 2023, it would be the second national historic trail centered on African American history. The first was the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama, marking the 1965 voting rights marches.

An image of the David Hall Home, located along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama.
An image of the David Hall Home, located along the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in Alabama.

Meanwhile, in New Jersey, state legislator Antwan McClellan is also looking forward to a new historic trail.

McClellan was the lead sponsor of a bill, recently signed into law by New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, to create the New Jersey Black Heritage Trail. The bill authorizes the placement of historical markers at important sites throughout the state, as well as a dedicated website that plots out a virtual trail and travel itineraries for visitors.

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McClellan says he hopes the trail, which would start at the Harriet Tubman Museum in Cape May (where the legendary abolitionist lived during the 1850s), will be unveiled by Juneteenth 2023.

“It feels great that it is happening. It seemed so far away, going on three years from when the bill was introduced. It’s exciting to know that this is coming to fruition,” McClellan said.

Not all trails are on the ground

The Little Calumet River running through the South Side of Chicago is not simply a waterway. It’s also a path into that area’s rich African American past.

The African American Heritage Water Trail takes canoeists and paddlers past locations such as the site of the Ton Farm, a stop on the Underground Railroad for those going to Canada for freedom, and Chicago’s Finest Marina, built in the 1950s for Black residents who couldn’t use other marinas in the area due to racist policies. There are seasonal guided tours, or you can take a self-guided trip with information found on the website of the conservation group Openlands Chicago, which oversees the trail.

Laura Barghusen of Openlands Chicago says the trail stems from an effort in 2018 by local groups to connect people to the Little Calumet River and the nearby Beaubien Woods, where the water trail starts and continues 7 miles west to the village of Robbins.

Her colleague Lillian Holden says the trail gives the public access to 180 years of African American history.

“At the end of the day, having this here and getting community members canoeing and kayaking on this trail is powerful and has a great purpose,” Holden said.

Smaller trails can bring something different

Another trail 1,200 miles south in Fort Pierce, Florida, highlights African American history on a smaller scale. All the sites on this self-guided trail are connected to one person: Zora Neale Hurston.

Hurston, author of the classic novel "Their Eyes Were Watching God" and a major figure in 1920s Harlem Renaissance, spent the last three years of her life in Fort Pierce. She is buried in the Garden of Heavenly Rest Cemetery, one of the stops on the Zora Neale Hurston Dust Tracks Heritage Trail, which has three large kiosks, eight trail markers, a recently added exhibit and a visitor information center.

Marvin Hobson, president of the Zora Neale Hurston Florida Education Foundation, said there are plans to add a museum and humanities center dedicated to Hurston. He says visitors have paid homage to Hurston in unique ways.

“You have people walking this trail who leave various things at her grave site, like gold. So it has been almost like a religious experience for them,” he said.

Virtual trails are also available

The Berkshires to Martha’s Vineyard in Massachusetts is rich with African American history. However, exploring all that history in person can be arduous and time-consuming. That’s where the African American Trail Project comes in.

The brainchild of Tufts University professors Kendra Field and Kerri Greenidge, this online resource documents more than 200 sites across Massachusetts spanning five centuries. Among sites in Boston, for example, are the Dorchester North Burying Ground, one of the oldest burial grounds in the state, where three enslaved women are buried, and the Malcolm X – Ella Little-Collins House in Roxbury. Malcolm X lived there for several years as a teenager during the 1940s along with Little-Collins, who was his half-sister and a civil rights activist.

The complexity of history

Greenidge, a Massachusetts native, says putting together this trail was about highlighting the complexity of Black history in the state and how that history goes in multiple directions.

“Yes, Boston – but also Cambridge. Yes, abolition – but also Black entrepreneurs in the late 19th century,” Greenidge says. “I really think this is a big project that looks through that lens.”

Exploring the history of African Americans in a larger state like California can be quite an endeavor.

John William Templeton has made it his mission to showcase how the Golden State benefited from the Black experience by creating the California African American Freedom Trail, which encompasses more than 6,000 sites.

Templeton was prompted to create the trail, which exists on paper, online and through guided tours, after doing research for an op-ed on police brutality after the Rodney King beating in 1991 and exploring the history of Black people in California going back to the 1800s. Since then, he has mapped out Black history sites across the Golden State, including writer Maya Angelou’s childhood home in San Francisco.

“It’s been exciting doing this trail, which is the first freedom trail on the West Coast, because people who explore this trail are going to find out a different perspective on American history from a Pacific (Ocean) view,” Templeton said.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: African American history stretches across the US: Trails to visit