Tuesday, April 16, 2024
ExperiencesHistory & Historical LandmarksOpinion

Black History is American History: Travel Beyond Your Comfort Zone

Stephen Ekstrom continues his nomad life across the U.S. traveling to the Deep South for immersive cultural experiences to learn more about Black history.

“Don’t look for folks that just look like you. Don’t look for folks that just pray like you. Don’t look for folks who just vote like you. Look for folks who can’t stand you because you’re just different, but you show love anyway….” – Anita Singleton-Prather, Aunt Pearlie Sue and the Gullah Kinfolk

I met Anita – a local actress and historian – during a recent visit to Beaufort, South Carolina. Through her storytelling, she brought to life the things I’d read in history books. She recounted the time when she was the first and only little Black girl in class. It was the first day of integration. The teacher asked a question and Anita shot her hand up into the air, waving feverishly. The teacher made a point of calling on the white children – none were able to answer the question correctly. 

The teacher turned to walk back to the chalkboard; Anita shouted out the answer. The teacher’s response was crushing, “I will not have any little [n-word] girl interrupting my class. Go to the principal’s office.” Walking out of the classroom and toward the office undoubtedly meant getting in trouble.

Down the hall in the other direction were the exit doors and the comfort of her grandmother who was working as a housekeeper just a few doors down. Upon hearing what the teacher had said, her grandmother removed her apron and marched up the street, right into the classroom, where she gave that teacher a real piece of her mind. Needless to say, Anita never made it to the principal’s office. 

Anita Singleton-Prather
Anita Singleton-Prather (Photo Credit: Anita Singleton-Prather)

Why Do I Travel?
Before I can even begin to explain why I visit cities, like Beaufort, in the Deep South or spend time in each destination to immerse myself in local cultural experiences, it’s important to understand why I travel. Simply stated, I love to learn. I’d go absolutely nuts if I weren’t able to discover something new each day. I travel to expand my appreciation of the world around me, not to reinforce what I already know. Gathering little bits of knowledge is, for me, as rewarding as singing may be to a performer or a workout may be to an athlete. Yup, I’m a big nerd. 

I also travel to connect with people. People I already know, new people with interesting stories, people who encourage me to laugh, think, smile, and explore. I’m very fortunate in this regard. Having spent the last 20 years working in tourism development, I’ve met some amazing, kind, thoughtful, and creative people. Many of these people I’d see at trade shows, meetings, and conferences several times a year. They hail from all around the globe and, for years, have been telling me I should visit. Well, that’s just what I’m doing. I approach each destination with an open mind, the same way I’d hope these folks would welcome me as a queer traveler. 

Darron Patterson
Darron Patterson (Photo Credit: Elias Williams)

The Clotilda 100 (Mobile, Alabama)
But new experiences are not always roses and glitter. While in Mobile, Alabama, I met Darron Patterson, president of the Clotilda Descendants Association, one of many groups working to preserve the historical significance of Africatown and resurrect the Clotilda, a slave ship.

The Clotilda was the last ship to arrive in America from Africa carrying human cargo – 110 people who spent two months at sea, naked, chained, and crammed in a 20-foot by 20-foot space. It was a smuggling vessel that arrived in Mobile years after the import of slaves had been made illegal but five years before slavery was abolished. 

Darren reminded me that, “Black history is American history, and you cannot separate the two. We have a great teachable moment in front of us if we take advantage of it. Our history is what it was, but it was not nice, and it was not right to enslave other people. People want to know these things… instead of now trying to sweep that history under the rug.”

1811 Kid Ory Historic House in Laplace, Louisiana (Photo Credit: 1811 Kid Ory Historic House)
1811 Kid Ory Historic House in Laplace, Louisiana (Photo Credit: 1811 Kid Ory Historic House)

1811 Kid Ory Historic House (Destrehan, Louisiana)
This complex history is all around us. After touring the Destrehan Plantation and hearing the story of the 1811 slave revolt in Louisiana, a local friend suggested we visit the 1811 Kid Ory Historic House, an old plantation house turned museum and workshop by writer, historian, and jazz aficionado, John McCusker. The house tells two very different stories. One story is that of the 1811 uprising where dozens of enslaved people took up arms against the slaveholders. This historic house is the location of the first death during the revolt. 

The other story is about Edward “Kid” Ory, a jazz musician of mixed race, born a free man on the same property. The Black composer and trombonist saw the birth and evolution of jazz and he played with other notable jazz artists like Louis Armstrong. Kid Ory’s is a story that bridges the musical traditions of plantation life with the popularization of jazz as we know it today. 

1811 Kid Ory Historic House in Laplace, Louisiana (Photo Credit: 1811 Kid Ory Historic House)
1811 Kid Ory Historic House in Laplace, Louisiana (Photo Credit: 1811 Kid Ory Historic House)

“Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” Maya Angelou.

I live to be a little better each day – a bit smarter, kinder, more compassionate, more understanding, and more worldly. None of this would be possible if I weren’t willing to learn and experience life from perspectives other than my own.

To learn more about my travels, hear music from Kid Ory and interviews with some of the fascinating people I’ve met, visit tourismacademy.org/business-class or subscribe to the Business Class podcast.

Find out how Stephen’s journey on the road started in his article, My New Nomad Life.

Stephen Ekstrom

Stephen is the Chief Strategist and Co-Founder of The Tourism Academy, a nonprofit that empowers and enables tourism professionals, making travel more accessible to all. For 20+ years, Stephen has been helping destinations reimagine themselves and attract more visitors. Stephen hosts the Business Class podcast and has been profiled by the New York Times, CBS, NBC, and NY1. An engaging speaker, Stephen regularly inspires at universities and conferences worldwide. Stephen currently travels full time with his dog, Rudy.

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