What are the best African American History Museums across the U.S.?

The International African American Museum opened on June 27, 2023, adding to the list of exceptional African American history museums across the United States. Located in Charleston, S.C., at the historically sacred site of Gadsden’s Wharf, IAAM honors the untold stories of the African American journey. The museum is dedicated to telling the full story of the African American journey, from ancient African civilization to modern day.

The International African American Museum explores the history, culture, and impact of African Americans on Charleston, on the nation, and on the world, highlighting the diverse routes, origin, and achievements of descendants of the African Diaspora – the often-forced dispersal of people of African descent around the world. Through nine distinct galleries, the International African American Museum demonstrates how enslaved Africans and free blacks shaped economic, political, and cultural development throughout the nation and beyond, while offering an especially close look at the connection to the South Carolina Lowcountry.

IAAM’s location distinguishes it from other African American history museums in the U.S.

The African Ancestors Memorial Garden spans the museum’s grounds reflecting on the historic significance of Gadsden’s Wharf, one of the many docks in Charleston Harbor at which an estimated 45% of enslaved Africans entered this country. Artistic installations and site objects mark the history and archeology there. This area, free and open to the public, also provides a space for informal and structured gatherings where stories and traditions can once again be shared.

African American visitors to IAAM can use on-site resources to track their own genealogy. The Center for Family History will serve to actively help community members find connections between themselves and their ancestors, as well as others. This department will store photos, marriage records, archival tools, and the largest collection of United States Colored Troop (USCT) records, outside of the National Archives. All are also available digitally in the Center for Family History.

Twenty-plus years in the making, IAAM, like the other best African American history museums, champions authentic, empathetic storytelling of American history and serves as a platform for the disruption of institutionalized racism as it evolves today.

Charleston has long been one of my favorite places to visit. I love the climate, the art and architecture, the food. Frank Williams’ “Frankly Charleston Black History Tours” is one of the most compelling, thought-provoking, perspective-altering tours I’ve ever had the pleasure of experiencing.

IAAM adds another globally significant attraction to a destination that has become a “must” for travelers worldwide.

While you’ll find hundreds of African American history museums across the U.S. telling stories large and small, what follows are my list of the essentials. I have either visited or written about all of these museums and find them to be the best of the best. If you have a favorite that I missed, do please share it in the comments.

Further exploration of Black History in America can be undertaken along the Civil Rights Trail. If, by chance, you’re looking for Black history locations in Florida, I’ve written about that too.

Black History Museums Across America

National Museum of African American History & Culture

Washington, D.C.

This branch of the Smithsonian Institution, established by an Act of Congress in 2003 following decades of efforts to promote and highlight the contributions of African Americans, became the nation’s premier African American history museum when it opened in September of 2016.

The Museum has collected more than 40,000 artifacts – many of them following an initial public request from museum leadership asking citizens to donate their items of African American history – and nearly 100,000 individuals have become members.

“This Museum will tell the American story through the lens of African American history and culture. This is America’s Story, and this museum is for all Americans.” – NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie Bunch, III

Freedom House Museum

Alexandria, VA

Wall text inside Freedom House Museum, Alexandria, VA
Wall text inside Freedom House Museum, Alexandria, VA. Photo by Chadd Scott.

Located just seven miles south of the National Museum of African American History and Culture is the much smaller, but no less impactful Freedom House Museum. Here, the story of Alexandria’s pivotal and gruesome role in both the Transatlantic and domestic slave trade is shared, in a building that was once part of a slave trading complex.

I have visited and written in-depth about Freedom House previously.

The Studio Museum

Harlem

I often say art museums are the best history museums because they share a people’s history. The Studio Museum in Harlem is not only one of the best art museums in the U.S., it is also one of the best African American history museums.

First opened in 1968 and ever since dedicated exclusively to the work of Black artists, visitors to The Studio Museum learn history through visual art. The museum is closed indefinitely while undergoing a massive construction project on a new building.

Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture

Harlem

Ten skinny blocks from The Studio Museum you’ll find another of the best African American history museums in the U.S.

A research library and branch of the New York Public Library system, the historic Schomburg Center is a world-leading cultural institution devoted to the research, preservation, and exhibition of materials focused on African American, African Diaspora, and African experiences. The Center hosts a continual variety of events, performances and exhibitions.

The Schomburg Center’s history and importance to its community dates back to the Harlem Renaissance.

The August Wilson African American Cultural Center

Pittsburgh

This two-story, 65,000-square-foot building opened in 2009 with a “sail” façade inspired by the Swahili Trading ships that carried East African culture to distant shores takes its name from the esteemed playwright who called Pittsburgh home.

AWAACC presents and produces over 100 events per year including the Pittsburgh International Jazz Festival, The Highmark Blues Heritage Festival, gallery exhibits featuring emerging and established African American artists, a speaker’s series, theater, music concerts, an annual poetry festival, and the Black Bottom Film Festival held throughout the city. It also houses a permanent exhibition sharing the life and works of the Pulitzer Prize winner.

The DuSable Black History Museum & Education Center

Chicago

Evolving out of artist/educator/writer/activist Margaret Taylor Burroughs’ Ebony Museum of Negro History and Art established in 1961 as America’s first independent museum celebrating Black culture, The DuSable also leans heavily on the visual arts to place the African American narrative firmly within the broader context of U.S. history.

The museum takes its name from Jean-Baptiste Pointe DuSable, the Haitian-born founder of Chicago.

Muhammed Ali Center

Louisville

Leroy Nieman watercolor painting of Muhammed Ali inside Ali Center.
Leroy Nieman watercolor painting of Muhammed Ali inside Ali Center. Photo by Chadd Scott.

The Ali Center is much more about the Louisville native’s civil rights and anti-war activism than his boxing exploits. Exhibits and programming center on the one time most famous man in the world’s controversial efforts to highlight America’s systemic racism during the Civil Rights Era and beyond.

National Underground Railroad Freedom Center

Cincinnati

Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson artworks inside National Underground Railroad Museum.
Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson artworks inside National Underground Railroad Museum. Photo by Chadd Scott.

On the “free” Ohio side of the Ohio River which separated the northern states from the slave-holding southern states, the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center takes as its foundation the story of the Underground Railroad to tell a continuing story of the quest for inclusive freedom both in the U.S. and abroad.

Like the majority of the other African American history museums included on my list, this one only opened in the new millennium, 2004 to be specific. That goes to show how recent a development incorporating Black history as an inseparable part of American history is.

An actual “slave pen” transplanted from Kentucky on the other side of the river and permanently displayed inside the museum serves as a chilling, unforgettable reminder of the history of racial violence and inequality in America.

The museum hosts a constant stream of events and exhibitions.

The Legacy Museum, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Freedom Monument Sculpture Park

Montgomery

Freedom Monument Sculpture Park with Simone Leigh sculpture entrance in Montgomery, AL.
Freedom Monument Sculpture Park with Simone Leigh sculpture entrance in Montgomery, AL. Courtesy Equal Justice Initiative.

The Legacy Museum: From Enslavement to Mass Incarceration and The National Memorial for Peace and Justice opened in 2018.

Located on the site of a former warehouse where enslaved Black people were forced to labor in Montgomery, Alabama, The Legacy Museum uses interactive media, sculpture, videography, and exhibits to immerse visitors in the sights and sounds of the slave trade, racial terrorism, the Jim Crow South, and the world’s largest prison system.

On a six-acre site atop a rise overlooking Montgomery, The National Memorial for Peace and Justice, a national lynching memorial, is a sacred space for truth-telling and reflection about racial terror in America and its legacy.

Both projects of the Equal Justice Initiative received great fanfare nationally and internationally when they opened and are among many essential Black History sites in Montgomery. The latest EJI Black history project in Montgomery is Freedom Monument Sculpture Park.

National Civil Rights Museum at the Lorraine Hotel

Memphis

The Lorraine Hotel is where Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated on April 4, 1968. The hotel is now a museum sharing King’s story, and the broader story of the historic and ongoing struggle for civil rights in America. Like the other sites mentioned, it hosts a constant stream of special programs, events and exhibitions highlighting African American history, excellence and contemporary achievement.

The King Center and Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park

Atlanta

The MLK National Historic Park includes King’s birth home, preservation of the neighborhood he grew up in and the Ebenezer Baptist Church he worshipped and preached in. You’ll also find The King Center here where his body, along with wife Coretta Scott King’s, lie.

Birmingham Civil Rights Institute

Birmingham

In the shadow of some of the most notorious racial violence in American history, the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute is part of the broader Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument. Both carry on the legacy of the civil rights activists who fought and died here in pursuit of equality, a pursuit which continues to this day.

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

Detroit

The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History
The Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

The museum was founded in 1965 by Dr. Charles H. Wright as a space for celebration and remembrance that would inspire generations of visitors. Over half a century later, The Wright has become a state-of-the-art, 125,000 square-foot facility that houses over 35,000 artifacts and archival materials and offers hundreds of programs and events annually. 

Once one of the only institutions of its kind, The Wright has served as a blueprint for other culturally specific institutions across the nation, yet its influence has long been underrecognized.

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