(ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: JULY/AUGUST 2006)
BROWN V. BOARD OF EDUCATION NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE
Screams surround me. I close my eyes and imagine myself among them. But the brush of my fingertips against the flat-screen televisions on either side of me at the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site jolts my brief reflection back to the present.
The televisions are looping black-and-white video footage of a tragic time that it would be easier to forget. I am horrified, but can't turn away from the screen, as police dogs rip into a black man's leg and a black man hangs from a tree. The anguished screams are the heartbreaking soundtrack.
This Hall of Courage sends some visitors scurrying for the exit. But most spend a few hours in this brown brick building (a former all-black school reopened as a museum in 2004) to learn how a 1954 Supreme Court decision served as the domino that knocked down generations of "separate but equal" laws.
Two signs, "White" and "Colored," stun visitors walking through the front door. A 25-minute film running in the refurbished gymnasium explores how segregation began and how blacks have fought for equal rights since the 1780s. Touch-screen monitors show how the Brown case affected politics, economics and national security. Headphones channel protest songs, including Billie Holiday's "Strange Fruit" and Bob Dylan's "The Times They Are A'Changin'." A bulletin board includes current newspaper clips relating to Brown's legacy, which reaches across the globe. One look at the site's wall-size photo of Nelson Mandela and his sunny smile of triumph is enough to remind visitors how Brown inspired many to persevere for equality.
"If you think about it, we all benefited from Brown. It's not just about civil rights anymore. It's about human rights," says Nichole McHenry, a National Park Service ranger. "Who's to say if Brown had not happened where we would be today?"
All Created Equal
THE NATIONAL UNDERGROUND RAILROAD FREEDOM CENTER, Cincinnati
This new museum (opened in 2004) connects the story of American slavery to current issues of freedom (513/333-7500; www.freedomcenter.org).
MUSEUM OF AFRICAN-AMERICAN HISTORY, Detroit
Journey from ancient Africa to modern Detroit with exhibits that recount African-Americans' culture and contributions (313/494-5800; www.maah-detroit.org).
RICHARD I. BONG WWII HERITAGE CENTER, Superior, Wisconsin
The Midwest's first World War II museum focuses on the soldiers, their families and the essential industries that made the war effort possible (888/816-9944; www.bongheritagecenter.org).
The glass atrium of the Strategic Air & Space Museum near Omaha showcases a Lockheed SR-71 Blackbird, the world's fastest aircraft (402/944-3100; www.strategicairandspace .com). Kalamazoo, Michigan's, Air Zoo houses an SR-71 and many other record-shattering aircraft, plus hands-on simulators and a 4-D theater (866/524-7966; www.airzoo.org).
CIVIL WAR BATTLE SITES
Marking the first major Civil War conflict west of the Mississippi, Wilson's Creek National Battlefield near Springfield, Missouri, offers an educational film, map program, bookstore, research library and museum housing war artifacts (417/732-2662; www.nps.gov/wicr). Federal forces defeated the Confederates at Mine Creek near Pleasanton, Kansas, in the final major Civil War battle in the west—and the only major one in Kansas. Explore the hands-on exhibits, living history programs, visitor center and walking trail (913/352-8890; www.kshs.org/places/minecreek).
HERBERT HOOVER NATIONAL HISTORIC SITE AND PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM
West Branch, Iowa
Standing before a cream-color plaster life mask of our 31st president,I feel a flush of shame. I'd come expecting to be underwhelmed, and now I feel foolish admitting it to the sleepy-eyed, round-cheeked bust. Counter to our national mythos, Hoover was a compassionate activist. I realize I hadn't known him at all.
"People think Hoover-Depression and there's just so much more. That's just a flash picture of him and his life," says Chief Ranger Neil Korsmo. "He was a great philanthropist. He was always working for the common good, especially for children."
"We're sort of prisoners of our high school textbooks," says Timothy Walch, library director. "At best, he's considered at the top of the lowest quarter of presidents. But as a life, he was an enormous success." It's a satisfying thrill to unearth a new closeness to our political history. There are many ways to do this in the Midwest, such as discovering Truman in Missouri, and Lincoln and Reagan in Illinois. Ohio is home to six presidents.
In Iowa, the Hoover complex of library, birthplace and prairie paths reveals the story of an orphan who grew into The Great Humanitarian. He was Roaring '20s era. A naturalist. He standardized construction (the 2x4). On a wall hang flour sacks he sent to Europe, embroidered and returned as thank yous. In videos, survivors speak movingly about how Hoover lunches (white bread and vegetable soup) saved their lives. He took no pay for public service but as a Quaker did "the right and decent thing" until the Great Depression-an event he'd warned of as Commerce Secretary-crumbled the economy and his presidency.
"It's a terrific story of tragedy and triumph," Walch says. Up the prairie path on top of the hill overlooking his boyhood home is perhaps the simplest of all presidential burial sites. There is no inscription. No gold. Just name and dates on a simple marble slab. This was at his request. Only now, I understand.
DWIGHT D. EISENHOWER LIBRARY AND MUSEUM, Abilene, Kansas
The museum celebrates the Allied Expeditionary Force of World War II, as well as Eisenhower's administration (877/746-4453; www.eisenhower.archives.gov).
LINCOLN SITES, Springfield, Illinois
Visit the Lincoln family tomb and the home the family lived in, which has been restoredto its 1860s appearance. The new Abraham Lincoln Presidential Library and Museum reveals Lincoln's life through state-of-the-art special effects (800/545-7300; www.visit-springfieldillinois.com).
TRUMAN PRESIDENTIAL MUSEUM & LIBRARY, Independence, Missouri
This look at the 33rd president includes a full-size re-creation of the Oval Office, plus gifts to the president from foreign heads of state and political memorabilia relating to the Truman presidency and the American presidency in general (800/833-1225; www.trumanlibrary.org).
ROBERT J. DOLE INSTITUTE OF POLITICS, Lawrence, Kansas
The institute honors Kansas' World War II veterans and the career of native son Dole (785/864-4900; www.doleinstitute.org).
NATIVE AMERICAN HERITAGE SITES, North Dakota
Follow the Lewis and Clark National Historic Trail to the nation's largest collection of Plains Indians artifacts at the North Dakota Heritage Center (701/328-2666; www.nd.gov/hist) and the Sacagawea site at the Knife River Indian Villages National Historic Site (701/745-3300; www.nps.gov/knri).
CRAZY HORSE MEMORIAL,Black Hills, South Dakota
This mountain-size monument to a legendary Sioux leader has been in progress since 1948. The memorial includes the Indian Museum of North America and the Native American Cultural Center (605/673-4681; www.crazyhorse.org).
HOMESTEAD NATIONAL MONUMENT OF AMERICA
A few years ago, I paid $50,000 for 22 Nebraska acres so I could build a house and grow crops. Daniel Freeman bought 160 acres in the same area with the same goals. He paid $18, but I'm sure I got a better deal.
Freeman's purchase came on January 1, 1863, the first claim under the Homestead Act of 1862. Financially, he paid only filing fees, but in terms of facing drought, blizzard, disease and mind-numbing isolation, he paid more than I can imagine.
Under the act, the U.S. government gave away about 10 percent of the country to citizens (and prospective ones). Today, Homestead National Monument near Beatrice (about 40 miles south of Lincoln) stands on Freeman's claim to commemorate the giveaway. Visitors tour a museum and walk the restored prairie on Freeman's farm to connect with an almost uniquely American idea: that society's poorest members can own land. The offer's takers included families, single women and Europeans escaping their aristocracy's grip on real estate.
Inside the museum, a replica of Freeman's homestead application hangs near papers from January 20, 1868-showing he survived the "proving up" period and now owned the land. I study the documents and recall building my own Nebraska house. Knowing Freeman had no power saw, lumberyard, or even an AM radio to cover the wind's moaning, I feel humbled at his grit.
Then I think of all the failed homesteaders (more than half of them) and decide that even if you never proved up, there had to be some consolation in realizing that no nobleman or corporate baron had a hand in it. When you dragged yourself around a scorched field all day, you were working for yourself, hanging your destiny on your own skills and the acts of God. This nation never promised success as a landowner, but at least it gave everyone with $18 and a dream a chance to try.
THE HENRY FORD MUSEUM, Dearborn, Michigan
Draw inspiration from exhibits about some of America's most brilliant innovators. You can see relics from pivotal moments in history, such as Rosa Parks' historic bus and the 15-millionth Ford Model T (800/835-5237; www.hfmgv.org).
DAYTON AVIATION HERITAGE NATIONAL HISTORICAL PARK, Dayton, Ohio
This site honors the work of flight innovators Orville and Wilbur Wright. The park includes one of the brothers' bicycle shops where they developed the glider and powered flight (937/225-7705; www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/aviation).
The Price of Freedom
VIETNAM VETERANS MEMORIALS
Several Midwest states honor their casualties with parks, sculptures and walls. Find one in your area at www.vietvet.org/vietmems.htm.
The Midwest is home to five of the first 14 sites that President Lincoln established as national cemeteries in 1862, including Fort Scott and Fort Leavenworth in Kansas, Camp Butler in Illinois and New Albany in Indiana. Scattered throughout the region are 22 other national cemeteries (www.cem.va.gov/cem).
VETERANS DAY PARADE, Emporia, Kansas
The town where Veterans Day began holds a parade each November,followed by a memorial service at All Veterans Memorial (800/279-3730; www.emporiakschamber.org).
CONGRESSIONAL MEDAL OF HONOR MEMORIAL, Indianapolis
All 3,410 recipients of America's highest military award are honored with inscriptions on curved glass walls in downtown's White River State Park. Every day at dusk, a recording recounts the soldiers' heroic acts (800/665-9056; www.in.gov/whiteriver).
UNDERGROUND RAILROAD SITES
The Midwest was home to many critical stops in this network that helped slaves escape to freedom in the North. Visits provide moving reminders of the courage of escaping slaves and the people who aided them. Find sites near you with the National Parks Service's listing at www.cr.nps.gov/nr/travel/underground.
PERRY'S VICTORY AND INTERNATIONAL PEACE MEMORIAL, South Bass Island, Lake Erie, Ohio
This 352-foot tower commemorates Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry's pivotal defeat of a squadron of British warships in the War of 1812, and also seeks to teach visitors about international peace (419/285-2184; www.nps.gov/pevi).
LINCOLN COUNTY HISTORICAL MUSEUM, North Platte, Nebraska
Learn how volunteers at the legendary North Platte Canteen greeted all military trains that passed through between December 1941 and April 1946. Some 6 million members of the armed forces received sandwiches, coffee and cookies on their way to war (308/534-5640)
BERLIN WALL SEGMENT, Fulton,Missouri
Winston Churchill delivered his famous "Iron Curtain" speech on the campus of Westminster College in this town. Today, you can see "Breakthrough," an 11-foot-tall by 32-foot-long sculpture created from eight Berlin Wall segments by Churchill's granddaughter, artist Edwina Sandys (573/592-5369; www.churchillmemorial.org).
MOUNT RUSHMORE, Black Hills, South Dakota
The famous likenesses of four U.S. presidents represent the "courage, dreams, freedom and greatness" of Americans. The story of the mountain's carving during the Great Depression provides its own measure of inspiration (605/574-3171; www.nps.gov/moru).
OKLAHOMA CITY NATIONAL MEMORIAL, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma
Dedicated to the 168 victims of the 1995 bombing and the rescue workers, the memorial tells the story of the attack and the resilience of the human spirit. A museum recounts the bombing and aftermath, and the outdoor memorial features a chair representing each victim (888/542-4673; www.oklahomacity nationalmemorial.org).