(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
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).