Chicagoland is undeniably teeming with the stories and contributions of historic African Americans, from the legacy of the Bronzeville neighborhood, to the DuSable Black History Museum and the Pullman National Monument.
But if you’re looking to get out of town, it’s just as easy to appreciate Black history in any number of Midwest destinations, many within driving distance for a weekend getaway to a nearby state. Add a sidecar of history on the Bourbon Trail, take in a show rooted in Black culture, and make some memories of your own along the way with a visit to one of these five cities steeped in Black history.
Home to Miles Davis, the stages where Tina Turner first performed, musician Steamboat Willie’s birthplace and Katherine Dunham’s lasting legacy, East St. Louis is splashed across the pages of Black history and the bios of some of America’s most influential cultural figures.
Dunham, a pioneering dancer and anthropologist who grew up in Chicago, settled in East St. Louis in the 1960s after bringing African and Afro-Caribbean dance to the world stage (and inspiring future dance icons such as Alvin Ailey and Eartha Kitt along the way). The Katherine Dunham Centers for Arts and Humanities (kdcah.org) houses artifacts from her global travels and work — tours are available by appointment only — but has struggled to attract enough donors in recent years. It offers community dance and art classes, and alumni and devotees of the Dunham technique have gone on to work with nearby institutions just across the Mississippi River, such as The Black Rep theater (theblackrep.org) and the Center of Creative Arts (cocastl.org), whose spring dance repertoire is set for May 5-7.
Just a 10-minute drive away is Brooklyn, Illinois, which vies for the title of oldest Black incorporated town in the United States. “Mother” Priscilla Baltimore is credited with founding the town with families of other free or formerly enslaved Black people from St. Louis in 1829. The local historical society recently built a marker to commemorate Brooklyn’s origins as a freedom village, which also became part of the Underground Railroad and home to the historic Quinn Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The Historical Society of Brooklyn Illinois hopes to add a memorial walkway dedicated to Priscilla Baltimore in 2023, and is seeking designation from the National Register of Historic Places to cement its place in history.
Indiana’s crown jewel of Black history might be the Madam Walker Legacy Center (madamwalkerlegacycenter.com), located in the building where Madam C.J. Walker oversaw her cosmetics and hair care empire, philanthropic efforts and cultural patronage. As the first self-made female millionaire in the United States, Walker was devoted to ensuring people from marginalized communities could access the arts. The 1927-built theater — a rare still-standing African-Art Deco building — has hosted the likes of Ella Fitzgerald, Nat King Cole and Patti LaBelle and looks to continue Walker’s mission.
The Walker Building is located along Indiana Avenue, which distinguished itself as an epicenter of Black business and arts in the early 20th century. But displacement and rapid expansion of Indiana University campus starting in the 1950s drained the area of its Black residents and resources, although some have sought in recent years to reinvest in the neighborhood and revive its vibrant scene.
Today, Indiana Avenue is one of the city’s cultural districts, connected by an 8-mile Indianapolis Cultural Trail. Indianapolis history buff Sampson Levingston hosts frequent Walk & Talk guided tours in the city (through2eyes.com), including one along Indiana Avenue that will take place Feb. 4.
If the timing is right, head to Freetown Village (freetown.org) for a craft workshop, stage performance or re-enactment at the living history museum focused on African American life in post-Civil War settlements in Indiana.
The state’s well-trodden Bourbon Trail celebrates its iconic liquor with ample sampling, but there’s a less-appreciated history getting more attention these days, as well. The legacy of Nathan “Nearest” Green, who taught distilling techniques to Jack Daniel himself, is commemorated in “The Unfiltered Truth: Black Americans in Bourbon,” an exhibit at the Frazier Kentucky History Museum (fraziermuseum.org). The tours, offered on the third Saturday of each month, showcase historical Black figures in the development of bourbon.
For an adults-only treat on Thursdays and Fridays, the Evan Williams Bourbon Experience at Heaven Hill Distillery (heavenhilldistillery.com/ewb-experience.php) plays host to a speakeasy-style tasting session with an actor portraying Louisville bartender Tom Bullock, the first Black American to publish a cocktail cookbook in 1917.
And if the kids (and adult boxing fans) are in tow, Louisville is home to the award-winning Muhammad Ali Center (alicenter.org), which retells the boxer’s life story in and outside the boxing ring, and seeks to inspire the next generation through the principles that guided the athlete and activist’s life.
Though the 8-hour drive might seem daunting (nonstop flights are available out of O’Hare and Midway, if that’s preferable), Kansas City is an ideal destination for celebrating jazz and blues. Head to the 18th & Vine district, where you can walk through history at the American Jazz Museum (americanjazzmuseum.org) — including artifacts such as Louis Armstrong’s trumpet — before taking in a jam session at its Blue Room and Gem Theater venues.
Tuck into some legendary no-frills barbecue at Arthur Bryant’s (arthurbryantsbbq.com), which dates back to the 1920s. If you’re traveling with sports fans, visit the nearby Negro Leagues Baseball Museum (nlbm.com), which celebrates Black baseball players and leagues before integration. And for a musical end to your night, head to the Mutual Musicians Foundation (facebook.com/MutualMusiciansFoundation), potentially the oldest jazz house in the world, which stays open until 5 a.m.
Just over a four-hour drive from Chicago, almost every corner of Detroit is infused with Black history. Not to be missed is a selfie with The Fist, a monument to Detroit-raised boxer Joe Louis, and a visit to the often-overlooked WGPR-TV Historical Society Museum (wgprmuseum.org) that commemorates the nation’s first Black-owned and operated television station.
The Motown Museum (motownmuseum.org) is set to reopen for tours in mid-February after an expansion that includes a plaza with pop-up performances. The museum is located on the grounds of Motown Records, where music legends such as Diana Ross and the Supremes; Stevie Wonder; and the Jackson 5 got their start.
Nearby, the longtime home of Rosa Parks in the Wildemere Park neighborhood was designated on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021, but remains a private residence. You could stop by The Henry Ford Museum (thehenryford.org) to see the bus Parks rode on that fateful day, but also be sure to visit the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History (thewright.org), one of the largest African American history museums in the country. Two jazz-focused exhibits will be on display through February.
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