For generations, Black cultural history has existed on the fringes of the tourism industry.
From Kehinde Wiley’s status quo-shattering equestrian statue “Rumors of War” at the entrance of the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts to Shirley Plantation’s renewed commitment to include in its tours and exhibits more information about the enslaved who lived there, Black heritage and tourism is getting a lot of attention.
According to a study by Mandala Research, based in Old Town Alexandria, the economic value of African American travelers in the U.S. increased from $48 billion in 2010 to $63 billion in 2018 — a 31% surge. Black leisure travelers spent even more in 2019: $109.4 billion, based on a survey by MMGY Global, a global marketing firm specializing in the travel, hospitality and entertainment industries.
At the state level, the Virginia Tourism Corporation (VTC) is focused on understanding Black travelers and more fully explaining and promoting what the commonwealth has to offer.
“What basically we’re trying to do is demonstrate that Virginia has the longest continuous experience of Black life, definitely Black culture, in the U.S., and we’re trying to promote and underscore that Virginia is welcoming to all travelers,” says Jane Lammay, director of marketing operations for Virginia Tourism. “For so long, Black travelers have been underprioritized.”
And Black history, heritage and culture speaks to everyone, she says.
“The VTC is working on efforts not only to promote Black history to the Black traveler but to every traveler who is interested in learning more about Virginia’s history,” says Andrew Cothern, VTC communications manager.
He says efforts to attract Black travelers began in 2019, just before the pandemic. “Then in 2020, after the pandemic and all the George Floyd protests, we saw this more as a crucial need.”
‘One of Our Best Assets’
Enjoli Moon has worked to elevate Black history and heritage for years. She and her sister, Sesha Joi Moon, developed The JXN Project to promote the pivotal role that Richmond and especially Jackson Ward, one of the first Black urban neighborhoods in the country, played in the evolution of the Black American experience.
“People are becoming more and more interested in Richmond, in the Black American narrative,” Enjoli Moon says, adding that the removal of Confederate monuments and the reclamation of the spaces they occupied also has heightened interest in the area for Black travelers and others.
“People are excited and interested in knowing the fullness of what each of those things mean, how they are connected and how they created the space in which we live now,” she says.
Enjoli Moon is also a co-founder of BLKRVA, a collaboration between Richmond Region Tourism (RRT) and more than 20 community leaders to promote Richmond as a multicultural hub. “We have consistently promoted that we’re a very diverse destination, a welcoming destination,” says Jack Berry, president and CEO of RRT. “That’s one of our best assets.”
Janine Bell, president and artistic director of the Elegba Folklore Society, says that during the social justice movement last summer, books “flew off the shelf” in Elegba’s Broad Street shop as people sought information about the Black experience. And although the pandemic crippled tourism, she says Elegba’s cultural history tour, “In the Beginning … Virginia, Along the Trail of Enslaved Africans,” has thrived. For the first time, she says, “We’re having groups come in by motor coach.”
The Past and the Present
At Shirley Plantation, the descendants of Robert “King” Carter, who once owned 700 slaves, posted a statement of solidarity with the Black community last summer, following the murder of George Floyd.
“We recognize Shirley Plantation’s, and the family’s, role in slavery,” the statement reads. “As a site with over four centuries of history, which includes the Enslaved, Native Americans, Indentures, Colonials and more; we believe it is everyone’s history and consider it our mission to preserve and share the whole history with those who want to learn from it and experience it for themselves.”
Lauren Carter says she and her husband, Charles Hill Carter III, had already started to include more information about the enslaved who lived at Shirley in its tours and exhibits, but they have boosted their efforts since last summer.
Recently, they have been working with Civil War Trails to add a stop focusing on the story of Josiah Hewlitt and the 18 men who escaped enslavement at Shirley to fight for the Union in the Civil War.
“We also are working to build a descendant community to share history and allow those who want to the opportunity to participate in the story we tell and how we include and honor their ancestors in our interpretation at Shirley,” Lauren says.
The focus on Black culture also includes a growing appreciation of Black heritage in the arts.
“The Dirty South,” the VMFA’s recent exhibition highlighting contemporary African American art and material culture, had drawn nearly 33,000 visitors through the first week of August, according to Jan Hatchette, the VMFA’s deputy director of communications.
The VMFA has been an outlier, in the most positive sense, when it comes to promoting African American art and Black tourism. From 2008-18, artNet News reported that African American art represented just 2.37% of all acquisitions at 30 prominent American museums. “Compare that to our 40%,” says VMFA Director Alex Nyerges, citing the museum’s acquisitions since 2014-15, when it wrote into its strategic plan a focus on acquiring more African American and African art.
Demographics and history informed this focus, Nyerges says. Because 20% of Virginians are African American, and because the first enslaved Africans who came to English North America came to Virginia, he says, “We feel a very special need to be leaders in this area.”
Credit: Source link