The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

For history and tourist dollars, the South turns to ‘civil rights trails’

Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser (R), right, watches as Leona Tate, second from left, helps unveil a Louisiana Civil Rights Trail marker outside the Tate, Etienne, Prevost Center, formerly known as McDonogh 19 Elementary School. The New Orleans center is named for her and the two other Black students who in 1960 became the first to integrate the all-White school. (Chris Granger/Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate/AP)
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One of the newest historical plaques in North Carolina is planted in the grass just a few yards off a neighborhood street in Raleigh. “Holt Family,” it announces.

Joe Holt Jr. was 14 when his parents sued to get him admitted to a White high school. Although the Supreme Court had outlawed racially segregated public education two years before, local officials refused to comply. The African American family endured death threats. People shunned them. His father lost his job.

“When that pole went in, it just elevated my soul so much,” said Holt, who ultimately graduated from a Black high school just as Raleigh was integrating its first campus. The retired Air Force colonel waited 65 years to have his parents’ courage honored and their story noted as an important part of history. “Now a marker is standing there validated by an agency of the state of North Carolina.”

Hundreds of such stories are being unearthed and highlighted across the South in what amounts to a second stage of the civil rights movement — an effort to save places before they disappear and pay tribute to events before key individuals are gone.

The engine driving much of this movement is tourism. After decades of shame and political opposition to acknowledging the past, Southern states and cities are rushing, even competing, to create “civil rights trails” and highlight what happened along them. The pull of tourist dollars is so powerful that efforts by conservative politicians to limit what educators can teach about racism have had no discernible effect.

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“The answer to that is politics and economics,” said Hasan Jeffries, a history professor at Ohio State University who was the lead scholar in the renovation of the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis. Simply put, legislatures like the money spent by those tourists. “Civil rights have not really been targeted.”

In Farmville, Va., which closed its schools in 1959 rather than desegregate them, the Moton Museum tells the story of Barbara Johns and the student strike she led there. A local marker to the Black teenager’s activism was erected only in 2021.

Even after an executive order issued by Virginia Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) to end “the use of inherently divisive concepts” in the state’s public schools, field trips brought thousands of students to the museum last year. “We have continued to be focused on doing what we do, regardless of the noise that might be out there,” Moton Museum executive director Cameron Patterson said.

States from Oklahoma to Florida to Maryland have erected or have planned more than 500 civil rights markers in the past five years, according to an analysis of the Historical Marker Database. The civil rights markers detail endeavors of Black Americans that had been overshadowed by the narratives around Rosa Parks, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. and other prominent figures, underscoring that countless acts of bravery, small and large, were what finally defeated Jim Crow.

The Holt sign in Raleigh — standing just north of where the family’s house once stood on Oberlin Road — is part of the North Carolina Civil Rights Trail. The project is led by the North Carolina African American Heritage Commission, which is considering places where sit-ins, strikes and rallies were held, churches where people organized, homes of individuals whose determination made a difference. Its director expects to have 50 markers in place by the end of this year.

“Scholars describe it as the long civil rights movement,” said Glenn Eskew, a history professor at Georgia State University. After major national legislative and judicial reforms, “every community had to go through this transition because white supremacy and segregation existed everywhere. And Southerners did it. It was a slow process, but Black and White who had lived together from the beginning worked their way through it.”

The commemorating of sites began after King’s assassination in 1968, but the recent impetus for establishing trails and erecting plaques was the opening of major African American museums — in Memphis (2014), D.C. (2016) and Montgomery, Ala. (2018) — as well as President Barack Obama’s two terms, Black Lives Matter, the removal of Confederate memorials and the 50th anniversaries of civil rights milestones.

In many places, markers stand before dilapidated or empty structures threatened by lack of interest, said Phillip Howard, who manages the Conservation Fund’s Forgotten Civil Rights People and Places Program. He cited the Birmingham home of Arthur Shores, the lawyer who integrated the University of Alabama and whose house was bombed twice.

Shores’s elderly daughter still lives in the house but needs help to preserve it. “No one has thought it was important enough to save,” Howard said.

Ironically, the establishing of civil rights trails began under Alabama Gov. George Wallace. In 1982, after apologizing for his once-vehement segregationist views, he won a fourth term as governor thanks to Black voters. His tourism director, a former reporter who had witnessed the aftermath of the deadly bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham in 1963, asked for permission to create a Black heritage brochure. It was the first state-produced African American tourism guide.

When Lee Sentell became the state’s tourism director in 2003, he expanded the guide to 40 sites and renamed it the Alabama Civil Rights Trail.

“I knew that Alabama’s image because of the civil rights movement was not a positive. But I felt that courageous Black people and a few White people had helped transform the history of this country,” Sentell recounted recently. “I wanted to market these people to show their courage and their heroism.”

Traveling a trail can be life-changing, said Todd Allen, the vice president for diversity affairs at Messiah University in Pennsylvania, who has led civil rights tours for 22 years.

“I’ve watched the films and read books forever about the Edmund Pettus Bridge and Bloody Sunday,” Allen said, “but standing on the apex of that bridge myself for the first time, and thinking about what they would have seen in 1965, and the courage that it took to continue marching forward — I’ve known people who, as a result of that experience, vowed to never miss an election.”

As Alabama’s civil rights tourism became the envy of neighboring states, Sentell proposed that Travel South, a consortium of 15 state travel directors, create the United States Civil Rights Trail under the tag line: “What happened here changed the world.”

The project was launched in 2018 with 120 museums, schools, lunch counters and other sites chosen by Eskew and fellow scholars. Before the coronavirus pandemic, Sentell estimated, 5 million people visited landmarks on the U.S. trail annually and spent $725 million.

Alabama’s effort also spawned more than 20 state and local trails with more than 900 sites. When those are combined with the U.S. trail, more than 1,000 civil rights sites have been marked, rivaling the 1,200 that are part of the Civil War Trails organization encompassing six states.

When newly elected Louisiana Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser (R) heard about Alabama’s trail in a briefing in 2019, “I leaned over to my tourism director and said, ‘Do we have a civil rights trip?’ He said, ‘I don’t think so.’”

Within a year, Nungesser had formed a team to collect and record civil rights stories across the state. “We wanted the story to come from the people that lived it,” he said. “I was in awe — story after story that people didn’t know, that I wasn’t taught in school.”

Louisiana’s Civil Rights Trail now has eight markers, with another seven planned to go up this year. They feature a QR code that on smartphones triggers recorded stories about events on the spot where they occurred.

One marker pays tribute to the three Black children who integrated McDonogh 19 Elementary School in New Orleans in 1960.

“You walk up to the pole, and you hit that scan with your phone and you can hear from Leona Tate,” Nungesser explained. “And she says, ‘Mom, I saw police on horseback. Why do I got to go to school during a Mardi Gras parade? And she says, ‘Oh no, honey. This ain’t no parade. Keep your head down.’”

“When you can hear the words,” Nungesser added, “if you don’t get goose bumps, or a chill in your heart …”