Claiming Our Heritage Is a Booming Industry

Article excerpt

A Washington, D.C., City Council member lobbies to erect a Civil War memorial to the more than 185,000 African Americans and their white officers who served with the Union forces. A group of researchers, teachers and community leaders forms to reclaim and bring to public attention the Archer's Hope, Va., project, a 1,000-acre site purported to be the spot where the first African indentured servants landed in 1619. All over the country, from New York City to Los Angeles, African Americans are waking up to the value of their heritage, establishing landmarks, refurbishing art and history museums, and honoring their forebears and the vital role they played in shaping this nation. The cultural richness of African Americans has become in recent years a serious contender for attracting tourists. In a phrase, it's called heritage tourism, and it's a hot trend.

"A growing number of habitually neglected minority communities are preserving their cultural institutions, their traditions, their historic sites and events peculiar to our life and style as Americans and Africans in the diaspora," says Donald S. Benjamin, a Washington, D.C., consultant who has spent more than 20 years establishing a network of historical sites and tourist attractions. "We have begun to research and create guidebooks and brochures to attract business development."

For the past five years, Benjamin has been working on the Archer's Hope project, considered one of the premier African-American historical sites in the United States. During the 1930s, under the guidance of community and religious leaders and sanctioned by the Franklin Roosevelt administration, Archer's Hope was scheduled to be the location of the National Memorial to the Progress of the Colored Race in America.

Roosevelt endorsed the concept, which could have led to black America's first memorial of such magnitude, in part to address the needs of African Americans and to pay them back for their political support. However, lack of money, the tumult of World War II and its recovery efforts, and then integration stalled the project for the next six decades. Community activists, including Benjamin, are now working to bring this project to fruition, not to mention public attention.

The African-American Civil War Memorial was the brainchild of Washington, D.C., City Council member Frank Smith, a history buff. Appalled by the failure of the United States to recognize properly the black military role in the Civil War, in 1991 Smith introduced a resolution, unanimously passed by the City Council, calling for the establishment of the memorial. The gesture picked up momentum as D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton steered a similar bill through Congress, and various organizations jumped on the bandwagon to lend their support. In 1992 then-President Bush signed the bill into law.

To be located in the heart of a historically elite black neighborhood, the memorial is scheduled to be unveiled in March 1998. It will consist of two semicircular stone walls mounted with stainless-steel plaques bearing the names of all 185,000 officers and men of the 166 regiments of the U.S. Colored Troops, with a bronze statue of three infantrymen and a sailor on one side of the curved wall and a soldier saying goodbye to his family on the other.

The celebration of culture through the restoration of buildings, historical monuments, local pageants and special events is not a new concept, the preservation movement having swept through the United States in the 1960s. The African-American preservation movement, however, seems to have picked up momentum during the 1980s, with the focus on developing various historical and cultural sites and then marketing them to tourists in the 1990s.

Who constitutes the market for heritage tourism? According to the Travel Industry Association of America, the national nonprofit organization that represents the $467 billion travel industry to promote and facilitate increased travel to and within the United States, more than one-fourth of all U. …