Discovering the Power of History

By Eskridge, Ann E. | American Visions, October-November 1998 | Go to article overview

Discovering the Power of History


Eskridge, Ann E., American Visions


Creating the Buzz

The tour bus stops on a dusty road just inside the town limits of Grayson, Okla. Its passengers step out into the scorching August heat. This is the last lap of a four-day tour that has taken this group to a few of the state's 27 all-black towns and communities that were founded around the turn of the century -- towns with names like Wewoka, Muskogee, Redbird and Boley. Today, in Grayson (population 150), they'll meet the town elders, who will talk about the town's past as a black and Indian settlement in the Creek indian Nation. Oral history is a crucial part of this tour because, in some cases, all that is left of these all-black towns are memories and deserted buildings. Grayson's past is embodied in the skeletal remains of a school building and a two-cell jail built around the turn of the century.

It's important to oklahoma Travel and Tourism (OTT) that this tour give a flavor of what it was like to live in these all-black towns, which were home to people willing to trade hard work for the security of living free from racial harassment. Townspeople bragged about their self-sufficiency and were rumored to have posted signs warning white men not to be seen after sundown.

These tours -- created to attract more African Americans to Oklahoma -- are a big step for a state that, until recently, marketed itself mainly as the birthplace of Will Rogers. "We're trying to educate the media and create interest in areas that would not normally get exposure," explains OTT's public relations representative, Bryan Hotchkins, "but we're also trying to educate the townspeople on how to present the history of these towns to tour groups."

So important is this goal that OTT received a budget allocation of $100,000 to develop a multicultural branch that will market solely to ethnic groups. "In this way, we're hoping that we can do a better job than we've done before," Hotchkins says.

Oklahoma, like other states and cities across the country, is learning to package its historical and cultural jewels to reach a multicultural market yearning for historical authenticity. Doing so could mean an edge in the increasingly lucrative and competitive tourism industry.

The United States is the No. 1 destination when ranked by the amount of money that tourists spend on travel destinations worldwide, according to the International Trade Administration of the U.S. Department of Commerce. That statistic, coupled with the fact that black consumer spending power is growing faster than the national average (black consumers will account for 8.2 percent of total buying power by 1999, according to a recent study by the Selig Center for Economic Growth, in Atlanta), means that there is an increase in disposable income to be spent on travel.

"African Americans are traveling more than they used to, and they want an enriching experience. They are Disneyed out," says Kevin Cottrell, the "station master" for Motherland Connextions Inc., a group of tour operators who specialize in Underground Railroad tours in western New York and southern Ontario. In 1993 Cottrell developed a 15-city tour following the Underground Railroad that was so successful, he developed similar tours for local school districts, church groups, clubs and family reunions. "I see an opportunity in the black community to showcase our history and to reap some economic benefits as well," he says. "Remember, we've always been in the tourism business. What they call bed and breakfasts now is something we did years ago, when we took in relatives, friends and boarders. Now, we treat it like a business."

The reason more tourism operations are recognizing black heritage isn't simply that they care: More tourism operations across the country are recognizing black heritage and culture sites because of the dollars they can generate. "The more people that visit their city or state, for whatever reason, the more travel dollars spent," says Wayne C. …

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