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City of Colors

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The D has been designated the first authenticated African American Heritage Destination in the world by the Travel Professionals of Color. This organization promotes training, networking and support of minority travel professionals. It’s little surprise, given the area’s rich and thriving African-American culture.

Hitsville

Last summer, the national spotlight burned brightly on one of Detroit's most dynamic African-American destinations, the Motown Historical Museum, as mourners came in droves to pay their respects to King of Pop Michael Jackson after his unexpected death. The museum houses the studio that helped catapult Jackson and a number of other African-American artists such as Diana Ross and Stevie Wonder to superstardom.

The world watched as faithful Jackson fans gathered around the quaint front approach of the museum, leaving gifts and mementos at a makeshift shrine to the pop icon. "People were shocked by his untimely death and wanted to pay tribute to a star of his magnitude," says Audley Smith, the museum's CEO, of the Jackson fans that made the Motown pilgrimage. "Visitors represented people from all over, all races and all classes – the rainbow nation that Michael Jackson spoke to and on the behalf of."

Among other memorabilia, the museum displays the white jeweled glove and black fedora hat that have become so closely associated with Jackson's persona.

An Emotional Experience

Setting The D's culturally deep musical contributions aside, the city is also one of several communities that served as a gateway to freedom for runaway slaves seeking refuge in Canada. And no place tells the full story of slavery quite like the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History.

Detroit Institute of ArtsA visit to the And Still We Rise: Our Journey through African American History and Culture exhibit starts out with a walk through African markets with life-size figures and realistic sounds that give one a sense of a close-knit community. The experience then entrenches museum-goers in the grievous process of enslavement, including a holding cell, the Door of No Return display and a replica slave ship. Next, the stories of African-American triumphs, including escapes to freedom, followed by more recent successes of local African-Americans, fill the exhibit.

The immersive experience is both emotional and interesting for many visitors, remarks Edd Snyder, vice president of Public Relations and Marketing for the museum. "People who come here are usually overwhelmed by what they see," he says.

Every year, the museum hosts an assortment of community events that are enjoyable for the whole family, including the African World Festival, which takes place the third weekend in August at Hart Plaza; Noel Night, on the first Saturday in December; and Kwanzaa, which runs December 26, 2010-January 1, 2011.

Additional slavery and Underground Railroad experiences can be found at other metro Detroit stops, including the Second Baptist Church, a former refuge for slaves. At the First Congregational Church of Detroit, visiting groups are invited to participate in a storytelling simulation of a slave's journey to freedom. At Greenfield Village, 300 years of the African-American story are told through 83 historic structures, including the Hermitage Slave Quarters.

Other area museums rich in African-American history include The Henry Ford Museum, home to the bus Rosa Parks rode on that now-infamous day in Montgomery, Alabama, when she refused to give up her seat. The Detroit Institute of Arts (DIA) also features five galleries dedicated to African-American artists such as Hale Woodruff, Betye Saar and Gilda Snowden.

Untold Stories

Visitors looking for an exciting evening of evocative African-American-orientated drama, can find it at Detroit's Plowshares Theatre, Michigan's only professional African-American theater company. Audiences experience history and entertainment rolled into one, notes Gary Anderson, producing artistic director for the theater, which calls the Charles H. Wright museum its home.

"Our plays open a window to stories most people may not know," he says. "A few years ago, we did a [play about a] fictional meeting between Rosa Parks and Mary Ellen Pleasant. Ms. Pleasant had a similar case [refusing to relinquish a seat] with streetcars in the 19th century. The play talks about the continuation of African-Americans to work toward equality. We've run into audience members as much as a year later who say they still think about some of the things that happen in our plays."

Beans n CornbreadAnother can't-miss is the Shrine of the Black Madonna Cultural Center and Bookstore, one of the nation's largest and oldest African-American-owned bookstores with locations in Detroit, Atlanta and Houston. It carries literary materials, a wide assortment of African clothing, handcrafted jewelry, artist prints, African-American collectibles, greeting cards and gifts. The bookstore is also home to the Karamu Art Gallery and the African Holocaust Museum.

In addition to touring, theater and shopping, you'll no doubt at some point become hungry for a hearty soul-food meal. One great place to do that is Beans & Cornbread in Southfield, where you can enjoy such southern staples as ribs, collard greens, and macaroni and cheese. While you're there, you might also want to sit back and sip on a relaxing drink at the restaurant's sidebar wine and martini bar, which offers domestic and imported wines and bottled beer, and a unique selection of cocktails and martinis, as well as daily specials such as $5 Peach Martinis and $1 fried chicken wings.

Shekini Jennings, a lifelong Detroit resident, is a local freelance writer.

Getting There

1.  Beans & Cornbread

29508 Northwestern Hwy.
Southfield, 48034 N
(248) 208-1680
beanscornbread.com

2.  Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History

315 E. Warren Ave.
Detroit, 48201 DD
313-494-5800
thewright.org/

3.  Detroit Institute of Arts

5200 Woodward Ave.
Detroit, 48202 DD
313-833-7900
dia.org

4.  First Congregational Church of Detroit

33 E. Forest Ave.
Detroit, 48201 DD
313-831-4080
friendsoffirst.com

5.  The Henry Ford/Henry Ford Museum/Greenfield Village

20900 Oakwood Blvd.
Dearborn, 48124 dw
313-982-6001
thehenryford.org

6.  Motown Historical Museum

2648 W. Grand Blvd.
Detroit, 48208 DD
313-875-2264
motownmuseum.com

7.  Plowshares Theatre Company

315 E. Warren Ave.
Detroit, 48201 DD
313-506-2858
plowshares.org

8.  Second Baptist Church

441 Monroe St.
Detroit, 48226 DD
313-961-0920
secondbaptistdetroit.org

9.  Shrine of the Black Madonna
Cultural Center and Bookstore

13535 Livernois Ave.
Detroit, 48238 Dw
313-491-0777
 
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Travel Tip

“The wife and I love to hit Greektown casino and PizzaPapalis. Also, Jacoby's "Detroit's Oldest bar" is right around the corner.” – Brian K.

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