February commemorates Black History Month, an ideal time to experience one of the DMV’s many related history and cultural sites with the family. Of course, the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C., is a must-visit site with its 35,000 treasured artifacts, but consider a day trip to Maryland or Virginia with your family. Start with the following six important sites that delve into the stories and lives of Black Americans, from iconic Harriet Tubman to a community that built a school for its kids during segregation. Some have special events taking place throughout the month.
Arlington House, The Robert E. Lee Memorial
While Arlington House was the home of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee, who fled the house when he joined the Confederate Army at the onset of the Civil War, it has recently undergone a multimillion-dollar restoration to provide a new narrative showcasing the lives of the more than 100 enslaved individuals who built the plantation house and lived and worked here. The interpretive exhibits don’t shy away from challenging questions, leaving much to discuss later at the family dinner table.
Two surviving quarters of enslaved people are out back. Several artifacts of African American history are on display for the first time, including the bust of James Parks, who toiled on the plantation until 1861. He’s the only person born on the property who is buried at the cemetery. Exhibits, including family photos, letters and books, relate to the Syphaxes, Norrises and other enslaved families.
As of press time, no tickets are needed to enter the plantation house, enslaved quarters or museum. All are free and open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Parking for Arlington House is available at the Arlington National Cemetery Visitor Center.
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway
Eastern Shore, Maryland
harriettubmanbyway.org, nps.gov/hatu, adkinsarboretum.org
After escaping to freedom from the Maryland Eastern Shore plantation where she was born, legendary freedom fighter Harriet Tubman—who celebrates her 200th birthday this year—risked her life time and again to return, freeing dozens of enslaved people along the Underground Railroad. Many of the sites relating to this daring history remain throughout the Eastern Shore, and they have been linked on a 125-mile route from Cambridge to the Delaware border—a fun family outing with plenty to think about along the way.
Visit Church Creek, Maryland, site of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Visitor Center (stop 13), where kids can see where Tubman lived and worked and learn about her life through multimedia exhibits. Walking trails and a memorial garden are also there. Another important site is Bucktown General Store (stop 17), where young Harriet received a near-death blow in the head when she defied authority to protect an enslaved boy. At the Adkins Arboretum (stop 34), trails wander through woodland and marshland very much resembling the terrain through which Tubman journeyed.
Jefferson Patterson Park & Museum
10515 Mackall Road
St. Leonard, MD 20685
The Battle of St. Leonard Creek unfolded during the War of 1812 on these present-day parklands overlooking the Patuxent River. Families can listen to the various tales via cell phone (call 410-246-1966) and read interpretive markers along the 1.8-mile “War of 1812” driving and walking trail. Different perspectives are shared, including that of Charles Ball, an enslaved man who had fled north to freedom. During the war, he enlisted under Commodore Joshua Barney as a free man, serving as a seaman and cook for the Chesapeake flotilla. Be sure to ask at the visitor center for access to the War of 1812 exhibit in the Exhibit Barn.
The park also has miles of trails along St. Leonard Creek (where the War of 1812 battle occurred) and woodlands, and through the former lands of a Woodland Indian village. The park and grounds are open daily from 7:30 a.m. to dusk; admission is free.
Laurel Grove School Museum
6840 Beulah St.
Alexandria, VA 22310
Kids may take a different stance toward school after visiting this 19th-century, one-room schoolhouse built by the first generation of African Americans born to freedom in Fairfax County to educate their community’s children. The schoolhouse is now a living museum, where intriguing insights come to light. Some kids had to walk up to 5 miles to attend this school, where students shared books and desks, studied geography without maps and helped cook meals with items brought from their home gardens.
Special programs include pictorial history exhibits, talks by history makers, children’s story hour and other topics that bring to life the school’s history. Visitation is currently by appointment only.
44300 Sotterley Lane
Hollywood, MD 20636
For centuries, enslaved people worked this 18th-century tobacco plantation overlooking the Patuxent River in Southern Maryland, at a site where many captured Africans first stepped ashore in America. This history is today recounted through a restored one-room, pine-log cabin from 1830, where a dozen or so people lived. Kids can duck their head to enter the low doorway and take in the dirt floor, simple pallet bed, and low stairs leading to an attic space.
Throughout February, Sotterley celebrates the life and legacy of Dr. Agnes Kane Callum, a historian and genealogist whose ancestors were enslaved at Sotterley during the 19th century. The grounds are open year-round, and the tour season runs May through October (Friday-Sunday). Call 301-373-2280 to reserve a tour time; tickets are $10 for adults, $6 youth (6-18), and children younger than 6 are free.
Sully Historic Site
3650 Historic Sully Way
Chantilly, VA 20151
Northern Virginia’s first Congressman, Richard Bland Lee, built Sully Plantation, where enslaved people cultivated wheat, corn and rye. Today, thanks to archaeological evidence (such as squirrel and herring bones, broken pottery and coins), record-keeping and letters, researchers found a slave quarter. A slave cabin was built in 2000 to represent the enslaved community.
Today, we know about Thornton, who cooked in the kitchen; Madam Juba, who laundered the clothes; Sam, who worked as a blacksmith and many others whose stories need to be shared. All this history can be discovered by visiting the site and taking a tour of the house and an outdoor walking tour—the Forgotten Road Tour.
Several special events will take place this February, including a free virtual lecture on Saturday, Feb. 5, by Dr. Richard Bell on the “Fire of Frederick Douglass” and a “lunch and learn” on Saturday, Feb. 17, a chance to learn about Sully’s enslaved people.
February tours, available Thursday through Sunday at 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m., will focus on the work and lives of Sully’s enslaved people. The grounds are open 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily, and the visitor center is open 11 a.m. to
4 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. The fee for the house tour and Forgotten Road tour is $10 for adults and $8 for children (5-15); the grounds, outbuildings and garden are free.