Racial progress, tourism bucks spur the South to market to blacks

September 12, 1990|By Peter Applebome | Peter Applebome,New York Times

MONTGOMERY, ALA — MONTGOMERY, Ala. -- Ever since the wounds began to heal after the Civil War, the South has portrayed itself to potential visitors in mist-shrouded images of cotton barons and hoop skirts, mint juleps and white-columned antebellum mansions.

Now, tourism officials and promoters throughout the South are increasingly selling something else as well: the civil rights battles of Selma, Birmingham, Memphis and Montgomery; the black blues musicians of the Mississippi Delta; the Atlanta center honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., or more obscure attractions like the frescoes at Talladega College in Alabama depicting a slave revolt on the schooner Amistad in 1839 near Cuba.

In a sign of both racial progress in the region and the degree to which blacks are increasingly recognized as central to its economic life, states that three decades ago were bastions of segregation are building monuments to the civil rights movement and producing brochures designed for black tourists.

"Ten years ago you could not have done this; now the timing is just right," said Francis Smiley, the black-heritage coordinator for the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel, whose 1983 brochure was Alabama's first statewide effort to market black history.

"It's an image builder, a recognition of the way the South has changed. And it reflects a new awareness that there's a black travel market that in the past has been totally overlooked. We're trying to say, 'Yes, we have Southern belles, but we're a lot more diverse than that.' "

That brochure was aimed at luring back for visits the blacks who had left Alabama. It was such a hit that it is now in its third version with 180,000 copies in print and has grown into a slick 30-page booklet listing 163 attractions from the Freedom Quilting Bee organized by black women in Alberta to AfricaTown U.S.A. State Park northeast of Mobile.

Increasingly, other states and organizations in the South are trying to follow the same approach.

John Horhn, a black man who is Mississippi's director of tourism, said the black travel market is worth $15 billion a year. Officials in his state are working to document the state's black history much as Alabama has done.

Georgia and South Carolina already have put together listings of black historical sites, and Tennessee is planning one.

Civil rights memorials are being built and promoted by tourism officials in Birmingham, across the street from the Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where four black children were killed in a 1963 church bombing, and in Memphis, at the Lorraine Motel, where King was killed in 1968.

And some private tourism groups are seeing the same opportunities.

David A. Farrow, who runs a company that conducts walking tours of Charleston, S.C., said he is working to put together such a tour oriented toward black history.

"Blacks are half the history of the South," Farrow said, "and often that part has not been recognized."

The changes partly reflect the racial evolution in the South.

"Let's face it," said Lisa Shivers, director of the Alabama Bureau of Tourism and Travel. "It's good for Alabama's image to promote its black history."

But the changes also reflect the economic importance of blacks to the region, which is home to half the nation's black population and where most blacks have roots.

Mississippi has the sort of civil rights history and black heritage that make it singularly well equipped to tap the black travel market, said Horhn.

Thirty-six percent of Mississippi's population is black, the nation's highest, which provides a lucrative pool for intrastate travel.

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