Growing business from 'Roots'

April 23, 1993

Tourism, a field that has always relied on our fascination with history, is increasingly tapping into a desire to better understand our respective heritages. Witness the success of Ellis Island since that immigration landmark was refurbished in 1990. Likewise, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum is opening to immense acclaim in Washington. With that in mind, what a great idea it was for Maryland economic development and cultural officials to devise an African-American tourism initiative for the state. Beginning this season, Maryland has been promoting itself as an important location in the history of black Americans. It is not a shallow claim.

From Mathias de Sousa, an indentured servant among the first settlers on The Ark who later became the first black member of the state assembly, to Kunta Kinte, Alex Haley's great-great-great-great grandfather, who landed at Annapolis harbor on a slave ship; from freedom fighters Benjamin Banneker, Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman to polar explorer Matthew Henson and ragtime great Eubie Blake, the state boasts a formidable roster of heroes in African-American culture. As a border state that tolerated slavery and served as a stop on the underground railroad, Maryland also holds immense importance in understanding the events that precipitated the Civil War.

The attractions highlighted to tour groups include the Maryland Museum of African Art in Columbia -- a treasure trove of masks, jewelry, instruments and pottery from Nigeria, Guinea, Mali, Burundi and Swaziland. Other attractions include the City Dock in Annapolis where Kunta Kinte landed and the Antietam National Battlefield, site of the bloody Union victory in 1862 that paved the way for President Lincoln to deliver the Emancipation Proclamation.

To boost black tourism, the state has launched targeted advertisements in local and national publications as well as a lengthy supplement in an African-American culture magazine. The initiative makes sense, not just because Maryland has something to offer, but because it has someone to offer it to. The Mid-Atlantic and Northeast regions have some of the nation's greatest concentrations of black families with disposable income, who might be attracted to such appeals.

Before marketers can gain business from black consumers, however, they must win their respect. Maryland officials should be applauded for working to do just that.

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