February 1st marks the beginning of Black History Month in the USA. To start the month right and hear from an expert in black history tourism, Chakita Patterson of United Street Tours has been gracious enough to write us a guest blog post relating her experience.
Students have been my sole motive behind starting a walking tour firm ever since its inception. In fact, my very first tour guides were students from the school where I worked as the dean. It was a reputed institution and I still cherish the time I spent there.
During my first year as dean, I decided that I wanted to make programming more student-led so I put a plan in place to do so. When Black History Month rolled around, I was pumped to motivate students to take charge of the planning, programming, and theme for the month. Because I have had the privilege of working with some of the most intelligent, creative, and outgoing students, I believed that this was going to be a masterpiece of a month. However, to my dismay, they didn’t know much about black history with the exception of Martin Luther King Jr.
That was the defining moment for me. I said to myself, “Oh Gosh; this is unreal.” But I wasn’t dreaming. It was indeed true that, despite reaching high school, these students were unaware of defining moments in America’s history, such as the key leaders of the sit-in movement and the impact of the Civil War. So, I decided to do something about it: I complained. For months, I complained to my spouse about how our teaching methods are not inclusive and that we’ve been unintentionally teaching students how to be prejudiced.
The major problem with having limited exposure to black history content is that it forms an information gap, which affects our ability to think inclusively. I learned that students weren’t feeling excited or inspired to plan Black History Month because of inaccessible information that made them feel uncomfortable for not knowing something they thought they should know. And this isn’t uncommon – in a situation like this, you begin to realize that there is a hole in your pool of knowledge.
One day, I came home and began complaining yet again, but by this time, I guess my spouse had had enough. He looked me straight in the eye and said, “stop complaining and do something about it. You have the power to fix this, so what’s the solution?” I immediately became empowered and started to plan my first course of action.
The solution was clear: deliver black history content in a positive, engaging, and high-impact way such that it sparks enough curiosity in students that they seek more information to close this major information gap. I decided that the best delivery vehicle to spread this information was walking tours. So, I began designing black history walking tours. In my opinion, it was the best way to help people access the full background of black history in Nashville in order to overcome the information gap.
Walking Tour Business
In February 2018, I formally launched the company and named it United Street Tours. It was a one-of-a-kind venture since its entire focus was transmitting accurate knowledge and information about the evolution of African Americans in the country – their obstacles, struggles, fights, and survival.
I launched the tour company and created a Facebook event, hoping that parents would bring their students. Surprisingly, the Tour of African American Culture sold out for the first 3 months, and many in the audience were actually adults; that’s when I realized that this tour could change a lot of lives.
We kept on innovating and adding new features to our walking tours, such as the inclusion of the Civil Rights Movement Tour and Nashville: Black Wall Street Tour. Our most popular tour to this day is the Civil Rights Movement Tour. We plan to further expand the scope of these tours because we want people to experience black history in its real spirit, essence, and integrity. In fact, we plan to expand the tours to other areas including Franklin, TN, and the Bahamas. What makes my company unique and absolutely vital to today’s society are three main things: conversation, storytelling, and inclusion.
Number 1: Conversation
When information is shared through dialogue between people with different viewpoints or backgrounds, the opportunity then arises to experience different viewpoints; one of the many reasons that conversations about topics that matter to us are essential. We are intentional about creating a platform for people from diverse cultural backgrounds to come together and experience black history, reflect, and learn something new. In fact, at the end of every tour, we have a moment of reflection when everyone gets to speak about which site that we visited had the most impact on them personally and why. This is one of the most powerful moments of the tour because guests are able to engage with the understandings and perspectives of others that they may have not encountered otherwise. Regardless of your background or race, chances are that black history, in some shape or form, has made an impact on your life today. Having conversations about it exposes us to new ideas around advocacy and standing up against all odds to fight for equality, self-respect, and dignity.
Number 2: Storytelling
In today’s society, information has to be delivered in an entertaining manner in order for it to be meaningful and beneficial for the learner. With this approach in mind, we design our tours to be compelling. On the tours, we tell the emotional story of how black history teaches us about having hope in the face of hardship and triumphing over tears.
One of our favorite stories to tell on the Tour of African American Culture is about a man named Robert Renfro, otherwise known as Black Bob. Black Bob was a quasi-independent slave and one of the first African American entrepreneurs in Nashville. His quasi-independent status afforded him the ability to live and work away from his slaveowner as if he were free with the condition that he gifted a portion of his earnings to his slave owner. Benefitting from this opportunity, Black Bob managed to open a tavern, which he named Black Bob’s Tavern. His venture was exceptionally successful, which is how he became one of the first African Americans to operate a business in Nashville.
What was so fascinating about Black Bob is not only that he was a slave, but he also could not read nor write. That didn’t stop him from suing, however. Despite being illiterate and a slave, his name showed up in Davidson County Courthouse paperwork several times for suing white people at a time when black people weren’t even considered humans. His story inspires us to persevere through internal and external obstacles, despite social or economic status.
Number 3: Inclusion
Our tours promote inclusion by telling the stories of the underrepresented. Becoming a more inclusive-minded person means you no longer feel that any individual’s history is more important than another’s; instead, you understand that all perspectives are equally important to understand the big picture.
I am an advocate for inclusion, and that reflects in the stories we tell on the tours. For example, when talking about the civil rights movement, I tell the story of John Lewis alongside the story of Paul LaPrad. As a young African American college student, John Lewis was a part of a courageous group of students in Nashville who executed a plan to change the world through non-violent resistance techniques that they learned from James Lawson, who was later expelled from the school due to his involvement. Today, John Lewis sits in the House of Representatives and is the senior member of the Georgia delegation.
In the same respect, Paul LaPrad was a white student from Indiana who attended Fisk University. Paul LaPrad courageously enrolled in this historically black university in order to better understand how to work with individuals from backgrounds different than this own. While there, he became heavily involved in the civil rights movement and participated in the sit-ins in downtown Nashville.
Stories like this remind us that black history is not just a piece of history that should be embraced and celebrated by African Americans exclusively, but that it is a part of America’s history, and it should be celebrated by all.
We are excited to be a part of the Black History Tourism Movement by offering walking tours to our guests from all over the world. Black history tourism represents all that I believe in: inclusivity and diversity. We observe Black History Month as a commemoration of all of the obstacles, efforts, and successes that African Americans underwent decades ago in order to acquire due basic human rights. But it is much more than that. It is a fight towards achieving an equality-based society.
My advice to those interested in entering the black history tourism industry is to first realize that this is a heavy responsibility. Also, I recommend being mindful of the balance between teaching about such an intricate story yet not making a spectacle out of it. Stories should be carefully selected to highlight the vibrancy of the black community and its diverse historical achievements. For instance, tourists on our Civil Rights Movement Tour can learn about the unjust and prejudicial norms and traditions of the whites against blacks and the importance of creating a unified and equality-based society.
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