Roadschooling
with the National Monuments:
Slavery, the Civil War
& Civil Rights

painting of slaves and confederate soldiers, young babies, mothers and grandfathers alike

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Learning from experiences on the road can help saturate a young person’s mind with the reality of the situation.

The problem can sometimes be that visiting a large national park can add a level of stress, especially when there is so much more to explore than just the visitor center. Trying to take the time to learn from an exhibit when you’re one of twenty people looming can drop pressure like an extra atmosphere or two. Finding a more low-key experience, often one so laid back that you’ll be the only family in the house, gives you and your children a chance to be completely immersed in whatever it is you’re studying.

This is the first in a series of lessons for roadschoolers, i.e. those who “homeschool” but from the road, and they lean toward those families doing such a thing from a van or RV, since they’ll require hours long trips in between stops and thus will be best experienced as slowly as your travel style permits.

The Trip

A journey through America’s shameful but learnable history of oppressing black people in ways that were–from the very beginning–against the very basis of what we said we stood for. The trip explores everything from the site where the first Africans arrived by ship through Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement. Civil War battles and some of the most influential people in this country–on both sides of the story–will reveal themselves all the while.

The journey begins in Ohio and quickly moves into the South, where the bulk of slavery may have existed but by no means did these states have a monopoly on the subject, one we’re still struggling with today. A good chunk of the national monuments on this route live near the Atlantic Ocean, making it a perfect summertime trip, but even those more Appalachian locales are absolutely beautiful, the shroud of hardwood forests never far from view. As this is the east coast, most “natural” camping will happen in state parks but plenty of private RV parks can be had along the way as well. Perhaps most importantly, the tour meanders through the cities, small towns and rural communities that still show both the effects of oppression and the unique culture of the Southeastern United States in general.

As the places you visit will cover topics that not only clearly show the injustice of owning other humans, but also make known the not always righteous motives behind those who sought to abolish slavery as well, it is safe to say that what you’ll learn along the way is as about as black and white as our literal skin-tones. While this subject matter is important for any young child to learn, you can make the choice as to whether or not your child has the proper exposure or level of maturity to handle themes of war, violence, inequality and worse.

 

Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument

a photograph of actual buffalo soldiers
Photo via National Park Foundation.

Though they fought for the Union during the Civil War, the Buffalo Soldiers are an example of the dubious at best reasons that stood behind liberating the black man from slavery. Even as President Lincoln and the North claimed they were abolishing slavery on moral grounds, much of it had to do with weakening the power of Southern states–whose slaves counted toward their Electoral College weight–and keeping the country whole. Nonetheless, the Buffalo Soldiers gained their nickname from Native Americans who found them particularly worthy in battle, and were no doubt integral to the success of the Union in winning the Civil War. This national monument commemorates them as a whole, and more specifically, Charles Young. Young was the third graduate of the United States Military Academy, became the highest-ranking black officer in the Army during his lifetime, and also served on diplomatic missions as well. He also became the first black national park superintendent, presiding over California’s Sequoia National Park, where local organizations praised him for his ability in such a role and a highway leading to the monument now bears his name. His story–along with the soldiers as a whole–is a perfect place to begin our journey through the struggle African Americans have faced in this land of the free.

Note that you must make an appointment to visit this small national monument home.

More Civil War Experiences in Southwestern Ohio

There are dozens, if not hundreds, of small tributes to notable people from the Civil War spread throughout Ohio. Citizens and local governments commemorated fallen soldiers from their home state before the war had ended, and the Buckeye State has small memorials dedicated to black soldiers, escaped slaves and those white Americans who worked in earnest to abolish slavery as well. The Cincinnati Museum Center has a page listing many of them, large and small.

National Afro-American Museum & Cultural Center

Immediately in Wilberforce, Ohio, this museum looks back at African American history in not only Ohio, but the nation as a whole. 

Cincinatti

As you travel south to our next series of national monuments in Kentucky, you’ll find Cincinatti the fastest route. The city holds a number of interesting places to visit, but in the interest of the topic at hand:

Nearby Unrelated Educational Experiences

These museums near Wilberforce (and nearby Dayton) and Cincinatti aren’t related to our subject specifically, but make for great side excursions:

Camping in Wilberforce and Cincinatti, Ohio

Twenty minutes from the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, Caesar Creek State Park offers larger-than-an-RV-park sites and access to water (should you have some type of craft with you) and hiking trails, and full hookups are available (though coveted) here. Even closer, about 11 minutes out from the monument, John Bryan State Park has electric hookups in a serene setting.

Greene County, in which Wilberforce, the bigger town of Xenia, and parts of nearby Dayton are all within, also has several small county parks that offer RV camping as well. See the counties website for more info on where you can camp in an RV, all located along the Little Miami River. All camping is primitive (i.e., no hookups) and you can rent canoes and kayaks in the area to enjoy the river. They even have a shuttle system to pick you up downriver.

Within thirty minutes from Cincinnati, Winton Woods Campground and East Fork State Park both offer full hookups in a woodsy setting. As Cincinnati is only an hour from the Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, it really makes for a better stop along the way as we head to our next national monument, three hours away in total, in Nicholasville, Kentucky.

Traveling Between Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument and Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument

If you simply want to get the drive over with, the most direct route follows Interstate 71 to Cincinnati, then heads south via I-75 to Lexington and takes less than 3 hours. If you’re in it for the scenery, US 68 is a designated Scenic Highway and rolls over the Kentucky hills and through forests galore along its 3.5 hour journey. Blue Licks Battlefield State Resort Park is also on this route, where aside from just wartime history, also features the bones of mammoths, hiking trails, water access, camping and a restaurant.

 

Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument

former slaves training for war at camp nelson
Photo via NPS.

This Civil War stronghold and depot for the Union was known for recruiting black and white people from Tennessee into the Union Army. Ten thousand former slaves were trained as soldiers in the U.S. Colored Troops, and many would fight their former oppressors, just not from Camp Nelson, which was more of a “boot camp” than an army base, and though skirmishes occurred throughout the war, never became a focal point of battles. 

Camp Nelson provides an opportunity to further explore the oxymoronic moral notions behind the Civil War, such as the reality that when Lincoln “freed the slaves,” he did so only in those states which had succeeded from the Union. Since Kentucky had not officially done so, they were permitted to keep slaves even after the Emancipation Proclamation. The governor of Kentucky did eventually agree to allow slaves who joined the Union army to be emancipated for doing so, and some 23,000 former slaves were recruited and trained in the state, nearly half of them at Camp Nelson.

More Civil War Experiences near Lexington, KY

Lexington is rich with Civil War history. Confederate generals and Abraham Lincoln’s wife alike were born in the city. Despite Kentucky deciding to be a “neutral” Border State, Lexington flew the Confederate flag, and removed Old Glory upon Lincoln’s election as president. That said, in the past few decades, the city has demolished a multitude of historical sites, many pertaining specifically to places integral to the Civil War and Civil Rights Movement.

Mary Todd Lincoln House

The First Lady and wife of Abraham Lincoln, Mary Todd and her family were highly involved in the Civil War, though unlike Mrs. Lincoln, most chose to align with the Confederacy. This museum, located in Mary’s childhood home, discusses her and her family, their history with slave ownership and her husband, the President, as well. Children are free, adults $15. 

Battle of Richmond

Revisit life at the time of this Confederate victory over the Union’s attempts to hold Lexington

Battle of Perryville

A decisive victory for the Union, this battle helped shape the eventual victory for the North.

Nearby Unrelated Educational Experiences

Camping near Camp Nelson Heritage National Monument

A private RV park named for the monument is only 10 minutes away, and various other public and private campgrounds in the area.

Traveling Between Camp Nelson and Mills Springs Battlefield

Various two lane routes meander from Camp Nelson to our next destination, all of which take approximately an hour and a half or so. Particularly, US 127 is notable for being home to the world’s “longest yard sale,” which was created to display how valuable older US Highways can be compared to Interstates.

 

Mill Springs Battlefield

the many graves of confederate soldiers who died that day
Photo via Wikimedia.

Nearly 700 acres preserved over three sites, celebrates the first major victory the Union achieved during the Civil War and a battle which saw Confederate Forces winning until reinforcements–like some Lord of the Rings tale come to life–arrived to fight back the South and ultimately win.

Kentucky, despite generally being considered a Southern State today, declared neutrality during the Civil War. The Confederacy first flouted the concept, resulting eventually in the Battle of Mill Springs, but eventually the Confederacy did declare Kentucky its 13th state. Two hundred Americans, three quarters of them Confederate soldiers, died during the battle. The park consists of the battlefield itself, as well as a visitor center and museum.

Camping near the Battle of Mill Springs

The Army Corp of Engineers operates two campgrounds on Lake Cumberland, Fishing Creek and Waitsboro (technically on the river). There’s also a state park across the Cumberland River, by the name of General Burnside.

Traveling Between Battle Springs and There

On the next stretch of our trip we’ll cover nearly 700 miles over several hours. Luckily, there are plenty of natural places to stop and enjoy the scenery along the way.

Cumberland Gap National Historic Park

The easiest route through the Appalachians, this mountain pass was used by everyone from migrating bison to Native Americans, pioneers to modern day vanlifers. Discover the story of Daniel Boone and others who used this pass in its earlier years, via a visitors center, trails and nature galore. Camping is available within the park.

Natural Bridge State Park

An impressive 215′ stone bridge spanning a creek, surrounded by serene forests, carved by the creek below.

Shenandoah National Park

A scenic drive atop the Appalachians, and home to black bear, white-tailed deer and more wildlife, with several campgrounds as well.

 

Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument

a woman stands afront the harriet tuubman uunderground railroad national monument
Photo via NPS.

Araminta Ross, at age 27, escaped her life of slavery in Maryland for a free one in Philadelphia, only to return to Maryland to rescue her family. 

Araminta would become better known as Harriet Tubman, and her story is absolutely disheartening and inspiring at once. Her parents had nine children, and three of their girls–Harriet’s sisters–were sold away, never to be seen again. The abuse she suffered was unimaginable, and while it would seem impossible to fathom what the weight of being told you are property would do on any one person, it seems her life’s events gave her the courage to not only escape the situation for herself, but dozens of her friends, relatives and fellow slaves as well, nearly 70 total.

More Experiences in the Chesapeake Marshlands

The nearby Bucktown Store, where Araminta was once beaten so badly that she suffered head trauma she would never fully recover from, is open to visitors and located about 10 minutes from the national monument.

The monument’s visitors center is less than five minutes from Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge, and is home to bald eagles, great horned owls, osprey and numerous waterfowl. 

For a side excursion, and some beach time, the Delmarva Peninsula’s Assateague National Seashore offers camping among feral horses, and small towns like Berlin and Ocean City, MD as well as Bethany Beach and Rehoboth, DE make for great summer fun and relaxation. Berlin and Bethany Beach are two of our favorites.

Camping Near Harriet Tubman

Thirty minutes west of the national monument, Taylor Island Family Campground is the closest option for camping near Harriet Tubman. It’s a private RV park, immediately on the Chesapeake Bay, with a game room, laundry and plenty of showers.

Traveling Between Harriet Tubman and DC

It’s two hours from Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad to Washington, DC.

 

National Monuments in Washington, D.C.

a women walks through the sculpted bows of the monument in question

Yeah, well, isn’t basically everything a national monument in DC? Two officially named “National Monuments” in the city follow the trend of this tour, the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument and President Lincoln’s cottage. The first recognizes suffrage and civil rights alike, the former was President Lincoln’s summer home. Or you might take this time to visit the Smithsonian. Just slow walking the National Mall, doing it right, nice and easy, could fill a week if not more. But in any case, and once again, should you prefer to visit the sites less seen, both Lincoln’s Cottage and the Women’s Equality National Monuments will likely surprise you.

Otherwise, if you’ve never been, the National Mall is literally lined with museums of all varieties, most of which are free, not to mention the Lincoln Memorial and the–slave built–Washington Monument.

Camping Near Washington, DC

There are two places to camp, both only 30 minutes from downtown DC. The Greenbelt Park, managed by the National Park Service, offers dry camping with access to showers, water and bathrooms, while the full hookups Cherry Hill Park has a hot tub, game room, swimming pool, min golf and more, at about four times the price.

Traveling Between Washington, DC and George Washington Birthplace

Via the western route (I-295 to Virginia 221 & 228), you’ll pass by National Harbor, a controversial development (they were caught dumping raw sewage into the Potomac) with a ferris wheel on a pier. Fort Washington, a 19th-century military site still in good condition, and Piscataway Park, a farmlike setting abundant with wildlife, are good places to stop in for a picnic or a short hike. Several additional natural areas exist further south of those locales, including Zekiah Swamp Natural Environment Area (a birding paradise), Chapel Point State Park (with a canoe-in campground), and Caledon State Park (which holds rare old-growth eastern hardwood forest).

 

George Washington Birthplace National Monument

the essence of the initial America
Photo via Ken Lund.

Four hours east of the Booker T. Washington National Monument, another famous Washington’s birthplace is commemorated. Fame as a general in the American Revolution would no doubt have been enough to consecrate the man into our nation’s folklore, but going on to become our first President and stamped on every quarter and dollar bill in circulation didn’t hurt either. A tobacco plantation before Washington’s birth, later to be dubbed Wakefield, the home George Washington was born into did not survive the years. A Memorial house, other structures, trails and a picnic area make up the national monument today.

While Washington is remembered as a truly great man, and his ideals that first led him to aspire to be a commissioned officer in the British military–something colonists rarely ever achieved, being seen as second class citizens–and later to ensure that no US President would ever become a monarch through example, not to mention his achievements in the American Revolution as general of our own army, he’s also an example of how very black and white nothing is in this world. Washington owned slaves from a very young age, and though he freed them after his wife’s death (which came after his own), he went out of his way to ensure they would remain his property–despite laws in Pennsylvania, where he lived while President, which would have set them free–throughout his lifetime. That the man could see how he himself was treated as inferior to his British-born fellows, that he would fight for the rights that he and his fellow forefathers would call inalienable and call for “all men” to be treated equally and yet continue to own slaves is the hypocrisy upon which this nation was founded and has continued to struggle with for over 200 years. Exploring the ways in which heroes, good men, can also be fallible to a point we’d find difficult to overlook today is perhaps the greatest lesson to be learned here at his birthplace. 

Camping Near George Washington Birthplace

While other private RV parks exist within 10 or 20 minutes of the national monument, Westmoreland State Park, with its trails through hardwood forests and beach access alike, is hands down our pick.

Traveling Between George Washington and Fort Monroe

The two hour trek from George Washington to Fort Monroe National Monument largely follows US Highway 17, which largely replicates the path Confederate soldiers took on their way to Gettysburg.

 

Fort Monroe National Monument

a sprawling for extends into the chesapeake bay

The largest fort ever built in the United States, this now-decommissioned point of defense once guarded the Chesapeake Bay and waterborne access to Washington, D.C. Built in 1834, and replacing many a fort in the same location before it, Fort Monroe would eventually house the prisoner, and former President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis. The fort actually remained in Union control during the entire Civil War, despite Virginia’s allegiance to the South. Slaves took refuge within the fort after President Lincoln promised them safety behind Union lines. It’s story also touches on the arrival of the first slave ship which brought the first 20+ enslaved Africans to North America, and even further back to John Smith and the original colonists in Virginia.

More Related Experiences in Newport News, VA

Coastal Newport News is choke-full of history and places to learn about it. Civil War-related attractions include:

Camping Near Fort Monroe, VA

Gosnold’s, a city park in Hampton, sits 20 minutes away from the national monument, and is also centrally located to supplies, Grandview Nature Preserve and Grandview Beach. The closest place to camp, however, is a privately owned RV park that is essentially within the national monument, and under 2 miles from the fort itself, at the Colonies RV & Travel Park.

Traveling Between Fort Monroe and Booker T. Washington

Booker T. Washington will take us away from the coast and back inland to the Appalachian Mountains, through Richmond, VA–rich in its own history–and various state forests as well. It’s a four hour trek.

 

Booker T. Washington National Monument

Booker T. Washington sits at his desk
Booker T. Washington.

The home where Booker T. Washington was born, into slavery, his generation being the last to have done so after the Civil War. Washington became one of the most powerful freed slaves–and people in general–during his life, and through work as an advocate for his fellows found himself a political force, fighting against resistant Southern oppression and the inequality of so many people in the nation. Washington was an advisor to presidents and a scholar in his own right, and the park tells the story of his many accomplishments in life despite the world into which he was born.

More Related Experiences in the Area

Roanoke, Virginia is only 35 minutes from Booker T. Washington National Monument, as is full of museums. Specifically, the Harrison Museum of African American Culture applies to our theme. 

Even closer is Smith Mountain Lake State Park, as well as the mountain lake itself.

Camping in Smith Mountain Lake State Park

While there are closer campgrounds to Booker T. Washington, the 20 minute drive to the phenomenal Smith Mountain Lake State Park, and the multitude of trails, swimming and boating (rentals ranging from kayaks to jet skis are available), is well worth it for staying at this–yet another beautiful VA State Park–alone.

Traveling Between Booker T. Washington and Freedom Riders

The next stretch of travel can be done via various Interstates in about 8 hours, but to break the trip up, we highly recommend a detour through Asheville, NC and then on through the small towns of Western North Carolina and the Great Smoky Mountains. This detour adds a couple of hours to the trip, but if you break it up into stops in Asheville and the Smokies, it’s a few easy travel days and well worth the effort.

 

Freedom Riders National Monument

photos of men and women of different races
Photo by Adam Jones.

Another site established in the final days of the Obama administration, the Freedom Riders National Monument recognizes those valiant souls who rode Greyhound buses for the explicit purpose of trying to get southern states to actually put into action a Supreme Court ruling which deemed segregated bus systems were unconstitutional. At the time, despite court rulings, the South was still clinging to the concept of “Separate but Equal,” i.e. that somehow equality could exist while continuing to provide separate services for whites and blacks. Imagine a bus stop, where African Americans had one room, and separate buses, than whites. The Freedom Riders were a multi-racial group who were attacked for their efforts by the KKK, who threw a firebomb onto the bus and held the doors closed with the intention of burning the riders to death. The Freedom Riders managed to escape the bus, only to be beaten by the Ku Klux Klan immediately after. The assailants had planned to lynch the riders, but were thwarted by local law officers. All because this group of white and black men and women chose to ride a bus together in search of some amount of truer equality.

Camping in Anniston, AL

Camping is available just outside of town via two private RV parks, as well as 45 minutes or so outside of Anniston, Alabama in the Talladega National Forest.

Traveling Between Freedom Riders and Birmingham

While Birmingham has stories of Civil Rights abuses of its own, the Freedom Riders story continues on to Alabama. Back in Anniston, a group of black citizens came to the aid of the riders, but upon their arrival in Birmingham, the beatings continued. A local hospital refused to treat a white Freedom Rider who was beaten nearly to death and required dozens and dozens of stitches to his face. Finally, the ride not yet complete but the riders willing to go on despite their suffering, Greyhound drivers refused to drive any buses and Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy stepped in, asking the riders to discontinue their journey.

The drive between Anniston and Birmingham clocks in at around 1 hour.

 

Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

a police officer with a vicious dog, both grabbing at a black man who does not appear to be resisting their attack
Image from the Civil Rights Movement in 1963

One of Barack Obama’s final acts as president, this relatively new national monument commemorates the Civil Rights Movement. Learn about the work of Dr. Martin Luther King, how students fought for their freedom and more about the history of the fight for true equality in a nation which, despite being founded on the very concept, has struggled with the concept for hundreds of years.

Birmingham was a particularly bloody place for a black person to be in the 1960s. White cowards, policemen in fact, attacked black students who were peacefully marching the streets to bring integration to light by spraying them with high-pressure water hoses and releasing dogs on them, including children. Black places of business, including a church, were bombed by white men who would be considered terrorists today. The KKK was highly involved, but fearful white racism was not limited to strictly the Ku Klux Klan. Riots ensued. This was all sparked by Dr. Martin Luther King’s continued letters and speeches where he repeatedly suggested that all efforts for blacks to gain their equality and integration into “white” American society should be done peacefully. 

More Educational Experiences  in Birmingham

The weight of much of what happened on this journey, from slavery itself to the open hypocrisy of our nation’s forefathers to beatings into the 21st century can be a lot for anyone–especially children–to handle. It’s important for our kids to be educated on exactly how bad things can get, and even become once again, if we don’t continue to recognize and refuse to accept this type of thinking. That said, other opportunities to learn about other aspects of black Americans history through their music and sport are available as well.

Camping in Birmingham, Alabama

The monument itself is largely an educational facility, with no camping onsite, however camping is available within about 20 minutes of the site at Oak Mountain State Park, or via a handful of private and city RV parks within 30 minutes.

Traveling from Birmingham to the Medgar Evers Home

You may opt to discontinue your journey after Birmingham, as our final stop is a very small location, just a modest house, but one with an important closing story. It is a four hour trek to Jackson, Mississippi from Birmingham.

 

Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home

a modest, turquoise home in the suburbs
Photo via NPS.

The third Civil Rights-centric national monument on our list, the Medgar Evers Home was once the home to World War II vet and activist Medgar Evers, where he was shot and killed for his work, essentially trying to get black and white Americans to work together to solve the problems that riddled society at the time. The house is open for tours by appointment, and also located in one of the first communities in Mississippi specifically designed for African-Americans to live.

Camping in Jackson is available at Lefleur’s Bluff State Park just outside of town, and several RV parks scattered throughout the area.

While slavery may feel like a thing of the past, and–especially to those of us who grew up white in all or nearly all white parts of the nation–even racism may seem like a thing of the past, just look at the murders committed by white nationalists and police officers alike on black people even in the last few years, or listen to the list of grievances people of color in general still have in this nation, and it’s hard to dismiss that while things may have improved since those first 20 slaves came to America, true equality has not been reached.

We’re not trying to push white guilt or privilege or any other abstract concepts on anyone here. Most modern white people should not be blamed for the actions of ancestors we never met. Many of us are actively pursuing a more fair world for everyone. Part of that comes with understanding the viewpoints of the people who were oppressed, their descendants viewpoints, and understanding that there will likely always be room for improvement in even the most virtuous human’s life, regardless of the color of their skin.