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African American Heritage in Outer Banks


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Have you ever wondered how many fascinating Outer Banks Museums and NC historical sites are tucked away near the North Carolina Coast? Our family’s recent trip to the Outer Banks revealed a treasure trove of African American history alongside natural beauty.

My husband and I are huge history buffs, outdoor adventurers, and architecture lovers. My husband’s family is from North Carolina, so we took our girls to the Outer Banks to explore the coast’s historical and natural attractions.

The North Carolina Tourism Board invited us to North Carolina and the Outer Banks. North Carolina offered my family historical narratives, positioning itself as an indispensable visit for those with young teens who want to learn more about African American History and heritage.

Envision walking the grounds where your enslaved ancestors worked and where the first English settlers tried to root their dreams in the New World.

The Outer Banks offers many activities that cater to every traveler’s desires no matter the age or race – from adrenaline-fueled water sports adventures to tranquil journeys through the corridors of history, North Carolina stands out as an exceptional gem waiting to be discovered.

Start Your Adventure with Hang Gliding at Jockey’s Ridge

I never thought I’d see the day when I’d be flying through the air like a bird, but that’s exactly what happened at Jockey’s Ridge.

My husband James, our daughters Cam and Madison, and I decided to try hang gliding at Jockey’s Ridge State Park. Let me tell you, it was an experience we’ll never forget!

As we approached the massive dunes, my heart was pounding. I looked at James, and I could tell he was just as nervous as I was. The girls were trying to act brave, but I could see the apprehension in their eyes. We were all scared to death!

But from the moment we met the staff at the hang gliding school, our fears began to melt away. These folks were true professionals, and their calm demeanor and obvious expertise put us all at ease.

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They started by fitting us with all the necessary safety gear—helmets, harnesses, etc. As they explained each piece of equipment, I felt my anxiety become excitement.

Then came the instruction. The staff walked us through every step of the process, from holding the glider to shifting our weight for steering. They were patient and answered all our questions (and believe me, we had plenty!).

Before we knew it, it was time for our first flight. I volunteered to go first – might as well jump in with both feet, right?

Standing at the top of the dune, my instructor by my side, I took a deep breath and… ran! The next thing I knew, I was airborne.

The sensation was indescribable – a mix of exhilaration and pure joy. I could hear my family cheering from below, and I couldn’t stop grinning.

One by one, we each took our turns. James looked like a natural up there, and the girls? They were absolutely fearless!

We each got to fly five times, and with each flight, our confidence grew. By the end, we were all chatting excitedly about our favorite moments and already planning when we could come back for more.

Looking back, it’s hard to believe we were ever scared. Hang gliding at Jockey’s Ridge turned out to be the highlight of our Outer Banks trip.

It wasn’t just about the thrill of flying – though that was incredible. It was about conquering our fears as a family and sharing in an amazing new experience together.

If you’re heading to the Outer Banks and looking for an unforgettable adventure, I can’t recommend hang gliding enough.

Trust me, once you’re up there, soaring over those beautiful dunes with the ocean in the distance, you’ll be glad you took the leap!

With about three hours dedicated to this adventure, ensure you bring water to stay hydrated under the North Carolina sun.

This is your chance to soar where the Wright Brothers first took flight, embracing the spirit of aviation in a truly historic setting.

Jockey Ridge Outer Banks

Explore the Rich History at the Wright Brothers National Memorial

Another NC Historical Site is the Wright Brothers National Memorial, a monument to human ingenuity and determination.

This Outer Banks museum is located near the heart of Kill Devil Hills and commemorates the area where Orville and Wilbur Wright achieved the first successful powered flight on December 17, 1903.

Visitors can explore the visitors center, which has been recently revitalized to offer a more engaging experience into the brothers’ journey towards this monumental achievement.

Engage with exhibits detailing exhaustive experiments, the failures and breakthroughs, and the unwavering perseverance that led to that groundbreaking 12-second flight.

Wander the grounds to see reconstructions of the brothers’ camp buildings and the granite markers that outline the flights’ distances.

The memorial provides a lesson in history and an inspiring narrative of how vision, resilience, and teamwork can lift mankind to new heights.

Whether you’re a history enthusiast, an aviation aficionado, or simply looking for a deeper connection to the pioneering spirit of the Outer Banks, a visit to the Wright Brothers National Memorial is an essential, enriching experience that connects the past with the endless possibilities of the future.

NC Historical Sites

Discover the Lost Colony and Roanoke Island’s Charm

Roanoke Island holds a captivating place in America’s tapestry, famed as the site of the Lost Colony, where English settlers vanished mysteriously in the late 16th century, leaving behind an enduring legend.

Today, Roanoke Island melds historical intrigue with the quaint charm of a coastal community. Visitors are transported to a serene, picturesque setting where history feels alive at every corner.

The island’s appeal extends beyond its storied past; it’s a vibrant cultural hub where the arts flourish.

Strolling along the waterfront of Manteo, the island’s heart, guests can watch sailboats glide by, dine on fresh seafood from neighboring waters, and explore shops that brim with local crafts.

Andy Griffith’s legacy as the star of the outdoor drama The Lost Colony adds a layer of nostalgic Americana, enhancing the island’s appeal as a “Mayberry on the water.”

Seasonal performances of the historic drama offer a vivid reenactment of the island’s mysterious history, providing an immersive educational experience.

Roanoke Island serves as a living museum and a beacon of community, artistry, and the enduring allure of the Outer Banks’ rich heritage.

Freedman’s Colony – NC Historical Sites

After our exciting visit to the Lost Colony, our family was eager to explore another crucial piece of Outer Banks history – the Freedmen’s Colony.

This stop is particularly important as it sheds light on a lesser-known but incredibly significant chapter in American history.

The Freedmen’s Colony, established on Roanoke Island in 1862, was one of the first safe havens for formerly enslaved people during the Civil War.

It’s a place where thousands of African Americans found freedom and began building new lives for themselves.

As a family, we believe it’s essential to understand and acknowledge all aspects of our nation’s past, including the struggles and triumphs of those who were previously enslaved.

Visiting the Freedmen’s Colony site offered us a chance to:

  1. Learn about resilience: The story of the Freedmen’s Colony is one of incredible strength and determination. It’s inspiring to see how people created a thriving community despite immense challenges.
  2. Understand a critical transition period: This site helps illustrate the complex period between slavery and freedom, providing context for the Reconstruction era and beyond.
  3. Appreciate diverse perspectives: By exploring this history, we gained a complete understanding of the Outer Banks and American history.
  4. Engage in meaningful discussions: The Freedmen’s Colony provided an opportunity for our family to have important conversations about race, freedom, and equality – topics that are still relevant today.
  5. Connect with personal histories: For families with African American heritage, this site can offer a powerful connection to ancestral experiences.

We saw the monument at the Freedmen’s Colony site and walked the interpretive trail and It was a chance for us to reflect on how far we’ve come as a nation and the work that still needs to be done.

Things to do in Kill Devil Hills | Freedman's Colony

Unwind at the Scenic Hatteras Island Lighthouses

Hatteras Island offers a beacon of tranquility and historical intrigue with its iconic lighthouses, each with a story to tell against the backdrop of the Atlantic.

The Bodie Island Lighthouse, with its distinctive black and white stripes, welcomes visitors to explore its grounds and, when reservations allow, to climb its towering structure for panoramic views of the surrounding seascape.

A journey further south brings you to the Cape Hatteras Lighthouse, known as America’s Lighthouse, standing as the tallest brick lighthouse in the nation.

Although it’s not open for climbing, walking the grounds provides a unique opportunity to appreciate the engineering marvel that, through a historic relocation effort, saved it from the encroaching sea.

These lighthouses are not just navigational aids but monuments to the maritime heritage of the Outer Banks.

They offer a peaceful retreat to those drawn to the soothing sound of the ocean waves and the timeless stories encapsulated within their walls.

Visitors leave with a sense of connection to the seafarers of yore, who looked to these lights as guides through treacherous waters.

Visiting these lighthouses is a serene yet profoundly moving experience.

Pea Island Outer Banks Museum

After our powerful experience at the Freedmen’s Colony, our family’s journey through African American history in the Outer Banks museum continues with a visit to the Pea Island Cook House and Herbert M. Collins Boathouse at Collins Park.

As we approached, I could feel the weight of history in the air.

The first thing that caught our eye is the commemorative statue of Richard Etheridge. Standing there, larger than life, is a tribute to the man who became the nation’s first black officer in charge of a Lifesaving Station.

I gathered Maddie and Cam around and explained the significance – this was no small feat in 1880!

As we step inside, we’re transported back in time. The Cook House and Boathouse are filled with memorabilia, artifacts, and pictures that tell the story of America’s only all-African-American U.S. Coast Guard station.

It’s almost overwhelming to think about the bravery of these men who risked their lives to save others along the treacherous Outer Banks coastline.

James was particularly fascinated by the relics from rescue missions. The girls were drawn to the old photographs, trying to imagine what life was like for these brave lifesavers.

I found myself captivated by the personal stories – how these men faced not only the dangers of the sea but also the racial prejudices of their time.

We learn that the Pea Island Lifesaving Station operated from 1880 to 1947 – nearly seven decades of service! The exhibits help us understand the rigorous training and incredible skill it took to perform rescues in the days before modern technology.

I was struck by how this place brings to life a part of history that’s often overlooked. It’s not just about the rescues – it’s about breaking barriers, proving oneself in the face of adversity, and serving with honor regardless of the circumstances.

Before we left, we took a moment to reflect on the legacy of the Pea Island Lifesaving Station. These men didn’t just save lives – they paved the way for future generations.

Their story is a testament to courage, skill, and perseverance.

Our visit to the Pea Island Cook House and Herbert M. Collins Boathouse has added another layer to our understanding of the Outer Banks’ rich history.

It’s experiences like these that made our family road trip to North Carolina so meaningful – we’re not just seeing sights, we connected with the stories of real people who shaped our nation’s history.

Once again, the Outer Banks surprised and educated us, proving there’s so much more to this beautiful coastal region than just beaches and lighthouses.

This was by far my favorite Outer Banks Museum!

Pea Island | Outer Banks Museum

Dive into the Maritime History at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum

Uncover the mysteries and maritime heritage of the Outer Banks at the Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum, near the southern tip of Hatteras Island.

This fascinating museum offers an in-depth look at the perilous waters of the North Carolina coast, known as the Graveyard of the Atlantic, for the numerous shipwrecks beneath its waves.

We explored the rich naval history, pirate legends, and the pivotal battles fought along these shores through an array of artifacts, exhibits, and storytelling.

The museum pays homage to the seafaring spirits of the past and highlights the vital role of the U.S. Life-Saving Service, the precursor to the modern Coast Guard, in rescuing shipwrecked sailors from the treacherous seas.

Interactive displays and recovered relics from famous shipwrecks, such as the USS Monitor and the Carroll A. Deering, bring the tales of maritime adventures and misadventures to life, offering a captivating educational experience for all ages.

The Graveyard of the Atlantic Museum poignantly reminds visitors of the ocean’s power and the human stories intertwined with its history.

Explore this dynamic and historically significant maritime landscape.

Enjoy Waterfront Activities in Manteo

Manteo, nestled on Roanoke Island, offers a treasure trove of waterfront activities that perfectly encapsulate the Outer Banks’ spirit of adventure and relaxation.

After exploring Outer Banks’ History, we decided to switch gears and enjoy some outdoor fun with kayaking in Manteo.

James and I were excited to share a kayak and look forward to some peaceful time on the water together. The girls, Cam and Madison, shared their own kayak—this was their first kayaking experience ever.

As we put on our life jackets and received a quick lesson from the rental staff, I could see the girls’ faces mixed with excitement and nervousness.

They put on brave smiles as they climbed into their kayak, but I felt this might be interesting.

James and I pushed off first, gliding smoothly into the calm waters. The scenery was beautiful – lush greenery lining the shores, birds swooping overhead, and the sun glinting off the water.

We fell into an easy rhythm, our paddles dipping in unison as we moved further from the shore.

But behind us, things weren’t going quite as smoothly. We turned to check on the girls and couldn’t help but chuckle. They hadn’t made it far from the launch point and seemed to be going in circles.

Their paddles were splashing more than stroking, and I could hear their voices rising in frustration.

“Mom! Madison keeps paddling on my side!” “No, I’m not! Cam’s not paddling at all!”

James and I exchanged a knowing look. We’d been there before – sibling squabbles had a way of popping up at the most inopportune moments.

We called out some encouragement and a few tips, but it was clear the girls were too busy arguing to really listen.

After a few more minutes of watching their uncoordinated efforts, James and I made a decision. We’d let them figure it out on their own. After all, sometimes the best lessons come from working through challenges together.

So, with a wave and a “You’ve got this, girls!” we turned our kayak and paddled away. As the sounds of their bickering faded behind us, James and I found ourselves enveloped in the peaceful sounds of nature.

The gentle lapping of water against our kayak, the distant call of seabirds, the rustle of leaves in the breeze – it was exactly the tranquil escape we needed.

We paddled in comfortable silence, occasionally pointing out an interesting bird or a particularly pretty view. It was a rare moment of calm in our usually bustling family vacation, and we savored every minute of it.

When we finally turned back, we found the girls had made some progress – they’d managed to paddle a bit further out and seemed to have reached a truce.

Their hair was a bit damp and their cheeks were flushed, but they were grinning and chatting animatedly about a fish they’d seen.

As we helped them back to shore, I couldn’t help but smile. Sure, their first kayaking experience hadn’t been the peaceful nature commune James and I had enjoyed.

But they’d faced a challenge, worked through it together, and come out the other side with a shared adventure. And isn’t that what family vacations are all about?

Next time, though, I think we’ll rent four single kayaks!

Outer Banks Museum

Embark on a Ferry Ride to Ocracoke Island

An adventure to Ocracoke Island begins with a scenic ferry ride. This journey bridges the gap between Hatteras Island and this secluded paradise and offers an opportunity to soak in the stunning views of the Pamlico Sound.

As you glide across the water, keep your eyes peeled for the playful dolphins often accompanying the ferry. They provide a delightful spectacle for passengers of all ages.

Upon arriving at Ocracoke, you’ll step into a world that feels untouched by time, where wild ponies roam free, and the island’s rich pirate history comes to life.

This quaint island, accessible only by boat or ferry, invites exploration with its unique blend of natural beauty, history, and laid-back lifestyle.

Meander through the village’s narrow streets, visit the Ocracoke Lighthouse or relax on its pristine beaches.

The ferry ride to Ocracoke Island is more than just a means to an end; it’s a pivotal part of the Outer Banks experience, offering a moment of tranquility and anticipation as you journey toward one of North Carolina’s most cherished hidden gems.

Final Thoughts on The Best Outer Banks Museums & NC Historical Sites

As our Outer Banks adventure ended, I’m struck by how much this coastline offered my family.

From the adrenaline rush of hang gliding over Jockey’s Ridge to the quiet moments kayaking in Manteo, from exploring the Outer Banks Museums and the rich history at the Freedmen’s Colony to marveling at the bravery of the Pea Island Lifesavers, we’ve created memories that will last a lifetime.

The Outer Banks isn’t just a beach destination—it’s a place where history comes alive, nature’s beauty takes your breath away, and family bonds grow stronger through shared experiences.

Whether you’re building sandcastles on the beach, climbing a lighthouse, or simply enjoying a sunset together, the Outer Banks provides the perfect backdrop for quality family time.

As we packed our bags, sun-kissed and full of stories to tell, I’m already dreaming about our next visit.

Because that’s the magic of the Outer Banks – no matter how many times you come, there’s always something new to discover, always another adventure waiting just around the corner.

So pack up the kids, bring your sense of wonder, and make your own Outer Banks memories. Trust me, your family won’t forget it.

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If you’re traveling to the Outer Banks, I hope my article on the Best Outer Banks museums and best historical sites will help you plan your next family vacation.

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