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The South’s Eclectic Cultures

The South’s ethnic heritage is as diverse as its geography.

Just as the land encompasses the oldest mountains on the continent and the vast alluvial lowlands of the Mississippi Delta, so too are its people filled with a similar rich diversity. From the indigenous tribes that first populated the country to the waves of successive immigrants, the South still pulses with an eclectic mix of cultures.

Here are six places throughout the region where visitors can interact and engage with its rich ethnic history.

Chahta Immi Cultural Center

Philadelphia, Mississippi

Legend has it that the Choctaw people emerged from the “Mother Mound,” a flat-topped earthen platform called Nanih Waiya. Located about 15 miles northeast of Philadelphia, Mississippi, Nanih Waiya, which means “leaning hill,” is 25 feet high, 618 feet long and 140 feet wide. It is the heart of what was once the wealthy and powerful Choctaw Nation, which stretched across the central southern United States from western Alabama through Mississippi and into Louisiana. The Choctaw were the first nation to be forcibly removed westward along the Trail of Tears, and the majority still live in Oklahoma.

In 1945, those who had refused to leave, facing decades of intimidation and retaliation, formed the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians, the only federally recognized American Indian tribe in Mississippi. Today, the Mississippi reservation consists of about 10,000 people living in eight communities on roughly 35,000 acres.

The history and heritage of the proud nation are on display in Philadelphia, at the Chahta Immi Cultural Center.

“‘Chahta’ means ‘Choctaw,’ and ‘immi’ means ‘life ways,’” said Martha Spencer, the center’s coordinator. “The cultural center was developed to showcase and provide cultural education through our exhibits on the Choctaw art forms. We have a multimedia presentation and a historical timeline that goes from prehistory all the way up to today.”

Historically, the Choctaw were famed for tempered clay pottery, often polished and etched with designs, along with intricate woven basketry, beadwork, dolls, drums and quilting. Opened in 2013, the center has displays as well as workshops focusing on Choctaw art forms including crafts, dancing and music. The center can accommodate up to 100 visitors, and private tours are available.

Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia

Richmond, Virginia

In August 1619, Virginia’s first Africans landed at Point Comfort, on the southern tip of the Virginia peninsula, aboard the English ship White Lion. About 20 people were sold, with some transported to Jamestown to be sold again.

The story of these individuals and the Black people who came after them is illustrated in the state’s capital at the Black History Museum and Cultural Center of Virginia (BHMVA). The castle-like structure, built by Black craftsmen in 1885 to house the arms of a Black militia unit, is the oldest armory in Virginia. Near the entrance, a life-size statue of Tuskegee Airman Lt. Col. Howard Lee Baugh greets visitors.

“We were founded in 1981 and focus on the stories that inspire, by telling untold stories of African American history,” said Shakia Gullette Warren, executive director of BHMVA.

On the ground floor, the museum’s permanent interactive digital displays trace the history of Black people in America from slavery through the Civil Rights era. In the café, visitors will find a mock-up of the lunch counter where the “Richmond 34” — Black students from Virginia Union University — were arrested after a 1960 sit-in protest against the “whites-only” policy. Upstairs, a series of rotating exhibits are on display.

“Our current temporary exhibit is art-based,” said Warren. “‘The Art of Freedom II’ focuses on what freedom means to Virginia-born and raised artists. So you can see a visual expression of what freedom means to our selected artists.”

The BHMVA is self-guided; but when arranged in advance, guided tours for groups of up to 50 are available.

Deutschheim State Historic Site

Hermann, Missouri

The rolling hills at the confluence of the Gasconade and Missouri rivers reminded scouts from the German Settlement Society of Philadelphia of the Rhine Valley, prompting them to choose 11,000 acres at the spot for a new city in the “Far West” that could and would be “German in every particular” and named “Hermann” in honor of Hermann der Cherusker, a Germanic leader who defeated three Roman legions in 9 A.D. The first 17 settlers, including women and children, arrived in December 1837, fighting to make a home in the harsh and hilly wilderness.

Hundreds of German tradespeople, artisans and farmers soon followed. By 1842, Hermann became the county seat of Gasconade, and five years later, Michael Poeschel opened Hermann’s first commercial winery on a hill overlooking the town. By 1900, Stone Hill Winery was the second largest in the country, earning gold medals at World’s Fair wine competitions around the globe. Tourists flocked from St. Louis by steamboat and train to enjoy the town’s wines and Old World ambiance.

Anti-German sentiment during World War I — and then Prohibition — plunged the city into an economic depression, but the wine industry began reviving in the 1960s. Today, an area of five blocks from the Missouri River to Fifth Street is designated as a national historic district comprising 360 buildings that were established between 1838 and 1910.

The oldest of these buildings can be toured at the Deutschheim State Historic Site located at 109 West Second St. This site includes the 1848 Pommer-Gentner House and the 1845 Strehly House.

“The Pommer family made piano fortes, violins and guitars,” said site supervisor Lori Cody. “They had a lot of money and a strong business in Philadelphia. But they wanted to become a part of this community.

“In the Strehly House, they printed the first German newspaper west of the Mississippi. Eduard Muehl was the editor and was known for his anti-slavery views. He serialized ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin’ and anticipated the divisive effect of slavery on national life. And so he was predicting the Civil War 10 years before it actually happened.”

Mosaic Templars Cultural Center

Little Rock, Arkansas

The Mosaic Templars of America was an independent African American fraternal organization founded in Little Rock, Arkansas, in 1883 to provide mutual aid to the Black community. This included offering illness, death and burial insurance to African Americans at a time when white insurers refused to treat Black customers equally. Later, those services expanded to include a building and loan association, a state hospital and nursing school, and a newspaper.

The four-story neoclassical National Grand Temple was to be the home of the Mosaic Templars Cultural Center, but a 2005 fire destroyed the grand downtown landmark. A new building was constructed on the site and opened in 2008. The center presents exhibits interpreting Arkansas’ Black history from 1870 to the present and just reopened after a $3.5 million renovation of the gallery space.

“Our mission is to preserve, interpret and celebrate Arkansas’ African American history,” said Brian Rogers, adult education interpretive specialist at the center. “This museum matters. African American history and Arkansas history are intertwined. They’re two sides of the same coin. And in order to get a full understanding of Arkansas history and American history, you have to know African American history, as well.”

Permanent exhibits include the Arkansas Black Hall of Fame, a 360-degree theater with a video showcasing the Black experience in Arkansas, and City Within a City, highlighting the West Ninth Street business district, which served the needs of the Black community.

Vermilionville Living History Museum and Folklife Park

Lafayette, Louisiana

The Attakapas were the earliest residents of the great coastal plain stretching north from the Gulf of Mexico. They were joined by Cajuns — French Canadians driven by the British from the captured French colony of Acadia (now Nova Scotia) — who settled there in 1763. The French called their settlement Vermilionville, after the bayou that runs through it, but renamed it to honor General Lafayette in 1884.

Seven original area homes dating from circa 1790 to 1880, along with several reproductions of period buildings, make up Vermilionville, a 23-acre historic park along the banks of the Bayou Vermilion. The village illustrates Acadian, Creole, African American and Native American cultures in the region from the 16th and 17th centuries.

“Everything about Cajun culture and its love of life — that joie de vivre — can be found at Vermilion,” said Charlie Whinham, public information officer with the Louisiana Office of Tourism. “It’s a wonderful living museum. You can take a guided tour, you can learn how to cook like a Cajun, you can get some dance lessons — all along with learning some wonderful history and a bit more about Cajun life.”

Costumed artisans demonstrate traditional arts, including spinning, weaving and fiddle playing. In the Healer’s Garden, visitors can see, smell and touch a collection of plants that have been used for medicinal purposes for more than two centuries. Kayak and canoe rentals are available to explore the paddle trails along Bayou Vermilion. In the cafe, diners can feast on local dishes such as catfish courtbouillon and jambalaya.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours

Hilton Head, South Carolina

South Carolina’s Lowcountry and Sea Islands have been home to the Gullah people for more than three centuries, beginning when enslaved Africans, primarily from West Africa, were forcibly transported to work on the region’s rice, indigo and cotton plantations. They created the only distinctly African creole language in the U.S. and had a powerful influence on traditional Southern vocabulary and cuisine. (If you’ve ever had fried okra or shrimp and grits, you’ve enjoyed Gullah food.) Due to their relative isolation, the Gullah people have been able to sustain their distinctive culture, arts, crafts, foodways, music and language into the present day.

Gullah Heritage Trail Tours takes visitors beyond the glitz and golf of Hilton Head to explore the history and culture of the descendants of those first Africans. The Campbell family are “binyas,” natives of the island with a long island ancestry. (Nonnatives and newcomers are referred to as “cumyahs.”) They have operated Gullah Heritage Trail Tours since 1996. It’s truly a family affair, with Campbells of all ages acting as ticket takers, bus drivers, tour guides and marketing specialists.

“We take people around the old neighborhoods on Hilton Head,” said manager Irvin Campbell. “And we tell them about how we live or how we grew up in these neighborhoods. We share the culture with visitors. It’s a two-and-a-half-hour tour on a bus narrated by us, we who grew up here. And so it’s an authentic tour, and we’re getting great reviews.”

Stops along the tour include the tabby ruins at the historic Baynard Plantation, the old Debarkation Point (before the bridge connected Hilton Head to the mainland), a one-room schoolhouse and historic Gullah family compounds.