Black History Month: 9 Museums That Will Ship You a Piece of Our Past

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US President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan.  (Photo by Pete Souza/White House Photo via Getty Images)
US President Barack Obama sits on the famed Rosa Parks bus at the Henry Ford Museum in Dearborn, Michigan. (White House /Getty Images)
It's February, and America is celebrating its 37th federally-recognized Black History Month.

The observance originated back in the the 1920s as Negro History Week, set for the period that included the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It expanded into a month-long observance in 1970, and was nationally recognized by the government in 1976.

Some of America's top museums have special events planned to highlight the month, but for most of us, a February trip to the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati or the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston isn't in the cards. However, if you're looking for a special gift or memento to honor this anniversary, you're in luck: Many of America's top civil rights museums will ship items from their gift shops right to your home.

Here are a few of the country's best:

Black History Month: 9 Museums That Will Ship You a Piece of Our Past

For anybody looking to celebrate the life and times of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., The King Center in Atlanta is a vital stop. Founded by his widow, Coretta Scott King, it features exhibits on Dr. King's life and houses his extensive papers. In addition to commemorating the fallen civil rights leader, the King Center also works to be a force for continued civil rights change.

Given the Center's focus on Dr. King's writings, it's not surprising that its bookstore highlights his legacy. Its "Landmark Speeches" CDs are a great way to pass the beauty of King's words on to future generations. For those who want a daily reminder of the slain leader, the King Keepsake Box is an attractive reminder of his historic March on Washington.

Historically, Detroit was a center of black culture, so it's not surprising that the city's Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History claims its position as the "world's largest institution dedicated to the African American experience." The museum shop further highlights the city's cultural heritage with its extensive collection of framed prints from The Detroit News. Perhaps the most interesting offering, however, is the store's very limited collection of busts of Barack Obama, part of an exhibition that it did on different ways to see the country's 44th president.

Most museum shops offer T-shirts and jackets, ties and handkerchiefs, but when it comes to fabulous historical apparel, it's hard to beat Kansas City's Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. Honoring the amazing athletes who toiled in relative obscurity before the integration of America's national pastime, the museum's shop features reproductions commemorating some of the Negro Leagues' greatest teams and players.

Cinncinnati's National Underground Railroad Freedom Center highlights not only America's shameful history of slavery, but also the way that the crime persists in the world today. That shared focus on history and the future also plays out in the museum store, where Sojourner Truth and Harriet Tubman finger puppets share space with a large selection of fair trade items made in Africa.

The role of black soldiers in America's history is the focus of Houston's Buffalo Soldiers National Museum. That focus is on display in the museum's store, where one can buy, for example, the shoulder patches, regimental crests and shoulder insignia of the U.S. 9th and 10th Cavalry -- two of the U.S. Army's segregated African-American regiments.

Photo: Buffalo Soldiers National Museum Facebook

It's difficult to overestimate the significance that African-Americans have had on the nation's culture, and Memphis' Museum of American Soul Music offers visitors a taste of that rich contribution. For fans of American music, the gift shop is a treasure trove, featuring a marvelous range of memorabilia, from Rufus Thomas and Otis Redding T-shirts to an amazing collection of CDs and DVDs that cover the whole spectrum of American soul.

New York's Studio Museum of Harlem gives visitors the opportunity to not just study art's history, but also to take part in its future. Retrospectives of established greats like Gordon Parks sit around the corner from exhibitions of some of black America's most promising up-and-coming artists. As for the bookstore, it also offers an opportunity to take part in artistic creation: For just $1, the museum sells bookmarks featuring some of its holdings. At the opposite end of the cost spectrum, limited edition prints from artists associated with the museum run up to $1,200.

Memphis' National Civil Rights Museum is located in the Lorraine Motel, the building where Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated in 1968. Today, museum visitors can tour the hotel room where King spent his last night, and can learn from exhibits outlining the impact that the assassination had on American history and culture.

In the gift shop, the National Civil Rights Museum has many of the T-shirts, glassware, and mouse pads that one would expect. But for those who want to expand their understanding of African-American history and culture, the museum's Knowledge Cards are the way to go. Exploring topics like African-American women, the civil rights movement, and great African Americans, they are an educational treasure trove.

African-American sportsmen have long held a prime place in the national consciousness, but it's hard to surpass the man who famously called himself "The Greatest." The Muhammad Ali Center in Louisville, Ky., honors the champion's legacy with exhibits that commemorate his life, his cultural impact, and his religious legacy. In the museum shop, the gifts run the gamut, from tin signs featuring his quotes to an Ali-themed Monopoly game. Given Ali's many championships, however, few things could be more appropriate than the shop's big, beautiful commemorative belt buckle

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Bruce Watson is a senior features writer for DailyFinance. You can reach him by e-mail at bruce.watson@teamaol.com, or follow him on Twitter at @bruce1971.
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