Annette John-Hall: New Jersey educator travels black history's path

Jennifer Beaumont found that a rail pass was just the ticket for making her Southern tour to see sites associated with the civil rights movement.
Jennifer Beaumont found that a rail pass was just the ticket for making her Southern tour to see sites associated with the civil rights movement. (SHARON GEKOSKI-KIMMEL / Staff Photographer)
Posted: August 19, 2011

When my kids were young, I used to complain that summer vacation was too long and that they needed to keep educating themselves.

But the Eyes on the Prize video kept collecting dust. And, in truth, watching the epic civil rights documentary wouldn't have been my idea of a relaxing respite either.

Still, everybody should know their history, especially these days when revisionist rantings fill the airwaves.

As the quintessential educator, Jennifer Beaumont understands well how important it is to know history. And she has blended that curiosity with her passion for travel.

Having immigrated from Jamaica, Beaumont, a Ph.D., knew about African American history, but it wasn't a part of her personal history. Already planning to visit a friend in Jackson, Miss., she turned that weekend jaunt into an 11-day history lesson.

She wanted to make all these places she'd heard about from the civil rights movement real in her mind.

You can't fully appreciate Beaumont's self-named Black History Tour through the South unless you know a little about Beaumont herself.

Love of exploration

Suffice it to say she's no fly-by-night traveler. The 59-year-old educator for the New Jersey Department of Education is also the author of the "Come Explore With Me" blog (www.comeexplorewithme.com).

"I remember wanting to be a teacher so I could have the summers off to travel," says Beaumont, her Caribbean lilt still apparent. These days, she develops curriculums for struggling schools.

Her passion for learning stipulates that every vacation must be an educational experience - and that her global jaunts must not break her budget.

Beaumont has visited some countries off the beaten path and touristy ones, too - Senegal, Thailand, China, Gambia, Croatia, Italy, and France, to name a few.

Which brings us back to Jackson.

Economical travel

Beaumont quickly discovered there was no easy way to fly from Philadelphia to Jackson. Flights started at more than $500.

The bus was out of the question because, let's face it, there's only so much comfort a mature woman is willing to sacrifice for a discount. As a last resort, Beaumont clicked on the Amtrak site.

Voila. There it was - a $389 U.S. rail pass, which allowed her to get on and off the train as many as eight times within 15 days. Now this was something she could play with.

Before she left, Beaumont e-mailed the Chamber of Commerce of each city explaining that she wanted to tour civil rights and black history sites and blog about them.

She received a treasure trove of recommendations in return, complete with comped meals in some places.

"There was so much stuff to do in every city. I was astonished," Beaumont says. "I didn't know where to start to sift things."

Beaumont and pal Valarie Williams boarded the City of New Orleans train, and along the way made stops in Chicago, Memphis, Jackson, New Orleans, Birmingham, and Washington.

In Memphis, they toured the National Civil Rights Museum at the restored Lorraine Motel, where the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. They visited Stax Records and danced on the floor where the R&B duo Sam and Dave once recorded.

In New Orleans, they stopped at the Mahalia Jackson Theater and took a ferry to the Algiers section to see the Louis Armstrong statue.

In Birmingham, they stood awestruck in the Civil Rights Institute and were moved to tears at the 16th Street Baptist Church, where four young girls lost their lives in a Klan bombing in 1963.

The trip that almost didn't happen turned out to be the trip of a lifetime.

"I was living in Jamaica during the time most of the civil rights movement was taking place," Beaumont wrote on her blog. "While I . . . knew the facts, this trip has made them much more powerful to me."

Later this month, she can add one more stop - the unveiling of the national memorial honoring Dr. King in Washington.

I have a feeling she's already made plans to go there.


Contact columnist Annette John-Hall at 215-854-4986, Ajohnhall@phillynews.com. or on Twitter @Annettejh.

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