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Books to Go

An African American Pilgrimage

September 13, 1998|BOB SIPCHEN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

BLACK HERITAGE SITES: THE NORTH; BLACK HERITAGE SITES: THE SOUTH by Nancy C. Curtis (The New Press, $19.95 each, paper).

Anyone with an interest in American history knows that Memphis' Lorraine Motel is where the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was murdered in 1968. Today, the Lorraine has been incorporated into the high-tech National Civil Rights Museum. My family and I blew off Graceland to visit it last summer and found it powerfully affecting.

There are, however, thousands of less renowned places throughout the U.S. where African Americans have made history. In this two-volume set, Curtis, a former Boston University professor, painstakingly locates hundreds of these sites and recounts the stories that make them significant. Just thumbing through the book should stir up enough intriguing material to keep a historical novelist cranking for decades.

In 1859, for example, half a century after Congress outlawed the importation of slaves, a schooner named the Clotilde sailed into Mobile, Ala., and unloaded 130 men, women and children who had been kidnapped from their West African village. Authorities were alerted that there was to be an illegal auction, so the slavers abandoned their cargo. Cast off an ocean away from their homes, the Africans stuck together and formed their own community. The last survivor died in 1935, but traces of the settlement remain outside Mobile. In February and March, locals celebrate the group's legacy with an "Africatown folk festival." Another site, another story: Twenty years after the Clotilde docked in Alabama, the U.S. Army's all-black 10th Cavalry rode into Montana's Ft. Assiniboine and began a successful campaign against Native Americans and outlaws. The fort is now an agricultural research center, but historical tours are offered on summer weekends and by appointment.

And, closer to home: The first black chaplain in the Army was a former slave named Allen Allensworth, serving with the all-black 24th Infantry. After retiring in 1906, he moved with his family to Los Angeles and began planning a community where African Americans could be independent and self-governing. Those efforts led to the creation of the town of Allensworth in Tulare County, which at its peak was home to 300 settlers. Eventually the community declined, but it has now been restored as Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park.

With its spare, direct accounts of the African American tragedies and achievements that have marked the nation's geography, this book should provide fine inspiration for planned trips and impromptu detours. More important, it is guaranteed to give readers a richer, more nuanced view of whatever slice of American landscape they might visit.

UNDERWATER WONDERS OF THE NATIONAL PARKS: A Diving and Snorkeling Guide Compiled by the National Park Service by Daniel J. Lenihan and John D. Brooks (National Park Foundation, Compass American Guides, $19.95, paper).

It probably wouldn't take much jawboning at the local dive shop to turn up someone who has vacationed at Florida's Biscayne National Park or the Salt River National Historic Park and Ecological Preserve in the Virgin Islands. And there may be plenty of divers who would try the Great Lakes and maybe Lake Mead. But who would have thought about diving in places such as Yellowstone National Park, where, as it happens, you can explore submerged geysers in Lake Yellowstone or visit trout in the Hellhole River?

The book's highlight is a chapter titled "Hallowed Places," in which the authors, both divers, recount trips to places off-limits to most scuba aficionados: the USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor and Devil's Hole, a cave in Death Valley National Park, where 200 to 500 of a distinct species--Devil's Hole pupfish--maintain a tenuous existence in the 92-degree water.

Quick trips

THE FLORIDA KEYS DIVE GUIDE by Stephen Frink and William Harrigan; THE CARIBBEAN DIVE GUIDE by Kurt Amsler (Abbeville Press, $24.95 each, paper).

Large format, with maps, charts and color photography of reefs, caves and shipwrecks. Particularly useful is each book's color drawings of dozens of fish species from each region.

DREAM SLEEPS: Castle and Palace Hotels of Europe by Pamela L. Barrus (Carousel Press, $17.95, paper).

In their Dark Ages heyday, castles tended to be gloomy, dank, smelly and cold. Well suited for holding off sieges, they were about as comfortable as a hair shirt. Tourism changed that. Some of these refurbished joints look fit for kings and queens.

FROMMER'S WONDERFUL WEEKENDS FROM LOS ANGELES by Stephanie Avnet (Macmillan Travel, $15.95, paper).

Cambria . . . Ensenada . . . Catalina . . . Death Valley. . . . There have to be more diverse options for quick getaways from L.A. than from any other urban center. Good insider tidbits here, like, which Santa Barbara taco palace really rules, La SuperRica or La Tolteca? (The author won't take a stand.) Or, when does La Jolla hold its underwater pumpkin-carving contest? (October.)

Books to Go appears the second and fourth week of every month.

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