THE SLAVE FORTRESS IS DIMLY LIT with lanterns, and the white brick walls are stained with mildew. There's nothing here but iron bars and shackles.
Still, this isn't the end of hope. That comes later when you walk through the fort's "door of no return" and onto the slave ship. To your right is your last glimpse of West Africa. To your left, the endless blue expanse of the Atlantic.
In its new exhibit, titled "And Still We Rise," the Charles H. Wright Museum of African American History in Detroit lets visitors retrace the black experience through time and space. From the vividly recreated slave ship, the journey continues to the port of Annapolis, Md., then on to a plantation, the Underground Railroad and the Great Migration north, before ending in 20th-century Detroit.
The permanent exhibit, which opened at the end of November, replaced a largely one-dimensional display that had anchored the museum since its 1997 opening at its current location. Two other galleries house rotating exhibits.
Exhibit comes to life
One of the nation's largest museums of black history, the Wright museum is the logical place to start a black heritage tour of Detroit. But it's far from the only stop. As a major terminal on the Underground Railroad and a key destination for southern blacks in the early 20th century, the city figures prominently in black economic, social and artistic history.
Among the main sights are a church that served as an Underground Railroad "station," the 19th-century Ontario homestead of a former slave, and the Motown Historical Museum. For those hungry for more, the city is dotted with historic black churches, landmark buildings and smaller museums.
The Wright museum's exhibit comes to life with the help of 100 realistic silicone mannequins, some of which move and talk.
Once on board the slave ship, visitors descend into the hold, where mannequins representing captives lie in rows. The sounds of people wailing, moaning and speaking different African languages is heard against a background of creaking wood and waves lapping the ship.
Off the ship, you enter the port of Annapolis shortly after the Revolutionary War, complete with a cobblestone street beneath your feet and lifesize facades of stately buildings. A scene from a slave auction is shown at one end of the three-dimensional display. From there, it's on to the spartan living quarters of a rice plantation.
Next door, a lifelike model of Harriet Tubman stands in a barn and, in a gruff voice, encourages you to take your chance to run to freedom on the Underground Railroad.
Here, the story runs into Detroit's own narrative. Abolitionists in this border city played a key role in shuttling people to safety over the border in Canada.
The center of the movement was Second Baptist Church, an unassuming building in what is now known as Greektown. Today, the church keeps its history alive with tours of the building and also houses a black-history bookstore.
The church was founded in 1836 as the city's first black congregation and moved to its current location in 1857. The members previously worshipped at First Baptist Church, where they were welcome but segregated from the white members. They became activists after aiding a couple who escaped from slavery in Kentucky.
Family keeps story alive
Another dramatic portrayal of the period can be found across the Detroit River in Maidstone Township, Ontario. There, about a 20-minute drive from the border, descendants of John Freeman Walls, a former slave who settled on the land in 1846 with his wife Jane, a white woman, have memorialized the family's story.
Bryan Walls, a 58-year-old retired dentist and the great-great-grandson of John Freeman Walls, runs the museum with his uncles, Allen and Winston. They have lovingly restored John's original log cabin and created exhibits that tell his personal history and that of the Underground Railroad. From May to October, they and their children serve as "conductors," leading tours of the site.
"This is a ministry of reconciliation being made concrete through history," Bryan Walls says. "On the Underground Railroad, good people -- black and white -- worked together in harmony for freedom."
Back at the Wright museum, one of the final stops is Black Bottom and Paradise Valley, one-time black business and entertainment districts in Detroit that were leveled to make room for Interstate 75 and other projects in the 1950s. Recreated in the exhibit are businesses such as a bar and a barbershop, as well as a small movie theater where clips from vintage "race films" are shown.
Don't forget Motown
One of Detroit's best-known business success stories -- Motown Records -- is enshrined in its own museum. Located in two side-by-side houses, the Motown Historical Museum chronicles the rise of the business from the first $800 loan producer Berry Gordy Jr. acquired from his family and its growth into a major record label that created its own influential musical style. The museum houses such memorabilia as three 30-pound, pink-sequined dresses once worn by the Supremes.
The studio where they and other Motown artists -- such as Stevie Wonder, the Four Tops and Smokey Robinson -- recorded their hits from 1959 to 1972 is preserved in all its understated glory in a converted garage.