ATLANTA – Tom Houck, who spent his younger days chauffeuring Martin Luther King Jr. through town, is back behind the wheel – figuratively speaking.
Fifteen months after the narrator suspended his Civil Rights Tours Atlanta because of the pandemic, it will reopen this weekend.
The relaunch signals the cautious return of niche tourism to the city known as the “birthplace of the civil rights movement”.
It also happens that more Americans are being vaccinated against COVID-19 – albeit fewer in Georgia than in many other parts of the country.
“While Georgia isn’t high on the list, the vaccine played an important role in my decision to reopen,” Houck said of the resumption of tours. “I feel good about it.”
Among the murals that grace the city, Atlanta’s civil rights legacy is anchored through King’s vast shadows. But it’s also home to some of America’s premier historic black colleges, as well as black museums like APEX and the Herndon Home, and newer institutions like the National Center for Civil and Human Rights.
Donald Byrd, NCCHR’s chief operating officer, said the popular downtown destination has seen around 5% visitor traffic growth over the past few weeks. The last Saturdays saw the highest number of visitors since it reopened in September last year.
The center is currently only open four days a week Thursday through Sunday, but Byrd said it is exploring an expansion to “five or six days a week” with expanded capacity as early as July.
Some patrons, he said, are still hesitating from last year’s elections and protests against racist violence, looking for answers.
“With all the things that happened, people wanted to have a conversation,” Byrd said.
From one of the city’s newest attractions to one of the oldest, the APEX Museum on Auburn Avenue has also seen a boom since reopening, though opening hours have been reduced to 11am to 3pm Tuesday through Saturday.
“Last year was the best year we’ve had in 42 years,” said Dan Moore, the museum’s founder and president. “We’re starting a lot of new projects and people are really interested in learning more about our history and culture.”
The Martin Luther King Jr. Historical Park, part of the National Park Service, is open, but visitors are still not allowed in some of the city’s most sought-after attractions.
The King Birth Home, Fire House and the historic Ebenezer Baptist Church are still closed. The King Center, which is located on the park grounds, is also closed except for the bookstore.
“We are eager to come back, but we are very careful,” said Judy Forte, the park manager, to ensure public health safety.
Other national parks across the country as well as across the state have opened. But the King District is one of the most unique in the country as it is urban and relies heavily on indoor attractions.
Forte noted that the park still had virtual educational programs, weekly tours, and heavy foot traffic through the outdoor exhibits throughout the pandemic.
She has not set an exact date for the reopening of the interior fittings. She said staff are judging when to open based on local and state trends and monitoring Georgia’s vaccination rate.
According to government estimates, 38% of Georgia’s residents are fully vaccinated, compared with 47% at the national level.
Houck, who is resuming tours this month, said he will require passengers to wear masks on the bus.
Houck estimates he has lost between $ 250,000 and $ 300,000 since the coronavirus shut down the family reunions, sporting events, and convention business he desperately relied on.
But he’s one of the lucky ones. Atlanta Movie Tours, one of the city’s most popular tour operators, was closed for good last August.
When Houck’s tours resume at 11 a.m. on July 17, the starting point will be known: Coretta’s and Martin Luther King Jr.’s crypt on Auburn Avenue in the Historic District.
From there, the 30-passenger bus will meander through Atlanta’s history of black progress and civil rights.
The house where King was born in 1929 and the later house where he died in 1968. The Atlanta University Center and the offices of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and the SNCC Freedom House, as well as other stations.
But Houck said that so much has changed since the last tour on March 4, 2020 that the tour needed to be updated.
New statues and civil rights memorials now line Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. The stop at South View Cemetery, where King’s parents are buried, will now commemorate Congressman John Lewis, who died last July.
And with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement following the murders of George Floyd and Rayshard Brooks last summer, the tour will focus on the 1906 Atlanta Race Riots along Edgewood Avenue and Decatur Streets.
“A lot has changed since this pandemic shut down everything,” said Houck.
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