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Southern Inflection Points

From Colonial to Cold War, from Civil War to Civil Rights, the South is steeped in history.

Many of the region’s most historic sites are well-preserved, offering a glimpse into our nation’s tumultuous and fascinating past. Some sites can be covered in a few hours, while others may tempt visitors to explore for days. Here are six destinations in the Southeastern states that should be on every history lover’s bucket list.

Fort Raleigh Historic Site

Roanoke Island, North Carolina

Lying between North Carolina’s Outer Banks and the mainland, the slender Roanoke Island is pivotal in the English history of North America. Named for the Algonquin-speaking Roanoke tribe that inhabited the region when two ships funded by Sir Walter Raleigh landed in 1584, Fort Raleigh was established on the island in 1585. In 1587, 117 men, women and children arrived, and on August 18, 1587, Virginia Dare was born — the first English child born in the New World. Three years later, the colony had vanished without a trace.

“The Outer Banks has a lot of amazing history — including where the Wright Brothers made their first flight,” said Aaron Tuell, public relations manager for the Outer Banks Visitors Bureau. “But that disappearance is America’s most enduring mystery: the mystery of the lost colony.”

Visitors can explore the mystery at Fort Raleigh National Historic Site while also learning about the cultural heritage of the Native Americans, European Americans and African Americans who have lived on Roanoke. An outdoor drama, “The Lost Colony,” has been performed each summer season since the theater was constructed in 1937. President Franklin D. Roosevelt attended the first year.

Castillo de San Marcos

St. Augustine, Florida

Spaniard Ponce de Leon first laid eyes on Florida in 1513 — more than 50 years before Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock — and the Spanish soon established the oldest continuously occupied European settlement in the United States in what is now St. Augustine. After a succession of wooden forts fell victim to burnings by the British and pirates, a stone replacement called Castillo de San Marcos was completed in 1695. The fort is the largest masonry structure on the continent, and its walls, which are up to 18 feet thick, were built from blocks of coquina stone, a porous type of limestone comprising tiny seashells.

Tours begin by crossing the massive drawbridge at the sally port. Groups should time their tours to take in the historic weapons demonstration, where costumed reenactors demonstrate how soldiers fired the fort’s massive cannon.

“Coquina is at the heart of St. Augustine’s history,” said Barbara Golden, communications/PR manager for the St. Augustine, Ponte Vedra and The Beaches Visitors and Convention Bureau. “In addition to the fort, many of our iconic buildings are constructed from coquina mixed with poured concrete.”

That technique was developed by Franklin Smith, a merchant, abolitionist and architecture enthusiast. He constructed the Villa Zorayda, a Moorish Revival mansion-turned-museum inspired by Grenada’s magnificent Alhambra Palace. The Smithsonian-worthy Lightner Museum is also built of the unique masonry.

Colonial Williamsburg

Williamsburg, Virginia

In Virginia, Colonial Williamsburg may be the nation’s largest and best preserved historic site.

“What we have here is completely unique, unlike any other historic site in the world,” said Beth Kelly, vice president for research, training and program design at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation. “We have the ability to re-create, reconstruct and restore the buildings that were actually here. The town looks as it did in the 18th century, and we’re able to return it to the way it looked when it was at its height and in its glory. But the really unique part comes from the people who were actually living in this town in the 1770s, a very complex society. But what emerges is the beginning of us becoming Americans. And it’s by no means perfect when it’s formed, when we declare our independence in 1776. But the foundations are all there. And we’re living with those foundations today.”

Groups may select from half-day, one-day or two-day customized tours that encompass the world’s largest living history museum, including access to historic area programming, exhibition sites (including the Capitol and the Governor’s Palace) and museums.

Central High School

Little Rock, Arkansas

Most people are familiar with the Civil Rights showdown at Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, a direct challenge to federal authority that had not been seen since the Civil War. We’ve seen pictures of the Little Rock Nine, teenagers who braved screaming crowds and death threats to integrate the previously all-white high school. Today, the Central High School National Historic Site sheds light on the rest of the story.

“For three weeks in September of 1957, there was this political and social standoff,” said Brian Schwieger, the site’s chief of interpretation. “Will those nine students ever get to experience the full promise of freedom of the constitution? At the end of September, President Dwight Eisenhower signed executive orders and sent in the 101st Airborne. The Little Rock Nine successfully entered Central High School. And that’s when the real experience began.”

The ranger-led interpretive tour walks visitors through the rest of the story, adding much-needed context to one of our nation’s most painful chapters.

The Greenbrier Bunker

White Sulphur Springs, West Virginia

Deep in the Allegheny Mountains, “America’s Resort” — The Greenbrier — has been welcoming guests since 1778. What began as a healing hot springs oasis expanded into a luxurious golf and spa resort that has welcomed celebrities, princes and 23 men who were or would become presidents. One of these men was General Eisenhower, who visited troops when the hotel served as an army hospital and vacationed there after the end of World War II.

The resort is world-renowned, but for more than three decades, it contained a clandestine hideaway that was one of the nation’s most highly guarded secrets: an underground fallout shelter to ensure the continuity of government, complete with a chamber for the Senate, a chamber for the House and a massive hall for joint sessions.

“In the event of a nuclear attack, all 535 members of Congress would be evacuated here,” said Cam Huffman, the resort’s director of public relations. “The train line goes straight from D.C. to right across the street from the bunker entrance.”

The site was decommissioned in the 1990s, and the Greenbrier now offers a fascinating tour of the vast bunker, walking visitors through one of the Cold War’s most thrilling secret installations.

Fort Morgan Historic Site

Coastal Alabama

Construction on a massive masonry pentagon-shaped fortress at the mouth of Mobile Bay began in 1819. Completed 15 years later, Fort Morgan played a key role in 1864 during the Civil War Battle of Mobile Bay. The Confederate army had heavily mined the bay, but Union Admiral David Farragut ordered his fleet to charge, saying “Damn the torpedoes!” The fort was surrendered to Union forces after a two-week siege.

The fort served as a coastal defense post during the Spanish-American and both world wars.  In 1946, the U.S. government gave Fort Morgan to the state of Alabama for use as a historic site.

Today, visitors can drive half an hour from Gulf Shores or take the Mobile Bay Ferry from Dauphin Island. Visitors can learn more about the fort’s rich history at the museum and enjoy 360-degree views from the top of the structure. The peninsula has nature walks, a boat launch, a picnic area and gorgeous Gulf Coast beaches. It’s also an important stopover for migrating birds in the spring and fall, designated by the American Bird Conservancy as a Globally Important Bird Area.