We use the name `conductor' instead of tour guide, Brown said from behind the wheel of his Chevy van. We get that from the Underground Railroad.
While other guides give visitors a picture-postcard tour of Savannah's public squares and historic mansions, Brown takes them to the fringes. He cruises past shotgun houses that made up the historic district's last black neighborhood and stops in a housing project built on land where runaway slaves used to hide.
Brown, 33, is part of a small network of black entrepreneurs across the South catering to increasing numbers of black tourists.
Instead of pointing out settings from Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil or the square where Forrest Gump sat with his box of chocolates, Brown's tours focus on Savannah's history as a slave port and are aimed at an audience eager to reconnect with its roots.
That's why they come to me there's a different story to tell, said Brown, who recently started his own tour business after eight years as a guide. They took another tour and it didn't mention black history or anything.
The Travel Industry Association estimates that blacks make up about 7 percent of American travelers. The group said black travel increased 16 percent between 1997 and 1999.
Southern states have tried to capitalize by marketing pieces of their painful past from slavery through the civil rights era.
Birmingham, Ala., has the church where four black girls were killed in a 1963 Ku Klux Klan bombing. Atlanta has the birthplace of Martin Luther King Jr.; Memphis, Tenn., has made a museum of the hotel where King was slain.
Savannah and Charleston, S.C., both were slave ports. And the last pockets of the Gullah culture, descendants of slaves who have retained African traditions while living on the isolated coastal islands, can be found from the Carolinas to Florida.
This is the first time I've spent much time in the South, said Rhea Combs, 31, who moved to Atlanta eight months ago from Chicago. It's for me a real way of learning more about the history of how I got to this country.
Combs and Charisse Williams, 29, of Washington took Brown's tour recently. Williams scribbled notes during stops at the First African Baptist Church, built by slaves who comprised the nation's oldest black congregation, while CDs of Gullah songs played in the van.
We saw a brochure for (touring) the plantations that said, `a return to a kinder, gentler time,' Williams said. And we said, `For who?' It's not a kinder, gentler time for a lot of people.
Kitty Green has conducted guided Gullah tours on St. Helena Island, S.C., for about a decade. She's noticed a steady increase in th number of blacks who take her tours.
When we began to do Gullah, a lot of people didn't know what that was, Green said. Initially, about 80 percent of our business was white America. Then we started to market to our people and our numbers have come up tremendously. Today it's about 50 percent.
Brown also says about half his customers are white, as does Claudia Collins, who moved to Savannah in 1998 to open Claudia's Manor one of two black-owned inns in Savannah.
The fragrance of plum-scented oils fills Collins' Spanish Revival mansion, situated in a predominantly black neighborhood in Savannah's Victorian district. Her most popular room, dubbed the Africa Room, is decorated with masks, drums and art from Senegal and Ghana.
Collins said her location, just south of the downtown historic district, has been more of an obstacle to some customers than her race.
There are some people who were a little resistant once they found out my husband and I were black, but they got more comfortable with that once they came to the inn, she said.
We've had a few white Americans ask, `Why don't you advertise as a black inn?' Well, we're not a black inn. We happen to be African-American and we own an inn.
Written By RUSS BYNUM ©MMI The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed