Bernadette Champion was the kind of kid that always wanted to know why. Why are things the way they are? How did they get that way? What is the history of this? Working as a travel agent led her back to her first love: history.
After 32 years as a travel agent, and 25 years running her own agency, Champion Services Travel, in Fort Washington, Maryland, Champion has a large following that will travel with her practically anywhere as she goes to explore the world and investigate the origins of things. Leading groups of more than 100 fellow travelers at a time, Champion’s travel agency is highly successful by any measure. But she doesn’t measure success by her income ledger.
“I don’t do it just to make money,” she told Travel Market Report. “I’m very passionate about what I do. There is so much I want to uncover that would make a difference to young people’s lives.”
Champion Travel has found a niche taking African American travelers on educational pilgrimages that reveal histories that help them understand their own origins.
Wanting to know
“When I was a little child, I asked so many questions they called me ‘Buggy Bernie,’” she said. It’s a behavior that continues to this day.
“It doesn’t matter where in the world I go, I love to start conversations,” she said. “I find that when we don’t communicate, we are left with thinking what the world says about who people are.”
To illustrate, she tells of visiting her daughter in the hospital as the nurses were changing shifts. One was African American, the other was African. “One of them had an accent and I asked her what country she was from,” said Bernadette. “She said Nigeria. I told her I had been there and started to talk to her about the places I had been and the food I loved.”
The two nurses had never spoken to each other before. It was the first time the African American nurse discovered that the other nurse was from Africa.
“The lady from Africa said that in their country the media only shows negative things about African Americans,” said Bernadette. “The American said the same thing happens here. The media only shows us negative things about Africa. They struck up a wonderful communication. If we don’t talk, we aren’t really going to know each other.”
Champion on a group trip with clients in Egypt.
Love of history
Bernadette’s fascination with history was encouraged by two people who made big differences in her life. One was her grandfather.
“One of the things that inspired me as a little girl was talking to my grandfather, my mom’s dad,” said Bernadette. “He said he was from the Blackfoot tribe of native Americans. He looked native American. He would sit and tell us stories. He loved cowboy movies. When everyone was asleep except him and me, I would sit in his lap and watch the movies. He told me, ‘Don’t let anyone think for you.’”
Bernadette’s grandfather had a farm and raised cows. Every year, he would go west and drive a herd of cows back east. He was a real cowboy.
“My grandmother was going to Howard University in DC when she met this tall, handsome guy,” said Bernadette. “I remember the stories. They married and had 10 children.”
Her grandfather’s advice to think for herself made a big impression. Then there was a second person who encouraged her fascination with history. “When I was in the fifth grade, I had a teacher named Mr. Barron,” she said. “He really changed my life.”
Mr. Barron was an impressive young man, a smart dresser whose air of self-confidence attracted the students’ attention and inspired them to listen. He held up their history text, told them the curriculum required him to cover it. He flipped through the pages and then put it back in the drawer.
“Now I’m going to teach you real history,” he said.
“He taught all the subjects,” said Bernadette. “If the subject was math, he would go into the history of math, back to Timbuktu, to Egypt. No matter what the subject was, he would take us to the beginning.”
Before finding her calling in the travel industry, Champion ran a day care center.
“I had been working for the school board,” she said. “When I got pregnant, I thought that when the child was born, I would go back to work. But after three months, I didn’t want to.”
She gave two weeks’ notice and told her boss she wanted to stay home with her son. Surprisingly he said, “This will be the best decision of your life.” But it was risky.
“We had just bought our first home. I couldn’t afford not to work,” she said. “I put a piece of paper on a bulletin board, wrote my number down 10 times so you could tear it off. When I got home, there were already four messages on my answering machine. I had four children to take care of, in addition to my son. I decided I am going to take care of these children as I would want someone to take care of mine.”
Operating the day care center led to Bernadette’s first experiences leading groups, as she took the children on field trips to learn about the world.
“I am a believer in learning through what you are doing,” she said. “I used the community at large. I asked the parents, ‘Would you like to do field trips? If you think your job is interesting, I would like to incorporate it into what I do.’”
One of the parents was a pilot. One worked at the Baltimore Aquarium.
“We went to all those places. That’s the kind of day care I had,” Champion said.
Bernadette longed to travel, but couldn’t afford it, so she tried to get a job as a flight attendant.
“No airline would hire me,” she said. “But my youngest sister was working for a European wholesaler. She was traveling everywhere. I thought maybe I can do something like that.”
She started looking into the travel industry, went to travel school and started working at a travel agency in Alexandria, Virginia. Along the way, she met a woman who did outside group sales and thought that might be the right field for her. She found an agency that agreed to take her on. It was her responsibility to put together her own groups. She started by following her children.
“I knocked on school doors and asked, ‘Who does your field trips?’” she said. “I got my thick skin working with student groups.”
After 9/11 and a sniper attack in DC made student travel too risky for schools to sponsor, that market dried up. But by that time, she had begun to build a clientele and she continued taking students on trips independently. When the agency she worked for was sold, she started her own agency specializing in group travel.
“When I went out on my own, I learned some things,” she said. “It brought me back to my first love: history.”
Africa: returning to the source
Bernadette’s first trip to Africa was a major turning point. “My first trip to South Africa was in 1998, soon after apartheid ended. I went on a trade mission that was open to any business owner. I had always thought it was out of my price range.”
But the price, $6,000 for her and her husband, seemed attainable. She cut extraneous expenses and put the money aside until she had saved the entire amount.
“I pulled the plug on everything we didn’t need,” she said. “I didn’t buy a pair of shoes, didn’t take clothes to the cleaners, didn’t eat out. Every time I got money, I would send it in.” They managed to accumulate the amount before the final due date.
“It changed my life,” she said. “I can’t tell you any one particular thing. It was the feeling we got. I had no idea what the universe would have in store, a full-circle moment that brought me back to my love of history.”
The group visited Lesedi Cultural Village, where visitors are able to learn about the cultures of the people of Zulu, Xhosa, Pedi, Ndebele, and Basotho origin.
“You would go from one to the next and they’d give you their history and customs,” she said. “Then each tribe performs. It’s so powerful. It goes through you. I felt like I was at my mom’s house, the way they celebrate, how they talk, everything. The music was hitting me. When the Zulus did a demonstration of how they fought in war, it stirred up my spirit. We were received like brothers and sisters, with tears and hugs. I felt like I was home.”
The African trip started her on a new path. She decided she was going to share that experience with other African Americans.
“It completely changed way I traveled,” she said. “I knew then I could not do travel the same anymore. I figured it out. Whatever your purpose. It’s going to eventually come back to the road you’re on.”
Since that first trip, she has taken groups to Africa at least every other year. “It’s not only Africa,” she said. “We have roots all over the world. If I can get them to Africa, that’s the starting point. I tell my clients, ‘Stop allowing the world to paint our portrait. Go see for yourself.’”
Tracing the diaspora
Bernadette developed a loyal following consisting mostly of African Americans who follow her as she travels the world tracing the lines of the African diaspora, discovering the African influence on places around the world.
“Next week, I’m taking a group to Alaska,” she said. “One of my clients asked, ‘What’s in Alaska?’ I said, ‘I can give you a little piece of history. Besides being one of most beautiful states, it’s also the place where African American soldiers who had fought in the Civil War helped build a highway through the entire state. In my research, I found out about that. The first group had died off, so they pulled these men in. They managed the project and finished it.”
Everywhere she takes her groups, she helps them discover the African history associated with the place.
“If you book with me on a trip to the Bahamas, I’m going to set up brief history tour of that island,” she said. “How did that island come to be? Slaves were brought to the island to produce salt. When the salt mines started drying up, the operators of the mines left the slaves in Nassau thinking they would die off.”
But they survived, and their descendants now constitute the majority of the population of the island.
The stories are endless.
“I love what I do,” she said. “I have the passion for it. It’s not just for me. The passion was given to me not for me. It’s to share. If it only touches one person, that makes it worthwhile.”