I have had a love of history for as long as I can remember. The examples of brilliance, perseverance and ingenuity are powerful themes weaved throughout history. In Texas, similar to other states, Black history was not incorporated into the school curriculum. But as we know, understanding the role and contributions that Black folks have made to this country is critical to understanding American history.
Each April, during National Park Week (April 18-26), parks across the country host special activities and events that allow visitors to celebrate national parks by exploring amazing new places and discovering stories of our shared history and culture. The parks we celebrate each year are well known, but did you know that every one of them has an important connection to a pivotal moment in Black history?
The Power of History and Preservation
While a graduate student at the University of Pennsylvania, I studied historic preservation and carried that passion into a fellowship (Mildred Colodny) with the National Trust for Historic Preservation.
That summer, one of my responsibilities was to figure out a way to increase community engagement in Hampton, Virginia, in support of a national monument designation. Fort Monroe, located near Jamestown, is widely known as the site where the first enslaved Africans were brought to U.S. soil in 1619. But many may not know that the same location marks the spot where the ending of slavery began. Known as “Freedom’s Fortress,” Fort Monroe was built in 1819 by enslaved people and was designed to protect the bay’s inland waters from attack by sea. By the Civil War, thousands of enslaved Africans escaped to the Union-held fort, empowered by a legal loophole that allowed runaways from Confederate states to seek refuge behind Union lines.
Through my work, I learned that many of the descendants of “contraband camp” residents still lived and worshipped in the area. With the support of senior leadership at the National Trust, I sent a letter to then-President Barack Obama, seeking national monument status support on behalf of these eight historic African American churches identified through our collective research, and it was a success. That letter helped lead to the creation of Fort Monroe National Monument and the support of the community, similar to all national parks, was critical to its establishment and its current interpretation.
This experience, coupled with my time preserving historic sites around the country, ultimately led me to my current role at the National Park Foundation, where I oversee preservation grant-making for the National Park Service, securing funding to help preserve many of our historic sites. I take great pride in this role, which allows me to merge my love of history and preservation. But more importantly, it provides me with a platform to share the wonderful learning opportunities our parks provide, in particular when it comes to commemorating the contributions of Black Americans throughout history.
African American Experience in National Parks
Booker T. Washington. Harriet Tubman. Colonel Charles Young. Maggie Walker. These leaders all have homes that you can learn about through national parks. Since 2001, the National Park Foundation’s African American Experience Fund has focused on celebrating and preserving African American history and honoring the sacrifices African Americans have made for our country. While there are more than 30 national parks and monuments designated as African American Heritage Sites in the U.S. today, Black stories are entwined in the past and present histories of all of the more than 400 parks. I’m working to bring these stories to light so we can all see our heritage reflected in every national park across the country.
Bringing Black History to Life
Stories of African American daily life, achievements and resilience extend far beyond a park’s physical borders. As more and more Americans are asked to shelter in place, many parks are off limits. The good news is that there are several ways our communities can engage digitally with the history that lives within our national parks. Here are three national parks to help you start your journey online:
– Go on a virtual tour of the home of my sorority sister, Maggie Lena Walker in Richmond, Virginia. Walker’s parents were enslaved in the Confederacy capital during the final year of the Civil War. Walker’s many accomplishments included establishing St. Luke Penny Savings Bank in 1903, making her the nation’s first African American woman bank president.
Walker devoted her life to the advancement of civil rights, economic empowerment and educational opportunities for African Americans and women. Today, as a national park, Walker’s home is preserved as a tribute to her enduring legacy of vision, courage and determination.
– Watch a video about the New Bedford Whaling Community in Massachusetts that was once a popular stop on the Underground Railroad and the home of free Black abolitionists Nathan and Mary Johnson. The Johnson home was Frederick Douglass' first residence after his escape from enslavement in 1838. It is the only one of the Douglass' three New Bedford homes that remains today.
– Listen to the oral histories of the Little Rock Nine, Black students who in 1957 were the first group to integrate classes at Central High School, a public school in Little Rock, Arkansas. Built in 1927, Central was named "America’s Most Beautiful High School" by the American Institute of Architects. After it became an influential part of the civil rights movement, it was designated as a national historic site and is still an active high school with an ever-evolving student body.
The Journey Continues
It’s well-proven that linking historical knowledge to physical spaces can create a more personal and lasting understanding of our past. And while people may envision scenic landscapes when they think of our National Park System, all parks nationwide provide opportunities to engage with Black history. Take Yosemite for example: known for the Half Dome and El Capitan climbs, but whose first park rangers were the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-Black Army regiment.
Countless sites nationwide reflect the impact of African Americans on our country. These places collectively play an important role in expanding understanding of our role in America’s story, helping to broaden the national conversation about Black history today and providing younger generations with opportunities to more directly engage with history beyond books and the classroom.
In the years ahead, the National Park Foundation plans to expand access to African American stories in sites and communities across the country. Recently, thanks to the National Park Foundation’s support, the National Park Service purchased the home of Col. Charles Young, the first Black man to achieve the rank of colonel in the United States Army; acquired the birth and family homes of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.; and acquired the Thompson Memorial AME Zion Church in New York, which was vital to the success of the Underground Railroad and has a direct connection to Harriet Tubman, whose funeral was held there in 1913. Each one of these steps forward helps to not only bring essential Black stories to light, but also to help all of us feel seen in our collective past, present and future.
During National Park Week, we invite you to take a walk on this journey with us. Go back in time to explore your history, the stories of culture and community that have shaped our lives and our country. Yes, schools and offices may be closed, but opportunities to learn and engage are all around us.
Monica Rhodes is the Director of Resource Management at the National Park Foundation. You can follow her at @MoRhodes on Twitter.