On August 25, the National Park Service will turn 100.
The agency has ushered the country through a century of increasing public interest in environmental and historical treasures, and the NPS now oversees 412 national parks and monuments covering some 84 million acres. While the network of parks has grown tremendously since Yellowstone National Park was designated in 1972, only under Obama’s presidency has there been a distinct focus on some of America’s most underrepresented history, especially when it comes to minorities and communities of color.
Obama has utilized his power under the 1906 Antiquities Act to expand public lands more than any other president, establishing a total of 22 national monuments. With many members of Congress more interested in trying to block Obama’s authority to designate monuments than creating new public spaces themselves, the president has relied on executive actions to achieve most of his preservation-related aims—something he’s been forced to do in other realms of policy as well.
Seven of these new designations or expansions are especially significant for communities of color. From the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, to the Honouliuli National Monument in Hawaii, these newfound sites honor historical episodes that are often left out of popular narratives, but are nonetheless an important part of the fabric of our nation.
John Freemuth, a public policy professor at Boise State University and a former park ranger with an expertise in public lands, said recently that the Antiquities Act is now being used to help “complete the American story” and not just designate “celebratory stuff, but also stuff we want to remember” such as the history of gay rights, women’s rights, and WWII internment camps.
Freemuth said that establishing NPS sites that are unflattering in some ways is not unprecedented, and that it took years to work together to create the Manhattan Project National Historical Park, which is an homage to the invention of the atomic weapons that were eventually deployed in Japan during WWII.
“The point is, it’s part of our history,” said Freemuth. “It’s a story that has to be told.”
In highlighting the nuance required to establish monuments to historical episodes that have been subject to a number of interpretations, Freemuth cited the Little Bighorn Battlefield National Monument. He said that the battle can be viewed from two perspectives, that of General Custer and that of the Sioux tribe—and both narratives are legitimate. The site, which serves as a memorial to those who fought in the battle, has the responsibility of telling both sides of the story.
“There’s many ways to tell a story,” said Freemuth. “The park service is increasingly trying to tell the whole story, and I think they’re doing a good job of it.”
The seven NPS designations or expansions under Obama that are especially significant to communities of color include:
César Chávez was a union leader and labor organizer who dedicated his life to improving the lives of farmworkers. Chavez founded the National Farm Workers Association in 1962 and in 1968 he went on a 25-day hunger strike that attracted enormous national attention and reaffirmed his movement’s belief in non-violence.
Charles Young was born into slavery in Kentucky in 1864. He was a career U.S. Army officer, and was the third African American to graduate from West Point. He was also the first black U.S. national park superintendent.
After escaping from slavery herself, Harriet Tubman became a famous abolitionist, helping lead hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the Underground Railroad.
Honouliuli was used as both a civilian internment camp and a prisoner of war camp. Over the course of its use it held around 4,000 prisoners of war. Those held in civilian internment were primarily American citizens or permanent resident aliens (mostly Japanese Americans who were citizens by birth) being held captive under suspicion of disloyalty.
Martin Luther King, Jr. was one of the most influential figures in American history and was a leader of the civil rights movement.
The Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial commemorates the 320 lives lost—most of whom were African American enlisted men—in a 1944 munitions explosion. It was the largest domestic loss of life during World War II. At the time, the Navy was racially segregated, and the tragic event helped catalyze the Navy to desegregate after the war. President Obama signed legislation designating the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial in October 2009. It was the first park unit Obama signed into law.
Pullman was the first planned industrial community in the country. It played a crucial role in the history of African-American laborers in the United States. The 1884 Pullman Strike helped change the American labor landscape by exhibiting how a union could influence industry practices.
Other Relevant Monuments and Monument Proposals
While not specifically targeting people of color, Obama also recently designated the site of New York City’s Stonewall Uprising as the first-ever national monument celebrating LGBTQ rights in the United States. He also established the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument earlier this year, a D.C.-based building that was home to National Woman’s Party for 90 years and the long-time center of the struggle for women’s suffrage and women’s rights.
If many environmentalists and Native Americans have their way, Obama will designate at least two more national monuments before he leaves office.
Both the Bears Ears National Monument and the Greater Grand Canyon Heritage National Monument would protect large swaths of land in Arizona and Utah from future development of fossil fuels and other natural resources, as well as from further damage from overuse and unsupervised and illegal activities, such as vandalism. The monuments would also highlight how these lands remain important to many Native American traditions as well as home to hundreds of thousands of Native American artifacts. With development and looting an ongoing problem, the designations would draw attention to another less well-known chapter of American history that continues to play out to this day.