Policy Update Feb 15, 2019

Testimony: African-American Cultural Heritage and Environmental Justice

Written testimony of Alan Spears, NPCA Cultural Resources Director, for a forum held by the House Committee on Natural Resources on February 15, 2019.

By virtue of the sites they manage and the stories the agency interprets and shares the National Park Service (NPS) is one of the largest stewards of African American history and culture in the United States. All the elements of the African American experience, from Civil War to civil rights and beyond, are captured in the stories and the resources preserved by NPS. As we reflect upon the achievements, struggles and contributions of black Americans during this Black History Month we must recognize that national parks, NPS historians and interpretive rangers and the historic and cultural resource programs they manage are making our history more inclusive, relevant and compelling. And that in the commemoration of the African American experience lies the key to engaging a more diverse constituency for national parks and public lands.

When Dr. Carter G. Woodson established the Association for the Study of Negro Life & History in 1915, the going consensus was that African Americans had done little to nothing to contribute to the growth and development of the United States and that people of African descent had made no lasting contributions to civilization. Such views were held by academics, politicians and laypeople alike and used to justify everything from segregation to political disfranchisement to lynching. Yet, Woodson and other historians like W.E. B. Dubois understood that only way to exclude the African American experience from American history was by ignoring or deliberately overlooking the truth.

Woodson wasn’t the only person who fought to gain a proper respect and understanding for African American history and culture, but he did develop standards of scholarly research and the vehicles for promoting his findings, and those of others who were focused on highlighting black achievement. Woodson’s Journal of Negro History (now the Journal of African American History) was first published in 1916 and remains the leading scholarly publication in the field of African American history. Negro History Week (now Black History Month) was another one of Woodson’s concepts for promoting awareness of and pride in African American history. It is fitting that Dr. Woodson’s home at 1538 9th Street in northwest Washington, DC, which doubled as the office for the Association from 1922 to 1950, was designated a unit of the national park system in February 2006.

The National Park Service, like the nation, was slow to embrace the preservation of African American history and culture. The George Washington Carver National Monument (Newton County, Missouri) was designated by President Franklin Delano Roosevelt in July 1943, the first national monument dedicated to an African American. The 240-acre site preserves the boyhood home of the man who began his life as an enslaved person, then rose to become one of the most preeminent chemists and botanist in the United States.

More sites followed. The Booker T. Washington National Monument (VA) in April 1956 and the Frederick Douglass Home National Historic Site in 1962. But it was in the late 1970s and 1980s when the number of African American historic and cultural sites managed by NPS began to increase exponentially. The national park system added to its ranks sites commemorating Maggie Lena Walker (the first woman of any color to serve as president of a bank), Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Mary McLeod Bethune. The catalyst for this expansion of kinds of stories and resources protected and managed by NPS came both from outside pressure to honor the stories of all Americans and genuine desire within the agency’s leadership to create a more inclusive and relevant park system.

Presidents Bush and Obama made use of the Antiquities Act to designate several new national monuments that honored African American history and culture. In 2006 President George W. Bush designated the African Burial Ground in New York city a national monument. The location of one of the earliest burial sites for Africans in North America. Studies estimate over 15,000 people were buried in this five to six-acre plot in the 1700s. And between 2011 and 2017, President Barrack Obama used the Antiquities Act to designate Fort Monroe National Monument (VA), the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument (MD), Pullman National Monument (IL) and the Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (AL).

Currently, of the 418 units that comprise our national park system, over 30 are known as African American experience sites. In a very real sense the National Parks Service, the closest agency we have to a ministry of culture, has taken up a complimentary mission to the work Dr. Carter G. Woodson began in 1915. The National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) recommends that the following steps be taken to ensure that the commitment of the National Park Service to the preservation and interpretation of the African American experience remains unbroken.

  1. Initiate a cultural resource challenge for the National Parks Service – Preservation and interpretation of African American history and culture depends upon the ability of NPS to hire, train and retain professional staff with a deep understanding of the best practices related to cultural resource management, preservation, partnerships and interpretation. Our national parks need archivist, historians and planners to document the resources they have, maintain their museum collections at high standards and to actively track the condition of those resources to be ensure their preservation. A cultural resource challenge would benefit all historic and cultural resource preservations efforts undertaken by NPS, and by extension improve the condition of resources associated with African American experience sites too.
  2. Fully fund the Historic Preservation Fund – Authorized to receive $150 million annually from oil and gas lease revenues the HPF has rarely been funded anywhere near its authorized level. The HPF provides money to state historic preservation offices, the boots on the ground in communities all across the United States who work with communities to identify and preserve resources important to all Americans. A funding increase for the HPF would ensure that more resources (Money, people and time) were available to help people from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds to understand how preservation programs work and benefit their communities, and thus enhance the number of black and brown people actively participating in historic preservation.
  3. Increase funding for the National Heritage Area program – National Heritage Areas protect stories that are regionally distinct and nationally significant. Of the 49 congressionally designated heritage areas several including the Gullah Geechee National Heritage Corridor, the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area and the Baltimore National Heritage Area, preserve and interpret elements of the African American experience. Increasing the National Heritage Area budget to $32 million annually would allow the program to provide additional grant money to its partners who in turn would offer more programming highlighting the contributions of Africans and African Americans to the development of this country.
  4. Defend the Antiquities Act – Many of the African American experience sites currently in the national parks system were added via presidential use of the Antiquities Act. NPCA regards the Antiquities Act as critical authority for the executive branch to use to protect in perpetuity sites or resources of national significance.

The work of protecting and preserving our history will never be finished. And although there will always be more stories to preserve and interpret, we can and should take a moment during this Black History Month to acknowledge the role NPS plays in ensuring that the African American experience will never again be overlooked or deliberately ignored.

Video of the oral testimony is available from the Committee.