Blog Post Vanessa Pius Jun 17, 2022

9 Parks That Tell the Story of Slavery and Abolition

On June 19, the nation commemorates the end of institutional slavery in the U.S. These national parks are part of that long journey to freedom.

On June 19, 1865, enslaved people in Galveston, Texas, learned of their emancipation — more than two years after President Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, and two months after Robert E. Lee surrendered his Confederate forces at Appomattox. Freedom didn’t happen overnight. It was incumbent on Union troops, and sometimes enslavers themselves, to share the news, and slavery legally continued in Union border states until the ratification of the 13th Amendment in December 1865.

When they did finally learn of their emancipation, freed people started celebrations that would continue for generations. Juneteenth became a federal holiday in 2021, honoring the end of institutional slavery in the United States. In recognition of this landmark anniversary, here are nine national park sites dedicated to sharing some of the history of slavery and abolition.

 

1. Fort Monroe National Monument, Virginia

In 1619, a ship carrying enslaved Africans landed at Point Comfort in Virginia. Some historians believe this marked the beginning of slavery in English North America. More than two centuries later, the military had built a massive stone fort on this shore, which was operational by 1834 and served Union troops during the Civil War. On May 23, 1861, three enslaved Black men rowed to the fort in search of freedom. A Union general refused to return them to their enslavers, declaring them “contraband of war” and prompting more than 10,000 freedom seekers to escape to Fort Monroe throughout the remainder of the war. The park site commemorates both the ominous first landing and the safe haven the fort became in the fight for emancipation. Learn more.

 

2. New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, Massachusetts

New Bedford was a popular stop on the Underground Railroad — the whaling industry attracted workers from many backgrounds, and the town’s African American population quickly grew throughout the 1830s and 40s. At least 700 freedom seekers came to New Bedford, including Frederick Douglass and his wife Anna Murray in 1838. In New Bedford, Black men could and did own property, pay taxes and vote. Some neighborhoods and schools were integrated, though Black and white children were seated separately in classrooms. The large Quaker population provided an extra layer of protection for freed men and women; when Congress passed the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, two Quaker women gathered more than 1,700 signatures in petition.

The Douglasses started their family at 21 Seventh Street, a home that was owned by Nathan and Polly Johnson, prominent Black abolitionists and business owners. It still stands today and is open for tours as part of the Abolition Row neighborhood. Learn more.

 

3. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, Maryland

Harriet Tubman was born enslaved in Maryland in 1822 and grew up working the marshlands of the Eastern Shore. She was committed from a young age to finding freedom for herself and others, and after escaping slavery in 1849, she used her knowledge of the natural world and her network of abolitionist connections to help some 70 people navigate their way to freedom. Tubman became the Underground Railroad’s best known conductor, and today there are two national park sites dedicated to her life and work. The one in Maryland focuses on her early life and liberation work there, preserving her story and the natural landscape where it unfolded. Learn more.

 

4. Hampton National Historic Site, Maryland

For decades, visitors to Hampton learned about the wealthy Ridgley family who owned the estate. The grounds opened to the public in 1950, and tour guides carefully shaped the narrative around slavery, making it appear that the Ridgleys had only enslaved a few people and treated them as beloved members of the family.

In reality, the family enslaved hundreds of people and treated them brutally. The whitewashed history came under fire in the late 1990s, and in 2007, several stone buildings that once housed enslaved people opened to the public, and staff began adding exhibits and programming about slavery. Since 2016, new funding and initiatives have made way for in-depth ethnographic studies of those enslaved at Hampton and their descendants. Learn more.

 

5. Cane River Creole National Historic Park, Louisiana

Generations of enslaved families lived and worked on plantations near the Cane River for over 200 years, contributing to the growth of Creole culture and the economy of the area. On the eve of the Civil War, nearly 400 enslaved people on the Oakland and Magnolia plantations performed field and domestic work, as well as trade labor such as blacksmithing and carpentry. Cane River Creole National Historical Park preserves both properties, including 80 historic buildings, and the history and culture of those who lived there. In 1830, Louisiana legislators made it illegal for enslaved people to learn to read and write — and therefore leave behind their own records. Families carried on oral traditions, however, and the National Park Service has worked to research their lives and engage local descendants to share their stories. Learn more.

 

6. Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Maryland, Virginia and West Virginia

On an October night in 1859, abolitionist John Brown led 21 followers in a raid at a federal armory at Harpers Ferry in an attempt to wage economic warfare against slaveholders. His group occupied the armory in a raid that lasted 36 hours and resulted in the death of 10 of Brown’s men. Brown himself was tried for murder, treason and inciting a slave rebellion, and was hanged six weeks after the raid. Though his plan failed on the surface, he changed the course of history: The media coverage of his trial and hanging made slavery harder to ignore and lent legitimacy to the growing Northern abolitionist movement, serving as a major catalyst for the Civil War. Learn more.

 

7. Antietam National Battlefield, Maryland

The Battle of Antietam was one of the most significant engagements of the Civil War. After 12 hours fighting on the banks of Antietam Creek, 23,000 soldiers were killed, wounded or missing, making September 17, 1862, the single bloodiest day in American history. Although the Union Army suffered heavier casualties in the battle, their performance at Antietam led President Lincoln to issue a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation just five days after the battle. The proclamation dramatically changed the war, undercutting the Confederacy’s economy and society and growing the Union army’s ranks by enlisting freed Black soldiers. Today, the park site is one of the best-preserved Civil War sites in the country. Learn more.

 

8. Reconstruction Era National Historic Park, South Carolina

The period of Reconstruction began after the Civil War and continued through the turn of the century, proving to be a transformative and tumultuous era of American history. The 13th, 14th and 15th Amendments abolished slavery, granted citizenship to all born in the United States, and enfranchised men of every race with the right to vote, regardless of previous enslavement. Together, these changes made waves across American social, political and economic life.

Historians consider Beaufort County, South Carolina, the birthplace of Reconstruction, where freed people founded African American schools, participated in efforts to distribute land to formerly enslaved people, and ran for state and federal office. The park site includes two buildings used as schools, a visitor center and Camp Saxton, where Black soldiers and civilians learned about the Emancipation Proclamation. Learn more.

 

9. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Washington, D.C.

After escaping slavery in 1838, Frederick Douglass quickly found fame as a speaker, traveling around the United States and abroad to speak about his experiences and advocate for abolition. Douglass engaged in activist tactics that civil rights leaders would use a century later, such as organizing sit-ins (even when it was just him, as was the case on a segregated train car in Massachusetts during the 1840s). When the Civil War broke out, Douglass recruited African American men for the Union army, including two of his sons, and urged President Lincoln to ensure they received pay and treatment equal to their white counterparts. As emancipation became closer to reality, he fought for formerly enslaved people to have full rights and protections as American citizens.

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After a devastating fire destroyed the Douglass home in Rochester, New York, the family moved in 1872 to Washington, D.C., where their three sons lived and where Douglass traveled frequently. In 1877, Douglass purchased his final home, Cedar Hill, where he lived for the last 17 years of his life. Today, visitors can explore the historic home and grounds, though the site is currently undergoing renovations and is scheduled to reopen in 2023. Learn more.

About the author

  • Vanessa Pius Social Media Manager

    As Social Media Manager, Vanessa advances NPCA’s mission through creative storytelling and engaging the organization’s online community.

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