Report Jul 23, 2014

Our Parks, Our Stories

Our Parks Our Stories (796 KB)

Our National Park System contains so much more than beautiful landscapes and iconic wildlife. The African-American experience lives here, too, captured in the remarkable stories of the men, women, and places that shaped our history.

From Civil War to civil rights, from the Underground Railroad to the White House, the National Park Service is one of the largest stewards of African American history and culture in the United States.

The Good Old Ship of Zion

[DB] Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

camera icon Illustration by Charlie Powell

Harriet Tubman was a very religious woman. As a conductor on the Underground Railroad she used Biblical imagery to convey secret messages to enslaved relatives and friends she sought to free. In 1854, Tubman, who was illiterate, had a friend in Philadelphia write a coded letter which she then sent to Jacob Jackson, a free black man who happened to live on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, very close to Tubman’s brothers. When the letter was intercepted and Jackson questioned about its message—a series of religious phrases rendered in no particular order—Jackson feigned ignorance. He then went straight to Tubman’s brothers to tell them to make ready; the “good old ship of Zion” (Tubman) would be coming at Christmastime to take them north to Freedom.

To learn more, visit the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Cambridge, MD.

The Homefront Disaster that Ended Segregation in the Military

[DB] Port Chicago Sailor

Port Chicago Sailor

camera icon Illustration by Charlie Powell

On July 17, 1944, a munitions explosion destroyed the naval loading dock at Port Chicago, California, and killed 320 men—the largest disaster to strike the American home front during the Second World War. When remaining African-American sailors refused to return to the task of loading munitions onto ships, the Navy deemed their actions a mutiny; fifty men were selected for prosecution. Thurgood Marshall, then chief counsel for the NAACP, flew to San Francisco to help lead the defense. The six-week trial resulted in the conviction of all 50 defendants each of whom received a sentence of 15 years in prison. In January 1946, 47 of the Port Chicago men were released from prison and ultimately discharged from the Navy “honorably” but their mutiny convictions still stood. Freddie Meeks was exonerated by President Bill Clinton in 1999. The effort to obtain pardons for the remaining Port Chicago sailors is ongoing. The work stoppage by African American sailors hastened the end of segregated military units. The Navy feared additional “subversive behavior” if all-black crews were used, but the war continued. So black and white sailors were integrated in the hopes of dispersing radical elements and lessening their influence; the move quickly showed that integrated crews could work together to complete a mission. In that way the Port Chicago explosion and mutiny served as the catalysts that would lead to President Truman’s 1948 executive order to desegregate the military.

To learn more, visit Please note the Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Monument is open to the public by appointment only. Call 925.228.8860 ext. 6520 to arrange a visit or learn more.

Slave, Soldier, National Park Guardian…

[DB] Charles Young

Charles Young

camera icon Illustration by Charlie Powell

Born into slavery in Mayslick, Kentucky in 1864, Charles Young rose from humble beginnings and adverse circumstances to become only the third African American to graduate from West Point in the 19th century. As Young advanced in rank and successfully acquitted a wide range of assignments, his career trajectory inspired countless African Americans who had few such public role models to inspire them. In 1903, 13 years before the creation of the National Park Service, Captain Young commanded a detachment of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry (Buffalo Soldiers) on a summer detail in Sequoia National Park in Central California. As an acting superintendent (the first African American to hold that position), Young and his men built roads, patrolled aggressively to defeat illegal grazing and poaching, and initiated the first efforts to buy private property inside the park’s boundary.

To learn more, visit the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Xenia, Ohio.

Turning Nickels into Dollars

[DB] Maggie Walker

Maggie Walker

camera icon Illustration by Charlie Powell

Maggie Lena Walker never paid much attention to those who told her she “couldn’t.” In an age of strict racial segregation and oppression and nearly two decades before American women won the right to vote, Maggie Walker established a newspaper, the St. Luke’s Herald (1902), and became the first American woman of any race to serve as president of a bank, the St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank (1903). She reasoned such enterprises would starve the “lion of prejudice” while simultaneously creating a measure of economic independence and prosperity for Richmond’s African-American community. The St. Luke’s Penny Savings Bank, which became Consolidated Bank & Trust in 1931, was “the oldest continually operated black-owned bank” until it was acquired in 2005.

To learn more, visit the Maggie L. Walker National Historic Site in Richmond, Virginia.

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