By Audrey Peterman
As recipient of the National Park Conservation Association’s Centennial Leadership Award 2022 “for outstanding contribution toward ensuring our national parks are ready for their second century of service,” I embrace Black History Month as an opportunity to take you on a tour to some of the glorious places in the National Park System where our forebears helped turn the tide of history. I take it as a point of pride that I have literally walked in the majority of these places which is why my thirst to share them may never be quenched.
I could take you geographically from the southernmost point of the continental United States at the Dry Tortugas National Park, where enslaved Black men helped build massive Fort Jefferson as part of America’s coastal defense system in the 1830s. We could go all the way north to the highest peak on the North American continent where George Crenshaw left his footprints on Mount Denali in Denali National Park July 9, 1964. Because in every facet of American life -from exploration; conquest; defense; economy; resistance; conservation and the pursuit of human rights – I can show you a unit of the National Park System where the event took place, where African Americans made the difference, and the park is the means of protecting the story.
The legacy is so extensive I might have to share it in multiple pieces, and the best thing of all is that the contributions of every race and ethnic group is similarly protected in units of the Park System at the places where it happened. Literally, the National Park System “preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values” of our country “for the enjoyment, education and inspiration of this and future generations.”
Let’s begin at Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, marking the site where the first Africans were traded onto American soil in 1619. The plantation economy subsequently built upon the labor of millions of enslaved Africans, and its impact on their lives can be experienced at the Charles Pinkney National Historic Site in South Carolina (he being a signer of the US Constitution) and the Kingsley Plantation outside Jacksonville, (where the plantation mistress, Anna Madgigine Jai was a Senegalese princess whom the Florida planter Zephaniah Kingsley married in 1806 when she was 13 years old) Their offspring include Johnetta Betsch Cole, legendary educator and former president of Spelman College.
The first shot to ring out in the Revolutionary War took the life of Crispus Attucks, and the place where he fell still is identified as the site of the Boston Massacre in Boston National Historical Park. Valley Forge National Historical Park in Philadelphia contains the encampment site of General George Washington’s Continental Army in the dire winter of 1777-78 when, lacking a supply chain, soldiers were forced to forage for food, heat and clothing. The anguish suffered by Black and brown men and women in the encampment was visible from the bloody footprints left on the snow. Yet the ragged band persevered and emerged “a cohesive and disciplined fighting force” that went on to secure the new nation.
At nearby Independence National Historical Park let’s tune in to the words of the Declaration of Independence ringing out July 4, 1776: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…” The dramatically flawed and cracked Liberty Bell, that unbowed symbol of the drive for freedom stands sentinel outside, reminding us that the job is not yet finished.
I hope your appetite is sufficiently whetted. Next time we’ll start at Fort Sumpter and Fort Moultrie National Park in Charleston Harbor where the first shot of the Civil War rang out signifying the rejection of slavery, and conclude at Appomattox Court House National Historical Park in Virginia where confederate general Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant. In a meeting reportedly so cordial it was dubbed “A gentleman’s agreement,” Lee accepted the gift of rations for his starving troops and told them to return home and resume their lives as Americans.
Black history is inextricably interwoven with American history, because we are an indispensable part of everything that happened here. Our Herculean efforts in the face of rabid racism helped make America the beacon she remains today.
(Audrey Peterman is an environmentalist and diversity advocate since 1995. Book her to speak at your next event, Audrey@AudreyPeterman.com.)