Annual Meeting Preview: Right in Front of Us: “Hidden” History and the National Park Service

This session takes place on Friday, April 5, at the 2019 OAH Annual Meeting in Philadelphia and is solicited by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration
Twitter: #AM3181

Chair: Turkiya Lowe, National Park Service
Commentator: Kate Masur, Northwestern University

Plantations without Slaves: An Examination of National Historic Landmark (NHL) Plantation Designations at 50 Years
Amanda Casper, National Park Service

“Education…Means Emancipation”: African American Schools in the Upper South in the Reconstruction Era
Dean Herrin, Chief Historian, National Capital Region, National Park Service

Buried and Razed, But Not Forgotten: Recovering African American History on the Chalmette Battlefield Site through Genealogical Research
Elizabeth Neidenbach, National Park Service

Right in Front of Us: “Hidden” History and the National Park Service

Perhaps no institution in the United States has a larger role in educating the broad public about American history than the National Park Service (NPS). When people think of our national parks, many envision the magnificent natural parks like Yosemite and Yellowstone. But of the 417 units in the National Park system, history is a central component of more than two-thirds. Millions of Americans and tourists from abroad encounter history when they visit one of these parks. Countless more learn about America’s past through programs administered by the NPS, including the National Register of Historic Places, the National Historic Landmarks Program, and the Heritage Documentation Programs.

It is therefore essential that NPS historians be as inclusive as possible in telling the American story, and in showing the relevancy of history to today’s world. Joining the efforts of many public history scholars and institutions, NPS historians are trying to bring to light the “hidden” history of America that has been ignored, forgotten, and omitted. Much of this history, of course, such as the stories of communities of color, of the LGBTQ community, of indigenous populations, of women, and of many others, was never actually “hidden” but there right in front of us, if only we had asked the right questions and searched for the right sources. This session will examine recent NPS projects that use powerful places to enlarge our vision of American history, while also exploring why we weren’t asking the right questions in the first place.

Three NPS historians will explore how genealogical research in descendent communities helped a park recover the forgotten stories of United States Colored Troops soldiers and of an African American community that the NPS razed in 1964; how biases and tunnel-vision led to the designations of many plantations as National Historic Landmarks without ever mentioning slavery or examining the complex racial, cultural, and economic factors that sustained the plantation system; and how the NPS is trying to tell a more accurate account of the Reconstruction era by, for example, documenting the often-neglected contributions and autonomy of African Americans in supporting and operating post-Civil War African American schools.

The National Park Service exists to protect and interpret significant natural and historic sites, so the power of place is persistent in these presentations. Visiting historic sites promotes curiosity and empathy, and provides a tangible link to the past for many. Standing in a national cemetery, or on the grounds of a historic plantation, or in the classroom of a former Freedmen’s Bureau school, visitors experience a sense of time and hopefully a new understanding of the relevancy of history to their current lives as they attach their own meanings to these sites and stories. “Hidden” history becomes visible and palpable through both the sites and the stories of our parks.

Dean Herrin, Chief Historian, National Capital Region, National Park Service

Posted: November 27, 2018
Tagged: Previews, Public History, Conference, OAH Works, NPS Collaboration