Wednesday, August 24, 2016

At 100, National Park Service celebrates diversity -- Aug. 25, 2016 column


With his signature, President Barack Obama in June made the Stonewall Inn in New York City a national monument with the protection of a national park.

“Stonewall will be our first national monument to tell the story of the struggle for LGBT rights,” the president said in a White House video announcing the new monument.

“I believe our national parks should reflect the full story of our country – the richness and diversity and uniquely American spirit that has always defined us,” he said.

Decades ago, the Stonewall Inn was a popular gay bar in Greenwich Village at a time in the city when serving alcohol to gay people was illegal. Police raids were frequent, but in June 1969 a raid led to riots and then to protest marches. The Stonewall Uprising was a turning point in the gay rights movement.

Not everyone was thrilled with the designation of a gay bar as a monument. Evangelical Christian leader Franklin Graham, son of televangelist Billy Graham, called the Stonewall recognition “unbelievable.”

“War heroes deserve a monument, our nation’s founding fathers deserve a monument, people who have helped make America strong deserve a monument – but a monument to sin?” Graham wrote on Facebook.

Graham has a right to his opinion, but I’m with those who celebrate our nation’s diversity and the fights by racial, ethnic and other groups for equality.

From now on, Stonewall will be recognized as a watershed for gay rights the way Selma, Ala., is for voting rights for blacks and Seneca Falls, New York, is for women’s suffrage.

Congress authorized the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York, in 1980, commemorating the first Women’s Rights Convention there in 1848, and created the Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail in 1996. The 54-mile trail tells the story of the 1965 march that led President Lyndon B. Johnson to sign the Voting Rights Act.

The Stonewall National Monument includes the bar, a triangular park across the street and nearby streets – 7.7-acres in all – and, managed by the park service, will preserve the stories of the gay rights movement for future generations.

It’s fitting as the park service celebrates its 100th birthday that its centennial mission is “a promise to America that we will keep not only its sacred places, but the memory of its most defining moments,” Jonathan Jarvis, park service director, said at the National Press Club this month.

Besides Stonewall, Obama has authorized the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington, D.C., the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in California, the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland and the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio, among others.

Obama’s protection of lesser known historic sites ensures that some details of the American experience we might sweep under the rug will be remembered. The new monuments build his legacy as a champion of diversity and provide a way for him to honor key Democratic constituencies.

While only Congress can create a national park, the president and Congress have the authority under the Antiquities Act of 1906 to create national monuments to protect “historic landmarks, historic and prehistoric structures, and other objects of historic or scientific interest.”

National parks were never about scenery alone. History was always part of the picture.
When President Woodrow Wilson signed the legislation creating the National Park Service 100 years ago this week, Aug. 25, 1916, he brought together in the new bureau 35 parks and monuments and those yet to be established.

The purpose was “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife . . . by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Today we’re all better off because we have more than 400 national park areas.

We’re fortunate Congress thought to preserve historic objects and places as well as beautiful vistas. And we can thank the National Park Service for finding ways to help us understand all aspects of the American experience and reinterpreting historical events as times – and passions -- change.

©2016 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


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