How to remember a century of National Parks, for people of color

 

When I was 7, or maybe 8, I read a book called The Hundred Penny Box. It told the story of an African-American woman who was 100 years old. She’d put a penny in that box for every year of her life, and whenever she pulled a penny out, she told her great-great-nephew a story.

I remember thinking – 100 pennies is a lot of pennies. I also remember thinking those pennies were the color of my grandmother’s skin, the color of my own skin. Ever since, I’ve associated copper pennies with people of color, mainly because, in many ways, neither are highly valued today.

If I had a Hundred Penny Box, I would keep a penny for every year of the National Park Service. Some of the pennies would remind me of a year when a national park, monument or other piece of public land was singled out to tell a story of some of the neglected people in America.

The penny from 1934, for example, would tell about the Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, which preserves ceremonial mounds that Native Americans constructed more than 1,000 years ago.

The penny from 1956 would tell the story of the Booker T. Washington National Monument, created to commemorate the famous African-American educator, author, orator and advisor to presidents.

A penny from 1980 could tell the story of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls in upstate New York, site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and home to several famous early suffragettes.

You’ve probably heard of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic World War II woman factory worker. In 2000, Congress established the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, to encourage Americans to remember the contributions of women and minorities to WWII.

My penny from 1993 would help me remember the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, protected by President George W. Bush to commemorate the sacred grounds where free and enslaved African-Americans were buried from the 1690s until 1794. Long forgotten, the site was rediscovered in 1991 during a city development project.

Another penny from 2000 would commemorate the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site in Colorado, which was created to remember the gruesome massacre of Cheyenne and Arapaho people by the Colorado Territory Militia in 1864. A penny from 2013 would recall when President Obama protected the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland. My penny from 2001 would tell the painful story of Japanese American internment in the United States during World War II. The Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and Washington preserves many of the buildings used to detain these Americans and their families against their will. 

In 2008, President Obama designated the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California, to remember the man and the movement to protect the rights of migrant workers, which he helped catalyze.

But my penny from 2014 would tell the story of the public lands closest to my home and my heart: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. For more than a decade, Latino and Pacific Island environmental justice and community groups worked to protect to preserve our clean drinking water supplies and the open space Los Angelenos depend on to get outdoors and be active. 

A year later, by using the Antiquities Act once again, President Obama preserved a place in Hawaii called the Honouliuli National Monument. The site of Hawaii’s largest and longest-operating Japanese American internment camp, it had had been overrun by weeds and long forgotten.

Sec. Jewell, Gov. Ige, Senators Schatz and Hirono at the dedication of Honouliuli National Monument

All of these stories remind me that the history of America is indelibly connected to place. By preserving special places and interpreting their rich cultures and histories, our parks and monuments help us understand who we are and where we come from. They help us learn about who our ancestors were, and discover what we’re proud of, as well as what we’re not proud of. 

For much of the National Park Service’s first 100 years, the lands and sites protected by the White House and Congress were far from where most people live. They were fragile and breath-taking landscapes championed for their beauty.

More recently, as people of color have begun to advocate for conservation, we are seeing more and more places protected to honor the history, achievements and cultural landscapes that matter to us. For instance, many of our parks and public lands are ancestral sites and traditional hunting and gathering grounds for indigenous cultures, and we need to fully honor their connection to these lands.

I hope this trend of recalling the past and telling its truth continues for the next 100 years. The memories are worth every penny.

Brenda Kyle is a contributor to Writers on the Range, the opinion service of High Country News. She is a state-certified naturalist for Eaton Canyon Natural Area in Pasadena, California, and a frequent hiker in the San Gabriel Mountains, which she helped to protect in 2014.  

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of High Country News, its board or staff. If you'd like to share an opinion piece of your own, please write Betsy Marston at betsym@hcn.org.