Black Church Leaders Say National and Local Parks Should Better Reflect African American History

Ausar Vandross takes a photo of Mother Emanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, on June 16, 2016. (AP Photo/Chuck Burton)

Growing up in Charleston, South Carolina, the Rev. Carey A. Grady heard about the history of Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church and its connection to a slave revolt planned by Denmark Vesey — long before it was the site of a 2015 massacre.

And Grady knew of the church through his father, the late AME Bishop Zedekiah Grady, who worked with church leaders from Emanuel AME and other congregations to support the 1969 hospital strike in that city. He wishes more people could learn these lesser-known stories of the church, of his father, of the hard work they did on behalf of African Americans in the city.

“Their members were the ones who were the orderlies or the ones who cooked or the ones who cleaned up waste and trash, and they couldn’t get good-paying jobs,” said Grady, now senior pastor of Reid Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Columbia, South Carolina. “They stood up for better wages for their members.”

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Grady was one of hundreds of Black church leaders who were surveyed earlier this year for a report from the National Religious Partnership for the Environment. The nonprofit has found a significant majority of them say Black history is not told adequately through national and local parks.

“Stories on the Lands: Showcasing Black History on Public Lands” was released this month (September) after interviews, roundtable discussions and follow-up questionnaires were used to learn the views of Black religious leaders.

“You don’t have American history without African American history; they’re mutually connected,” said the Rev. Michael McClain, national outreach director for the Washington-based partnership. “And so often, the younger generations don’t know that because we’re not telling them. Unfortunately, we know more about Confederate monuments than we do about African American events that took place.”

The partnership, an alliance of faith groups including Christians and Jews, asked 600 Black leaders a number of questions, including what Black leaders are underrecognized and what African American stories are missing from public lands. When an open-ended question asked which Black figures should have their stories preserved, Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X was cited most, followed by Rosa ParksColin PowellFrederick Douglass and Trayvon Martin.

In some instances, prominent figures such as Harriet Tubman, Medgar Evers and Booker T. Washington were cited.

“Since these leaders already have existing monuments named in their honor, this indicates that the awareness and promotion of national monument designations is sorely needed,” the 20-page report states.

The report also notes that only about 180 of the 2,600 historical landmarks in the country are considered African American historical landmarks. And of the 129 national monuments designated by U.S. presidents since 1906, 12 represent the history and stories of Black people.

Leaders of the partnership hope to convince President Joe Biden to further diversify the country’s monuments by highlighting the history of slavery and civil rights, Black schools and cemeteries, lynchings and racially motivated massacres, through designations permitted under the Antiquities Act.

In 2016, the centennial year of the National Park Service, bishops of historically Black denominations topped the list of names on a 609-page petition telling then-President Barack Obama: “Our public lands — the places where we play, pray, and take Sabbath — need to be a full reflection of the faces of our country, should respect different cultures and histories, and should engage all people.”

Cassandra Carmichael, the partnership’s executive director, said the report was a “natural result” of the earlier petition.

“NRPE has been working with Black church leaders on land protection for quite some time and it was important to better understand and articulate their perspectives and priorities as it relates to public lands,” she told Religion News Service in an email. “The next steps are to look at places that tell the stories that the Black church leaders identified as important and to lend our voice to their protection and conservation.”

In 2017, in one of his last official acts, Obama designated Alabama’s Sixteenth Street Baptist Church, where a bombing killed four girls in 1963, and other civil rights landmarks as the Birmingham Civil Rights Monument.

In 2018, then-President Donald Trump designated a Kentucky training center for African American soldiers in the Civil War as the Camp Nelson National Monument. The next year, he designated the Jackson, Mississippi, home of civil rights leader Medgar Evers as the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument.

Carmichael said her organization, which is funded by individual donors and foundations, sent its report to members of Congress and the Biden administration and is seeking a meeting with administration officials.

Though Biden has not designated any national monuments, McClain said he hopes the partnership’s report will give suggestions for what places could be designated.

“These are sites that we’re proposing that are very important to American history in general, but yes, African American history in particular,” he said. “And they need to be preserved for future generations to know about and to visit and to have the understanding of what took place.”

SOURCE: Religion News Service, Adelle M. Banks

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