When I first learned of the National Park Service, it was via cartoons, but the messaging wasn’t clear enough to truly leave a mark in my mind that there was a place where real rangers work and where they also interpret the stories of what happened on the land where they work. My first true encounter with the National Park Service wasn’t by visiting such lands. It was through picking up a study questionnaire for the Underground Railroad Study and then calling the 800 number (Yes, it was that long ago!) and speaking to an interpretive ranger for over two hours.
I had founded the Afrikan Kultural Arts Network™ (AKAN™) and that telephone call confirmed that we would support the study. Through our national network, we distributed boxes and boxes of surveys which were completed and mailed back to the NPS. (No the Internet didn’t have ways for you to do online surveys yet. Yes, it was that long ago!)
I wanted to insure that the Underground Railroad was nationally recognized because I had spent thousands of dollars and hours researching it. I had gone into the homes of strangers and actually seen the hidden tunnels and hid in the walls and closets that our ancestors had used as safe havens. I argued time and time again that you cannot tell the story of the Underground Railroad without the stories of the plantations of the south including those on the Sea Islands. I eventually decided to stop arguing this point and emphasize it. So, I created a play that traveled the east coast entitled, “The Underground Railroad: A Geechee Girl’s Escape.”
As much as it was an honor to have my ancestors stories told on stage before full houses and to receive standing ovations for it, I truly was honored when I got to present for the unveiling of the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom and helped unveil the logo for that network.
All the insights that I gained from that study made me love working on insuring that our tax dollars were directed toward telling the stories of people of African descent across the United States via the National Park Service (NPS). So, I worked as a volunteer and a consultant on numerous additional projects including the Selma to Montgomery Study, the Harriet Tubman Study, and the Special Resource Study of Lowcountry Gullah Culture. The latter led to the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Act being signed into law in 2006. The years and effort the Gullah/Geechee Sea Island Coalition dedicated to that study was tremendous! I will never forget getting the telephone call to inform me that the act did pass and was on the way from Congress to get the president’s signature!
I’ve supported the National Park Service in numerous ways over decades. I was eventually placed on the National Park Relevancy Committee so that we could decide what should be presented by our national parks for the next 100 years. When I got the word that the Reconstruction Era National Monument had been signed into law by President Barak Obama, I knew that our work was not in vain and that the parks would continue to increase its relevance for people of African descent.
National Park Week gives myself and other National Park Service supporters an opportunity to celebrate these historic spaces collectively. Support for these spaces is fought for daily by the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) which I’ve worked with to insure that funds were appropriated for the Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, the Harriet Tubman Study, and the Gullah/Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor. Funds don’t automatically get allocated to the NPS sites nor is it guaranteed that each site will get the full budget that it needs. It takes the support of the community to insure that the tax dollars are directed to these spaces and not cut from federal budgets. Attendance is a major factor in the reporting that part staff does when seeking financial support to sustain national parks.
The Reconstruction Era National Monument recently became the “Reconstruction Era National Historic Park” and is just about to get its first funding toward building restoration on my beloved St. Helena Island, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Since I supported the effort for Reconstruction to be recognized by the US government and interpreted via the NPS from the first time it was mentioned to me just about two decades ago, I shouted to beat the band when we unveiled the monument! The expansion to a historic park also allows there to be a network affiliated with the multi-site monument that was originally designated and where National Park Week was launched in Beaufort County, SC in the Gullah/Geechee Nation. Tune in to the Gullah/Geechee TV broadcast to learn about this:
Given that Earth Day is within National Park Week this year, it is definitely a great time to get outdoors and find and support your park!