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President Obama Designates Three National Monuments To Preserve Cultural History


The Freedom Riders' bus burns outside Anniston, Alabama, in 1961/NPS

President Obama moved Thursday to preserve three chapters of American history by designating national monuments to tell the nation's Civil Rights and Reconstruction stories.

The three -- Reconstruction Era National Monument, Freedom Riders National Monument, and Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument -- build on the Obama administration’s commitment to protecting places that are culturally and historically significant and that reflect the story of all Americans, an Interior Department release said.

“African-American history is American history and these monuments are testament to the people and places on the front-lines of our entire nation’s march toward a more perfect union,” said Interior Secretary Sally Jewell. “Now the National Park Service, America’s storyteller, will forever be responsible for safeguarding the narrative of not only the sparks that ignited the Civil Rights movement but also the hope of the Reconstruction Era, which for far too long, has been neglected from our national conscience. Current and future generations of Americans will benefit from learning about our painful past and can find inspiration to shape a brighter future.”

Acting Director of the National Park Service Michael T. Reynolds said, “These new national monuments are examples of public, private and philanthropic partnerships working toward a common goal to expand the American narrative we care for, support and share with park visitors. The cities of Birmingham and Anniston and Calhoun County in Alabama, Penn Center, Inc., the Brick Baptist Church, and private citizens in South Carolina, have donated interests in their property to the American people for inclusion in a national park unit for the benefit of all.

"In addition, the U.S. Navy has agreed to include historically significant portions of their lands in Port Royal, South Carolina, in the Reconstruction national monument. We look forward to working with everyone to develop the management plans for these sites, getting them open for visitors, and communicating their stories broadly.”

Meetings with local citizens, local leaders, philanthropic groups, local and statewide elected leaders and members of Congress preceded President Obama’s actions Thursday. Secretary Jewell and former Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis visited the Alabama sites for tours and public meetings in October and Jarvis visited Beaufort County for tours and a public meeting in December.

“The events in Birmingham opened our eyes to the plight of so many African Americans facing discrimination in the South, and ultimately led to the abolition of segregation laws," said Theresa Pierno, president and CEO of the National Parks Conservation Association. "Places like the 16th Street Baptist Church and Kelly Ingram Park were pivotal in the struggle for civil rights, and are truly deserving of national park status. These important places should be protected and their stories told. And no group is better suited to do this than the National Park Service."

The president also expanded two other national monuments managed by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management, Cascade-Siskiyou National Monument in southwestern Oregon and the California Coastal National Monument.

Reconstruction Era National Monument in Beaufort County, South Carolina

The Reconstruction Era began during the Civil War and lasted until the dawn of Jim Crow racial segregation in the 1890s. It remains one of the most complicated and poorly understood periods in American History. During Reconstruction, four million African Americans, newly freed from bondage, sought to integrate themselves into free society, into the educational, economic, and political life of the country. This began in late 1861 in Beaufort County, S.C., after Union forces won the Battle at Port Royal Sound and brought the ‘Lowcountry’ along the South Carolina coast under Union control. More than 10,000 slaves remained there when their owners fled the cotton and rice plantations. The then-Lincoln Administration decided to initiate the ‘Port Royal Experiment’ in Beaufort County to help the former slaves become self-sufficient.

The Reconstruction Era National Monument includes four sites in Beaufort County:

  • Darrah Hall and Brick Baptist Church, within Penn School National Historic Landmark District on St. Helena Island, that includes the site of one of the country’s first schools for freed slaves and a church built by slaves for their owners in 1855 and then turned over to the former slaves in 1862 when their owners left the area.
  • The Camp Saxton Site, on U.S. Navy property in Port Royal, where some of the first African Americans joined the U.S. Army, and the site where elaborate ceremonies were held on New Year’s Day 1863 to announce and celebrate the issuance of the Emancipation Proclamation.
  • The Old Beaufort Firehouse, an historic building located in the midst of historic downtown Beaufort within walking distance of dozens more historic Reconstruction properties.

The Freedom Riders National Monument in Anniston, Alabama

On Mother’s Day 1961, a Freedom Riders bus was attacked at the Greyhound Bus Station in Anniston and was attacked again and burned just six miles out of town adjacent to Route 202. The Freedom Riders remained on board the bus at the station in Anniston while a mob struck with bats and pipes and slashed the bus tires. As the bus moved away from the station and out of town, the mob, including members of the Ku Klux Klan, followed. When the bus broke down, the mob resumed terrorizing the Freedom Riders. The bus was firebombed and members of the mob tried holding the doors shut to trap the Freedom Riders inside. Eventually the Freedom Riders were able to make it off the burning bus but continued to be harassed until Alabama State Troopers dispersed the crowd.

The Freedom Riders were a group of civil rights activists, both African American and Caucasian, who tested integration laws on the interstate bus system. The incident in Anniston was quickly reported in newspapers and shown on television screens across the country, shocking the nation and inspiring more people to join the fight against the injustices of Jim Crow laws in the American South.

The Freedom Riders National Monument includes the former Greyhound Bus Station in Anniston and the bus burning site in Calhoun County six miles out of town.

The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument

In 1963, Birmingham was the epicenter of the American Civil Rights Movement. Activists like Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Rev. Fred Shuttlesworth, Rev. Ralph Abernathy, Sr., and countless unnamed heroes gathered there to demand equality for all people. The activists planned the nonviolent marches and protests of the Project C (for Confrontation), or Birmingham campaign.

When Dr. King, was jailed for participating in marches through Birmingham, he wrote the famous April 16, 1963, Letter from a Birmingham Jail, declaring ‘I am in Birmingham because injustice is here.’ The events that took place in Birmingham in 1963 became a galvanizing force for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, the headquarters for Project C, where Dr. King and Rev. Abernathy and Shuttlesworth stayed and held strategy sessions and meetings during the Birmingham campaign. They also staged marches, were served a subpoena, and held press conferences on the premises. Dr. King and his colleagues announced the negotiated resolution of the campaign in the motel courtyard on May 10, 1963. Hours later, a bomb exploded near the suite where Dr. King had stayed.

Other landmarks of the American Civil Rights Movement are within walking distance or a short drive from the A.G. Gaston Motel:

  • 16th Street Baptist Church, target of September 1963 bombing that killed four young girls who were attending a Bible study.
  • Kelly Ingram Park, where protesters, including many children, were violently disrupted by police dogs and powerful water cannons, as caught on camera and broadcast widely by the news media.
  • 4th Avenue Historic District sites, listed in the National Register of Historic Places, as the retail and entertainment center for black-owned businesses serving African American customers during Birmingham's extended period of forced segregation.
  • Bethel Baptist Church, located six miles north of the city center, noted for its significant association with Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth. It was the historical headquarters of the Alabama Christian Movement for Human Rights led by Shuttlesworth and was bombed three times – in 1956, 1958 and 1962.
  • Birmingham Civil Rights Institute, a cultural and educational research center opened in 1992, and potential NPS partner already reaching more than 140,000 annual visitors.

The National Park Service will now work with local citizens, historic society groups, and the public generally to develop management plans for all three new national monuments and prepare them for visitors. Please check the websites for these monuments to see what is open to the public over time. The Alabama and Beaufort County sites bring to 417 the number of parks in the National Park System.


Wonderful, three more parks added to an already overburden system. Obama will leave office soon and it will up to the NPS to find the money to manage these sites. There needs to be a moritorium on the creation of any new national parks, monuments etc until the issue of the maintenance backlog and lack of adequate staffing is addressed. To just add parks without any thought about this is just hurting the entire national park system. it is just irresponsible. 

I'm much more worried about the raping and pillaging and plundering that is incoming with the new administration than I am a budget stretch in a good cause.

Harry - the reason why there is a backlog is because conservatives refuse to adequately fund the NPS - simple as that. These places deserve protection for current and future generations.  If you don't like conservation, just say it, but don't hide behind that sham of an argument.  

Personally I like the idea of the federal government protecting monuments to civil rights in Alabama.

Mike, the Democrats have controled both House and Senate for 38 of the last 62 years.  If it were a priority for them and only concervatives refusing to fund the Dems had plenty of opportunities to get it done.  The fact is, they have far more desire to control lives through entitlements and have sent the money that way instead.  Park underfunding has nothing to do with conservative obstruction.  

I believe Obama has abused his powers under the Antiquities Act to  subjugate more lands and waters than any other president. I expect that the new Congress will pass legislation to curtail the power of the President to declare national monuments. And yes, the democrats were in control of the congress for many years while the maintenance backlog was growing and they did nothing to alleviate it. Park underfunding is a legacy of both political parties. 

As one who experienced one of the freedom marches with Dr. King, I applaud the president for preserving some of the history of that effort.  As to the question of can we afford them?, I have to ask this: Can we afford to allow them to be destroyed or simply sink into oblivion?

And while Democrats may have controlled Congress for 38 years, here's another question:  How many of those years saw a Republican in the White House?  Remember that we've had more than just a few GOP presidents who weren't exactly fans of our parks.

The answer to your question Lee is 22.  So there were 16 years where the Dems controlled both houses and the Presidency.  But then the notion that a President would veto an omnibus funding bill because there was too much allocation to the National Parks is absurd.  You have absolutely no evidence that a Republican President obstructed efforts to fund the parks while the Dems controlled Congress. 

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