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Where Do You Draw The Line On Erasing History In The National Park System?


Once known as LeConte Memorial Lodge, this building in the Yosemite Valley is now known as the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center/Eric Polk via Wikipedia

History can be a messy, controversial thing. That's evident with the recent events in Charlottesville, Virginia; Baltimore, where a number of Confederate statues were removed under dark of night; and even in New York City, where the mayor has called for a review of "symbols of hate." But what should be done in the National Park System, where monuments abound to Confederate generals, troops, and, of course, presidents who owned slaves?

Across the country, the issue of "presentism," of viewing past events through today's attitudes and righteousness, is driving community decisions and fueling divisiveness, anger, and, in isolated instances, violent unrest.

So far, the National Park System has largely stayed outside of this debate. But might the agency come to the attention of those who oppose monuments to Confederate soldiers? After all, there's the shrine to Confederate Gen. Thomas "Stonewall" Jackson, a slave owner, at Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park in Virginia, and a monument of Confederate Gen. James Longstreet astride a steed at Gettysburg. And then there's the bronze statue to Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman at the White House. The general did not view blacks as equals and after the Civil War worked to annihilate Indians who stood in the way of the railroads.

"We are not going to let a few thieving, ragged Indians check and stop the progress of [the railroads]," he wrote Ulysses S. Grant, adding in a later letter that "we must act with vindictive earnestness against the Sioux, even to their extermination, men, women and children."

National Park Service officials, well aware of the debate into whether Confederate statues and monuments should remain in place, believe they should stay.

"Across the country, the National Park Service maintains and interprets monuments, markers, and plaques that commemorate and memorialize those who fought during the Civil War. These memorials represent an important, if controversial, chapter in our Nation’s history. The National Park Service is committed to preserving these memorials while simultaneously educating visitors holistically about the actions, motivations, and causes of the soldiers and states they commemorate. A hallmark of American progress is our ability to learn from our history," the agency said in a list of talking points it prepared for staff.

"Many commemorative works including monuments and markers were specifically authorized by Congress. In other cases, a monument may have preceded the establishment of a park, and thus could be considered a protected park resource and value. In either of these situations, legislation could be required to remove the monument, and the NPS may need to comply with Section 106 of the National Historic Preservation Act and the National Environmental Policy Act before removing a statue/memorial," the statement continued.

"Still other monuments, while lacking legislative authorization, may have existed in parks long enough to qualify as historic features. A key aspect of their historical interest is that they reflect the knowledge, attitudes, and tastes of the people who designed and placed them. Unless directed by legislation, it is the policy of the National Park Service that these works and their inscriptions will not be altered, relocated, obscured, or removed, even when they are deemed inaccurate or incompatible with prevailing present-day values. The director of the National Park Service may make an exception to this policy."

Interior Department Secretary Ryan Zinke, during a visit to Antietam National Battlefield, weighed in on the issue shortly after the uprising in Charlottesville.

"I think history's important, and on this battlefield, as an example, what did the battle of Antietam bring us? One is that it was the deadliest battle in the history of our country, but also one can argue successfully that it also brought us the Emancipation Proclamation," said the secretary. "So, there's goodness that came out of this battlefield, but recognizing two sides fought, recognizing the historical significance of a change in our country. So, I'm an advocate of recognizing history as it is. Don't rewrite history. Understand it for what it is and teach our kids the importance of looking at our magnificent history as a country and why we are what we are."

This monument recognizing Confederate soldiers from South Carolina stands in Fredericksburg and Spotsylvania National Military Park/Kurt Repanshek

Yosemite National Park in the past year has had an identity crisis of sorts in its iconic valley, as an ongoing trademark fight between Delaware North Co. and the Park Service has led to new names for the Ahwahnee Hotel (now Majestic Yosemite Hotel), Camp Curry (now Half Dome Village), and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls (now Yosemite Valley Lodge).

While there are no Confederate statues in Yosemite, until recently there was a building that stood as a memorial to Joseph LeConte, a geologist, natural historian, and botanist who taught at the University of California and was widely respected, with more than a few schools, streets, buildings, and even a mountain named in his honor.

There's also LeConte Lodge in Great Smoky Mountains National Park that arose in 1925 as a tent camp, some years before the park was established, and a LeConte Mountain (though there's some dispute whether it was named after Joseph or his older brother, John). And he was a charter member of the Sierra Club, longtime friend of John Muir, and proponent of establishing Yosemite National Park.

To honor LeConte, the Sierra Club early in the 20th century saw that a stone building was built, to serve as a reading room and information center, and named it after LeConte. That name remained attached to the building from its completion in 1904 until last year, when the organization deemed LeConte too reprehensible of a man to be honored and renamed the lodge the Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.

"When the Sierra Club reviewed post-Civil War published writings on race by Professor Joseph LeConte Sr., we found them offensive and indefensible. His repugnant, public support for Jim Crow laws and white supremacy are in conflict with the Sierra Club's values as an organization committed to protecting clean air, clean water, and public lands for all," Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton told the Traveler in an email last week.

"LeConte didn’t just harbor racist views, which would not have been uncommon at the time. What set him apart is that he used his status as an academic to help perpetuate and legitimize racist public policies that continue to plague America today. We recognize LeConte as a part of early Sierra Club's history, but we see no need to celebrate him, and when we had the unique opportunity to push to change that, we did."

“This is so absurd,” noted the historian Alfred Runte. “Had most of us been alive 150 years ago, we probably would have harbored racist views as well. It takes no courage to beat up on the past and pronounce your views ‘superior.’ Are they? Who next will be read out of the Sierra Club for not living up to Mr. Hamilton’s standards? John Muir himself, for example?”

Certainly, some see him as an even bigger racist than LeConte. Writes Jedediah Purdy in The New Yorker:

But Muir, who felt fraternity with four-legged “animal people” and even plants, was at best ambivalent about human brotherhood. Describing a thousand-mile walk from the Upper Midwest to the Gulf of Mexico, he reported the laziness of “Sambos.” Later he lamented the “dirty and irregular life” of Indians in the Merced River valley, near Yosemite. In “Our National Parks,” a 1901 essay collection written to promote parks tourism, he assured readers that, “As to Indians, most of them are dead or civilized into useless innocence.” This might have been incisive irony, but in the same paragraph Muir was more concerned with human perfidy toward bears (“Poor fellows, they have been poisoned, trapped, and shot at until they have lost confidence in brother man”) than with how Native Americans had been killed and driven from their homes. -- Environmentalism’s Racist History, by Jedediah Purdy, The New Yorker, August 13, 2015

“They have a huge statue (at Manassas National Battlefield Park) there of Stonewall Jackson. It’s massive. I would never support any attempt to remove that statue. That park was founded to commemorate the Confederate victories at Manassas 1 and Manassas 2." -- Dr. Harry Butowsky/Kurt Repanshek photo

Nor should we forget the military “protectors” of Yosemite. After helping “cleanse” the West of holdout native tribes, these stalwart African-Americans held the line with shepherds, prospectors, and timber thieves.

“It is we who need to understand the complexity of history,” Dr. Runte said. “Blaming people of their times for acting out their times is to forget that every institution formed in those times was influenced by the exact same people. If the Sierra Club wants to disband, I’m all for it. Half of its members in 1913 supported damming the Hetch Hetchy Valley. How dare the Sierra Club now even exist?”

Dr. Harry Butowsky, a retired Park Service historian whose career included time at Manassas National Battlefield Park, wasn't in favor of ignoring controversial figures.

“We can’t cleanse the past. We can’t change our history. John Muir is a man of supreme importance to the national parks and to the preservation of natural resources, and like everyone, he had his flaws," said Mr. Butowsky. “Now, you can have some interpretive material that explains what these people said and felt. I don’t think what LeConte said and what Muir said is really substantial to why they’re remembered and why they’re honored.”

Rather than rush to "cleanse" the park system of unsavory parts of history, wouldn't it be better to place them in context, as the Park Service intends to do?

"The NPS will continue to provide historical context and interpretation for all of our sites and monuments in order to reflect a fuller view of past events and the values under which they occurred."

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Rather than rush to "cleanse" the park system (or any other place) of unsavory parts of history, wouldn't it be better to place them in context, as the Park Service intends to do?

Hear! Hear!

If we "sterilize" history's blunders, we are opening the door to repeating them.

Both liberals and conservatives share equal blame.  Tearing down monuments is no different than the Texas Textbook Commission's efforts to erase the words "slave" and "slavery" from school books. 

Many, if not most, young Americans cannot recognize the hateful blathering of George Wallace echoing in the tweets of Drumpf as he echoes the backroom influences of some of his friends like Steve Bannon and others.  Most cannot know that the mindless and cowardly violence of Antifa (an organization I only recently learned of myself) will fail because they lack the intelligence and wisdom of peaceful resistance as we saw in the marches and protests led by Dr. King.

What we REALLY should be doing is not tearing monuments DOWN, but building MORE monuments.  Monuments to stand beside the memories of hatefulness and ignorance to help remember the Americans who stood up for good.  As it now stands, the Drumpf administration has cancelled placing the image of Harriet Tubman on bills to replace the image of Drumpf's hero Andrew Jackson.  He and his minions are going to deprive young Americans of an opportunity to learn lessons history has to teach us.

We are squandering a wonderful opportunity to teach our children the lessons of history as we mindlessly follow the idiocy of The Divider In Chief.


Lee, you are one confused old man.  Andrew Jackson was the founder of the modern Democrat Party.  He is their hero and not the Republicans or Trump.  As to tweets, could you please provide us with the tweets that "echo" the Democrat George Wallace?  I am sure not, as that is just another of your baseless accusations.  As to the Divider in Chief, he left office this past January.

Well off to Capitol Reef.  

It's pretty clear that there are no lines any longer. If one person is offended that is enough for many not only to attempt to erase history but to riot and destroy public property under the guise it is for the greater good. Anyone who thinks the NP's are off limits to them is living in a dream world. If monuments can be destroyed outside the parks, why not spray paint your favorite political statement on half dome and chisel away at Mount Rushmore too. It's beyond sickening.

Why not, WP? I hope you aren't asking seriously. The simple answer is that all of those things are not equivalent.

I'm a bit torn on this.  I live near Berkeley, California, and the Le Contes were highly influential at the new University of California having arrived from the south.  There's a Le Conte Avenue in Berkeley and even a Le Conte elementary school.  I took classes in LeConte Hall, which was named after both brothers, including one who was one of the first physics professors on campus.

However, I get what the issue is.  Their defense of slavery is extremely difficult to stomach.  Part of the reason for their move to California was to get away from Reconstruction.

Huzzah for this story.  This attempt to erase history, and to judge important people in fields like preservation, education, or space exploration by only part of their history, is another example of the hobgoblin of little minds.  In this case, the little minds of the modern Sierra Club, now about as far removed from the vision of its founders as Trump is from Washington.  I'd suggest that any SC members here might consider either resigning with strong letters of protest, suing the group, or leading a fight to stop such nonsense. 

One interesting observation about all these attacks on memorials - they target white, and usually white Proetestant males.  Members of other demographies who have similarly abhorent histories don't seem to be targeted.  For example, Margaret Sanger, a darling of feminists for her work on birth control, was as much a eugenicist as the Nazis, and suggested immigration policies much like Trump's.  But I don't see anyone proposing on the front page that tearing down memorials to her is a sound idea. 

"Rather than rush to "cleanse" the park system (or any other place) of unsavory parts of history, wouldn't it be better to place them in context, as the Park Service intends to do?"

I agree with this statement for the NPS. But I feel that at the Court House or city square, that may not be the case. In my opinion, statues there, should be a monument to those we feel the need to Honor. When the time comes that these symbols represent the evil of slavery, instead of a hero of our nation, It might be time to change them. This does not change or cleanse history, it just changes who we decide to honor. I do not feel like we are at a point where we need to make a law like Germany did with Hitler,or to not allow any reverance at all for honoring traitors of USA in the Civil War but we should feel like we want to change symbols to those that all can be proud of.

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