Exploring Untold Stories: OAH-NPS Projects Spotlight African American History

February 28, 2024

To celebrate Black History Month, the OAH will highlight a number of our collaborative projects done in partnership with the National Park Service. Each week in February, OAH.org will feature an innovative project that furthers our collective understanding of African American history while complicating mainstream narratives. These projects illuminate African Americans’ voices, actions, and experiences in and around some of the most well-known historic sites in the US. These reports vary in region and eras, from a study of experiences in the urban North with Meridian Hill Park in Washington D.C., to the lives of African Americans in the Lowcountry and rural South. All of the OAH-NPS reports are free to read and download. Follow the OAH on social media so you don’t miss any of these important resources.

Black Lives and Whitened Stories (posted February 28, 2024)

To finish out Black History Month, we are featuring the award-winning Historic Resource Study, “Black Lives and Whitened Stories: From the Lowcountry to the Mountains.” Authors, David E. Whisnant, Ph.D., and Anne Mitchell Whisnant, Ph.D., were the Group winners of the 2022 NCPH Excellence in Consulting Award for their work on this project. The National Council on Public History noted that, “Not only do they uncover long-suppressed narratives about enslaved and freed African Americans, but their study also revises the commonly accepted narratives regarding the white owners of Rock Hill/Connemara before it was purchased by the Sandburgs.” The award description continued, “they take their analysis a step further, identifying the conscious choices made by community members and the National Park Service over the years to prioritize certain narratives over others, thus silencing African American history at Rock Hill/Connemara and in the community of Flat Rock.” With this, the NCPH ultimately concluded that, “Projects like this show that attaining relevance, an important aim for NPS, must take into account the constraints that previous versions of history have handed down” which is a theme we have already observed with the Meridian Hill Park Resource Study that kicked off this BHM series. 

“Black Lives and Whitened Stories,” published in November 2020, examines the history of Black life at Rock Hill/Connemara Carl Sandburg Home National Historic Site. This study is dedicated to uncovering the missing narrative of African-American experiences at the Sandburg home, which included the construction of certain buildings and their potential uses by enslaved people. This project also aims to bring attention to the African Americans who continued to work in these spaces under the Smyth family, stories that have not received proper recognition. It begins chronologically in the post-1830s, placing its focus on Black life in itself, as well as how relationships with white property owners subsequently affected Black experiences. The project continues throughout the Civil War and Reconstruction, and past the death of property owner Ellison Adger Smyth in 1942 to cover anything that may still seem relevant to the Historic Site. 

The study follows a unique structure that the authors describe as one main narrative supported by two “meta-narratives.” The main narrative, identified in chapters 1-7, and 10-11, essentially includes the project’s scope to uncover the histories of Black life and explore African Americans’ relationships to white property owners. The first meta-narrative, found in chapter one, is dedicated to identifying the ways NPS had historically omitted African American history from its construction of the park’s history. The second meta-narrative, analyzed in chapters 8,9, and 12, focuses on how in the twentieth century western North Carolina attempted to rebrand the area as, “Little Charleston of the Mountains”  and in doing so created a mythologized haze around the park’s history. This second meta-narrative is then dedicated to wading through this haze to present an accurate depiction of the park’s history, as well as continues to center Black stories while also exposing the roots of white supremacy of the property’s first owners. Lastly, some other themes investigated throughout this project include, slavery in western North Carolina, North Carolina’s “inner civil war,” Reconstruction, Black life after emancipation, Researching Black family histories, and Southern industrialization. 

They Have Erected a Neat Little Church (posted February 22, 2024)

Building on last week’s inquiry into post-Civil War African American Schools, our featured study this week shifts geographically to the National Capital Area. Written by Edith B. Wallace, and published in October 2021, “They Have Erected a Neat Little Church” examines the experiences of rural African Americans who lived in what is now the NPS  National Capital Area, which encompasses the states of Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. The OAH and NPS developed this project to complement historiography that often focuses on urban African American histories. This project illuminates rural stories and demonstrates how such a focus can further our understanding of Black experiences and Black life during this period of American history. 

The introduction begins by providing readers with a background of African American life during the Civil War through emancipation, with special consideration to the role Washington D.C. played in border regions. Chapters one and two move into the Reconstruction and Post-Reconstruction years, focusing on the political and social turbulence that occurred in the former states of Virginia, Maryland, and West Virginia, with attention paid to the differences in experience for residents of the former Confederate state Chapter three covers similar themes from the Schools study as it places its attention on specific places of community building, such as the construction of schools, churches, and lodges. The last two chapters then provide case studies of specific African-American communities in Maryland and Virginia. These case studies particularly explore Black networks that inhabited areas associated with three current NPS national parks: Battlefield Park (VA), Prince William Forest Park (VA), and Antietam National Battlefield (MD). The Study closes with a succinct discussion of the twentieth century with recommendations for future research. 

Overall, this study uplifts the ordinary actions of rural Black Americans, furthering our knowledge of African-American culture and history during the period following emancipation. 

Black Schools in the South (posted February 15, 2024)

Following our discussion of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, this week the OAH is exploring a Historic Resource Study that focuses on the evolution of African-American Schools in the American South during the period of post-emancipation. Published in August 2022, and written by Dr. Hilary Green and Dr. Keith S. Hébert, this resource study situates itself in a historiography that is concerned with placing agency back onto Black educators and community members. Following the Reconstruction era, the Dunning school of thought held prominence in how Reconstruction was viewed, and how its history was told. As a result, Black education was framed as one of the many downfalls of Reconstruction, and its history continued to be misrepresented. One example of this is Henry Swint’s The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862–1870 (1941) which framed Black education as being a product of white, northern, religious fanatics. This structure not only distorts the history of Black schooling, but it also centers on white northerners in its narrative. In this case study, Green and Hébert work to recorrect these myths and misconceptions by building upon post-Revisionist school literature. They follow the works of James Anderson, and Heather Williams to devise a history of Black education that recenters Black participants as active leaders who constructed the foundations for southern state-funded public schools. This project ultimately seeks to complicate the prevailing narratives of this period by placing its attention on the various backgrounds of its participants, analyzing both the successes and failures of this period, and contemplating the lasting effects of the Jim Crow era of African American education (xii). 

This resource study is organized into two parts. The first section investigates the emergence of Black post-emancipation schools in the South. For administrative purposes, the “South” is categorized as any state where slavery was legal prior to the Civil War, with the exceptions of Texas, Missouri, and Arkansas as these three particular states fall outside of the NPS regions that orchestrated this project. The chapters then track Black schooling from the period of the Civil War (chapter 1) through the debut of Jim Crow in public schools (chapter 6). In doing so, this project assesses the Freedman schools that immediately followed the war’s end (chapter 2), the creation of state-funded public schools (chapter 3), the fight for school board representation (chapter 4), and the challenges that accompanied these new schools (chapter 5). The second section of this project then includes ten case studies of historical sites that display the implications of section one’s historical analysis. For some of these sites, the schools themselves no longer exist in their original form, having been destroyed. Yet, in some of these cases there exist new buildings constructed during the mid-century which are referred to as “equalization schools.” The existence of these equalization schools helps to connect the period of post-emancipation to what we consider the “long civil rights movement” and exhibits how Black education has continuously been a primary objective in acquiring Black freedom. 

Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad: Black Resistance and the Fight for Freedom (posted February 8, 2024)

In continuing our celebration of Black History Month, this week, the OAH is focusing on two projects carried out in collaboration with the National Park Service. While much of our focus thus far has been on the Civil Rights Movement in the National Capital Area, this week we would like to travel further back in history to concentrate on the earliest forms of Black resistance and the fight for freedom. 

Beginning with the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument Historic Resource Study, this project was written by Kate Clifford Larson, Ph.D., and published in December 2019. With the park located in Dorchester County on the Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake in Maryland, Larson breaks down her analysis of the larger area and Tubman’s life into three parts. Part one’s periodization is characterized as “pre-Tubman’s birth,” including the area’s indigenous history, the first European occupation and settlements, and the ascent of American chattel slavery. These first chapters establish the genealogy of Tubman’s family while providing readers with a sense of how rapidly American culture was changing as a result of the Revolution, and the expansion of slavery. Larson argues these dynamics influenced Tubman’s family and thus established the foundations of Tubman’s experiences.

Part two of this study then is characterized by Tubman’s birth, her enslavement in Dorchester County, her attempts and successful escape to freedom, and her active years operating the Underground Railroad. This part gives insight into the separation of Tubman’s family, her near-fatal head injury and the chronic physical pain it caused her, and her growing spirituality all of which prompted her involvement in the Underground Railroad.

The last section of this historic resource study then focuses on the period of the civil war, and “Post-Tubman history” to the present day. It details how Maryland, although part of the Union, retained its status as a slave state until 1864, and presents the experiences of black soldiers in a state where a large portion of the white population sympathized with the confederacy. This last section also grapples with how many Black communities left Maryland for more urban centers in the Northeast after the war, just as Tubman herself did. Larson explores how this movement affected the recollection of memory and legacy in this part of the Chesapeake Region. Ultimately, Larson finishes with a chronicle of Tubman’s later life in Auburn, New York, and her continued activism for causes such as women’s rights, Civil Rights, and healthcare advocacy, and how these coincided with her participation in the Underground Railroad to provide her with a legacy dedicated to securing and providing freedom. 

For those more interested in the development of the Underground Railroad itself, readers can explore “We Took to Ourselves Liberty” as a complementary reading to the previous historic study. Published in January 2022, and produced by Judith Wellman, Principal Investigator, with Jan DeAmicis, Mary Hayes Gordon, Jessica Harney, Deirdre Sinnott, and Milton Sernett, this text provides a local study of the emergence of the Underground Railroad in Oneida County, New York and its neighboring areas. With its focus on local histories, this project aims to amplify the experiences and voices of “real people” in the area. These people may not have garnered a national legacy such as Tubman or other freedom seekers, but their contributions were no less essential.

Meridian Hill Park: African American Experiences Since the Civil War (posted February 1, 2024)

Recently, in honor of the late Dr. King, the OAH highlighted the history of civil rights activism in the national capital area. As we progress into February and Black History Month, the OAH would like to continue with this theme and focus on the national capital region. So for this first week of February, we would like to bring our members’ attention to a special resource study, “Meridian Hill Park: African American Experiences Since the Civil War” done in partnership with the National Park Service. It should be noted that this resource study was commissioned by NPS to rectify the gap in their institutional records, such as the “Meridian Hill Park Cultural Landscape Report,” which excluded the impact of African Americans on the park’s history. Unfortunately, this is a symptom of a larger issue within the field of twentieth-century preservation — the tendency to undervalue the role of African Americans. Yet, it is with the hope that by acknowledging these historical absences while promoting and funding new work, organizations such as the NPS can redress these missteps and push for more accurate and encompassing histories. 

Written by Elise Elder in September 2019, this specific resource study is a project dedicated to examining the lives of African Americans and their influence on the park’s history.  Known by many in the community as “Malcolm X Park,” Elders’ study brings new attention to the park’s function as a place of community and resistance. She documents how the park has long been a center for protest and reveals how it earned its double name as “Malcolm X Park” from Black freedom organizations such as the Black United Front (BUF) which held their headquarters in the park.

Yet, this project does not focus solely on the period of the civil rights movement. Rather, Elder presents a complete history of the park, beginning with its construction and concluding with a depiction of its current state. She commences with an account of white city planners who condemned the homes of African Americans in the early 1900s to make space for the park, while simultaneously using Black labor to construct it. She then outlines the park’s usage throughout the post-war era and the civil rights movement, followed by an account of how crime and poverty of the late 1960s impacted the park’s use and legacy. Finally, she traces the resurgence of the park, and how it has been coupled with the gentrification of the park’s surrounding areas. Elder provides readers with a fascinating record of the park’s ever-changing roles and uses while also detailing how African American life has remained a constant in the park’s history and heritage. 

Exploring the History of Civil Rights in the National Capital Area (posted January 15, 2024)

Monday, January 15, 2024 marks the 38th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day as a national holiday. It was in 1983, over a decade after the activist and Civil Rights leader’s assassination, that President Ronald Reagan signed the bill recognizing the day as a national holiday. Three years later, in 1986, the Nation observed the first Martin Luther King Jr. day.

As we honor of Dr. King’s legacy as the leader of the modern civil rights movement, OAH is highlighting one of the civil rights-focused resources created in collaboration with the National Park Service. Published in September 2021, “Thematic Framework for the History of Civil Rights in the National Capital Area” provides an overview of the fight for civil rights that has been occurring in the greater Capital area since the Nation’s inception. As the authors explain, the District of Columbia hosts our country’s national government, being home to Supreme Court rulings and congressional decisions. Due to this, the city has been the central location in which human rights groups have protested, and headquartered themselves. It is also where Dr. King gave his famous “I Have a Dream” speech, and where his memorial stands today. 

In this text, Cheryl Janifer LaRoche, Ph.D. and Patsy Fletcher, with the contributions of Caroline Spencer and Lauren Hughes, work together to create an outline of pivotal civil rights events, significant figures, and key locations across Washington D.C., Maryland, Virginia, and West Virginia. Further, this project emphasizes the specific themes of, “Freedom as the First Right,” “Institution Building,” and “The Rights of Full Citizenship,” over the span of more than two hundred years, working from 1776 to 2015. In line with these themes, this resource deliberately showcases the efforts of African Americans in reshaping the Nation’s perception of civil rights. It recognizes that it was Black institutions, such as civil rights organizations and religious spaces, that brought these inequalities to the Nation’s doorsteps, and it was black people and families that have had to act as the “country’s moral compass” (8). This resource is clear in its position that for black Americans, the fight for civil rights is ongoing, stating, “From the Black Panther Party of the 1960s and 1970s to the Black Lives Matter movement of the 21st century, the claims for fair and equitable treatment and for the country to uphold the inalienable rights of African Americans and other oppressed groups have remained constant and consistent” (13). Given this perspective, it makes this a fitting resource to celebrate Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.s’ fight for civil rights while also acknowledging that his death did not mark the end of the Civil Rights Movement, but that the fight lives on in his successors.

For almost 30 years the Organization of American Historians has partnered with the National Park Service to bring leading scholarship to bear on the presentation of history at our national parks. To learn more about the OAH-NPS collaboration, visit www.oah.org/the-oah-nps-collaboration.