In the last year of the Obama administration, expect to see a large number of new national park sites named, largely national monuments since the president can do this unilaterally (other forms of National Park System status have to be approved by Congress). This has become a standard way for Democratic presidents to seal their legacy back to the Carter administration. Unfortunately, it doesn’t come with proper funding to the NPS, which is horrendously underfunded, leading to the need to start selling corporate naming rights. That’s what an anti-government Congress and an $11 billion maintenance backlog will do, not to mention the increased need to spend money trying to erase graffiti left by idiots showing off.
Anyway, protecting public spaces is a great thing and one thing that makes the United States different than most if not all other nations is that telling historical stories about our nation is part of the national park mission. Moreover, those stories have moved on from protecting Civil War battlefields to telling very difficult stories through these government sponsored sites, such as the Sand Creek Massacre. Other stories are the inspirational stories of social movements that sometimes are still controversial today. A couple of weeks ago, Obama created the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument, which is the building in Washington that was the offices of Alice Paul and the National Women’s Party. That’s cool, even though Paul and the NWP was horrible on basically every single issue after 1920, including working with corporations to oppose labor legislation both intended specifically to help women and labor legislation intended to protect all workers. Obviously, the park will focus on the fight for women’s suffrage, which is fine. Maybe someday those other stories can be told.
Obama is also about to create a national park site out of Stonewall, the New York bar where resistance to police violence started up the modern gay rights movement.
On the same day that the Justice Department and the state of North Carolina filed dueling lawsuits over whether transgender Americans have the right to access the restroom facilities of their choice, administration officials took a step toward designating the first national monument commemorating the gay-rights movement.
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell and National Park Service director Jonathan Jarvis joined New York officials Monday night in Greenwich Village to get public feedback on whether to make Stonewall Inn, the site of a 1969 public uprising after a police raid on a bar frequented by gay men, into a national park. Roughly 250 people attended, according to participants, all of whom endorsed the idea.
‘‘Do I hear unanimous support?’’ Jarvis asked at the end of the meeting, according to several attendees. The crowd called out in response, ‘‘Yes!’’
To Franklin Graham, the evangelical leader, such a monument seems to be courting spiritual disaster for the nation. In a Facebook post on Friday morning, Graham wrote to his 3.6 million followers: “That’s unbelievable. War heroes deserve a monument, our nation’s founding fathers deserve a monument, people who have helped to make America strong deserve a monument — but a monument to sin? … I can’t believe how far our country has digressed. I hope that the president will reconsider. Flaunting sin is a dangerous move.”
Obama has already designated or expanded 23 national monuments — more than any previous president. Most significant, perhaps, is how many of those sites have recognized the history of women, blacks, Latinos and Asian-Americans.
“They’ve done an outstanding job in terms of diversifying the park system in their relatively short time in office,” said Kristen Brengel, vice president of government affairs at the National Parks Conservation Association. “It’s been great to watch.”
Obama designated the César Chávez National Monument in October 2012 at the California site where the civil rights activist lived and led the United Farm Workers union. He named the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland in March 2013.
In February 2015, the president designated both the Pullman National Monument in Chicago, an important site in African-American and labor history, and Hawaii’s Honouliuli National Monument, which recognizes a World War II-era camp where people of Japanese ancestry were incarcerated.
And just last month, he designated the Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument in Washington D.C., calling it “a monument to a fight not just for women’s equality but, ultimately, for equality for everybody.”
There are more excellent sites that I would argue for as well. To the linked list, I’d add the site of the Triangle Fire. Really, any perusal of the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s Most Endangered Places list for each year suggests interesting possibilities. I particularly hope Obama chooses to create a site or two that tells the Asian-American experience outside of just the Japanese internment camps.