She’d spent a lifetime less than an hour’s drive away, but it had never crossed Joquetta Johnson’s mind to visit Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. What, she wondered when a friend suggested it, could a park in rural, lily-white West Virginia hold for a black teacher from Baltimore?
More than she could have imagined.
She found herself enthralled by the place where white abolitionist John Brown tried to start a slave uprising, the place where the Niagara Movement, forerunner of the NAACP, first met on U.S. soil. It is the home of Storer College, which began educating newly freed slaves in 1865, the 40-year-old library media specialist at Milford Mill Academy learned.
Yet Johnson, like many people of color, hadn’t gotten the message that the National Park Service admits it’s struggling to deliver.
“We do not reflect the changing face of America,” said David Barna, a park service spokesman in Washington. “The national parks are still a middle-class Caucasian visit, primarily.”
The agency has been working for years to change that, an effort that is taking on a sense of urgency with the browning of America.
From Florida to California, the Park Service has brought minority children from cities to places they’ve never seen, hoping they will return with their parents. To make its staff more reflective, it has begun recruiting high school students for summer jobs that can be the springboard to a career.
And it looks for ways to make historical exhibits like those at Gettysburg National Military Park more relevant, refocusing on the role of slavery in the Civil War rather than battle strategy.
Surveys have found Hispanics and blacks are far less likely to visit the parks and far more likely to describe them as uncomfortable places. It’s a problem of relevancy that, if left uncorrected, may lead to a day when taxpayers will decide they no longer value and are unwilling to fund preservation of the nation’s historical and natural treasures, Barna says.
While there are sites that reflect the stories of black and Native Americans, the Park Service has done what Barna calls “an appalling job” of celebrating Hispanic Americans. Nor does it offer much to Asian Americans.
There is Manzanar, a Japanese internment camp in California. There is Utah’s Golden Spike, a symbol of Chinese laborers, many of whom died building the nation’s railroads. Neither is much to celebrate.
Last fall, the Park Service dedicated New York’s African Burial Ground, a site in lower Manhattan where free blacks and slaves were buried more than two centuries ago. The project cost more than $50 million.
The Park Service is prohibited from buying advertising, forcing it to rely on word of mouth, media coverage, outreach through schools and advertising done by concessionaires within or near the parks.
Even with such marketing roadblocks, breaking down cultural and psychological barriers is a tougher challenge, said James Gramman, chief social scientist for the Park Service and part-time professor at Texas A&M.
[Brian] Loadholtz, chief of resource education, worked with leaders of a subsidized housing community to arrange permission and transportation for last year’s pilot project. Afterward, he offered vouchers so the kids could return with their families for free.
“Disappointingly,” he said, “none of them were claimed.”
At Santa Monica Mountain National Recreation Area in California, where some 200 languages are spoken within 50 miles, educational programs reach 12,000 children a year, some so popular they have a two-year waiting list, spokesman Charles Taylor says.
Santa Monica also targets teens, particularly Hispanics, for summer jobs that show there are environmental science careers beyond farming.