December 7 is my birthday and, though I came into the world more than three decades after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the first thing most Americans say when they hear this fact is, “A day that will live in infamy.” My history nerdy-ness may be attributed in part to this association, as well as the fact I was a ‘national park kid’ soaking up events and people past around the country.
Most people think of national parks as Yosemite and Yellowstone but the 100-year-old National Park Service is also the steward of many key historical sites, including the USS Arizona Memorial in Pearl Harbor, where 1,177 soldiers and Marines lost their lives in 1941. The Statue of Liberty/Ellis Island, Independence Hall/Liberty Bell and Gettysburg are also all national park units. There are internment camps, Native American massacre sites, and a 17th-century African burial ground, as well. These are the places where decisions were made, ends arrived, dues were paid, and new beginnings were forged. The NPS is the keeper of these national memories, the interpreter of our infamies and victories.
The first female justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, Sandra Day O’Connor wrote, “There is no better route to civic understanding than visiting our national parks. They’re who we are and where we’ve been.” This present moment is a good one in which to claim what the NPS has to offer. Go stand in Independence Hall where the Declaration of Independence was actually signed and learn (all over again) about what kind of country the Founders envisioned. You’ll be reminded that Thomas Jefferson called for a “wall of separation between Church and State” and James Madison for “a free exercise of religion.” These were sacred principles (so to speak).
Roam the prairie at Sand Creek National Historic Site in Colorado; the edge of the desert at Manzanar National Historic Site in California; or the rolling hills of Antietam National Battlefield in Maryland and consider events that should not be repeated. Visit the haunts of Frederick Douglass, Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Harriet Tubman, Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Chávez (all have national park units dedicated to them) and be inspired to speak out and push forward toward equality for all people. If we keep revisiting these moments and concepts, if we keep them top of mind, we may eventually learn from them.
Photo courtesy NPS, USS Arizona Memorial.