So, two weeks ago I was interviewed by a reporter for the Wall Street Journal doing a story on National Park Service visitation at Civil War battlefield sites. As you may know, I was a long-time seasonal ranger for the NPS, and my “former” status means I can talk freely with the press—something that current rangers can’t readily do.
Anyway, the premise of the article, as presented to me, was that in light of declining numbers, what should/could the NPS do to generate more interest in the parks?
During the phone interview, I gave the reporter a little bit of background, explaining that park visitation has spikes and subsequent declines, usually associated with cultural and pop-cultural events—the centennial celebrations in the early 60s, the popularity of Ken Burn’s Civil War series in the 80s, and the release of movies like 1989’s Glory and 1993’s Gettysburg, for examples.
Unfortunately, those spikes came at a time when the park service was still a bit stuck in the rut of “who shot who, and where” interpretation. Further, I theorized that because most of the Civil War parks are in the South, a lot of that surge was from southern whites.
Sadly, for varied and complex reasons, African Americans have been rare visitors to the park battlefield sites, I told the reporter, not the least of which is because of the legacy of Jim Crow, as public parks in the South have not exactly been seen as welcoming to blacks. That problem persists—-if your parents didn’t take you to the parks, you’re not very likely to take your own kids.
African Americans have also been largely excluded from the narratives told at these sites as well. When they did show up, they faced monuments making the defenders of slavery look like superheroes.
So, I theorized, the “base” (though far from all) of the visitation surges has been white southerners looking to the parks for narratives about where their ancestors fought and where they did sacrificial and glorious deeds.
However, since about the mid 90s, I told the reporter, the NPS has made efforts to broaden the narratives at the parks, telling more inclusive stories and focusing on more than just old school military history. Social, cultural, and political history has slowly but surely begun to be reflected in NPS interpretation, telling richer and more diverse stories that shed light on the war’s causes, contingencies, and enduring legacies. We’re just now reaching a flowering of this at NPS sites, but there’s still a long way to go, especially at those sites down here in the deep south.
The downside, however, is that these changes have been off-putting to many in that “base” of white southerners, who don’t want to come to the parks and be exposed to what they see as the national government’s (the winners) version of the story.
It is uncomfortable and upsetting to them to be told and/or reminded that great, great, grandpa fought for a government founded for the direct purpose of preserving slavery, or that the post-war activities of their ancestors tended to celebrate and rewrite the Confederacy’s struggle and purpose, as a means of recreating and perpetuating slavery and racial barriers in other forms.
“No!” They insist, “States Rights! Heritage, not hate!”
That, I told the reporter, probably helps to explain (to at least some degree) why the numbers are currently down at NPS sites after the surge in the 80s and early 90s. These people are more comfortable visiting privately or locally owned Antebellum homes and sites that tell the story they want to hear—or just staying away from history sites altogether. The current debate over Confederate symbols has only exacerbated this dynamic.
I’ve seen proof of this in two ways recently. While visiting a locally funded battlefield site in North Carolina, I encountered a visitor’s center staffed by a man spewing the Lost Cause, chapter and verse, and criticizing those parks funded by state and federal money “because they want to make everything about slavery.” Secondly, just yesterday I saw a Facebook post in response to the Wall Street Journal article in which the writer declared he’d stopped going to parks “because the liberal academics have re-written the story.” Others shared similar sentiments, but with more vitriol.
So then, what is the solution? Should the parks abandon their new emphasis on telling more honest and inclusive history in order to get this base back to the parks? Heaven forbid!
Instead, I speculated to the reporter, the focus needs to be on broadening the base of people that come to the Civil War battlefield parks. Youth programs need more support and emphasis. The use of technology to enhance the visitor experience must continue to expand (new and high tech museums and apps, etc). Park interpreters must hone their skills and energetically look at different techniques for presenting more engaging tours. Social media must continue to be utilized (and perhaps traditional advertising) to demonstrate the expanding focus of the parks’ interpretations.
And, I told the reporter, we need NEW monuments and memorials on the battlefields and elsewhere, that celebrate and honor the efforts of the extremely diverse cast of characters that shaped the war and its consequences.
Further, I speculated that we might be on the verge of another surge in visitation caused by pop-culture, as Spielberg and Dicaprio have a movie in the works about U.S. Grant, and other projects are coming (long overdue) that focus on Harriet Tubman and Robert Smalls. That so many history-related movies have done so well lately, is an indication to me that people are still fascinated and hungry to know more about the past.
I concluded the interview with a very optimistic tone about the future of the parks, pointing out that I was at that moment sitting at an Antebellum site here in Tuscaloosa (not NPS) where there was an older white gentleman roaming around, but also several kids and two African American women, all of which were reading the interpretive signs.
Almost none of that made it into the article. I asked the reporter who else he’d interviewed, and he indicated he’d spoken with Peter Carmichael, Director of the Civil War Institute at Gettysburg College. Knowing Pete well (we worked together long ago as seasonal rangers), I said “Oh! I bet he gave you some good stuff.” To which the reporter responded, “well, yeah sort of. He is also optimistic like you about the new technology.”
Pete’s interview didn’t even make it into the article.
I’m not sure why the reporter was focused on such a pessimistic assessment, but as a result the piece has gotten a lot of attention and spawned others with cynical tones, like this one, or this one from the right-wing The Federalist, both of which tie the problem to a decline in the teaching of history in public schools (an assertion that is debatable itself.)
There has also been some pushback from NPS folks. John Hennessy, National Park Service historian, for example, has done a great job on his Facebook page of challenging the very premise that the park’s numbers are down. (And personally, I think if the number of reenactments and reenactors are on the decline, that’s a good thing. But my thoughts on that are a whole other discussion). The awesome folks at Civil War Trails also assure us that “the known and recent stats are encouraging.”
I think we would be better served by articles from such high profile platforms like the Wall Street Journal focusing on the great strides the Park Service has taken and continues to take in broadening the stories they tell. A recent trip I took out to City Point, Virginia (Grant’s Headquarters during the last phase of the war), for example, focused on the plantation there, its forms of slave resistance, and the very complex master/slave relationship there. Further, a recent trip out to South Carolina’s Fort Moutrie NPS site led to an encounter with this amazing interpretive sign:
Man, I love this interpretation, especially that it concludes on an positive note (the sign is not NPS, but it is on NPS land). The NPS visitor’s center there also included displays on the Middle Passage.
So instead of throwing dirt on the grave of NPS Civil War Battlefield sites and pondering their demise, let’s focus on the transitional phase they are in now and support and champion the fantastic historians and curators they employ that are getting the story right, (especially because they often receive blowback from visitors that resent it).
Let’s also highly resolve to dedicate ourselves to helping the NPS spread the word about their mission in a way that broadens the demographics of their visitation, getting those numbers surging again. Shall we?