February 27, 2017

The fun part of my new role as Chief Historian for the National Park Service (NPS) is having the ability to dive into the histories of individual parks to see how we, as an agency and a nation, got to where we are today. I knew very little about NPS before I was encouraged by one of my professors to participate in NPS’s cultural resources diversity internship program. At the time I was studying history at Howard University with plans to go to law school, but fell in love with the idea of saving, protecting and caring for the places where the history from my textbooks actually happened. That was 19 years ago and I’ve been with NPS ever since.

When most people think of a national park, it is common to picture an expansive, beautiful landscape such as Yellowstone or Grand Canyon. But the National Park System comprises 417 special places, most of which are classified as National Historic Sites, National Battlefields, National Memorials or one of several other designations. NPS also manages the country’s National Register of Historic Places and other programs such as National Historic Landmarks. The common denominator is that all of these places are nationally significant, whether they are preserved for their recreational, ecological, or cultural values or a combination thereof. Recognition by NPS doesn’t require a scenic vista; more than two thirds of places preserved in the National Park System exist to preserve aspects of American history or the practice of being an American citizen.

The newly established Freedom Riders National Monument helps to tell that larger story of how we, as American citizens, see ourselves. It asks, what does it mean to be an American citizen? Who are we as a country? 

On January 12, 2017, Freedom Riders National Monument was established by Presidential Proclamation to honor the nonviolent protests and acts of civil disobedience that powered the civil rights movement, making activists out of ordinary people wanting to challenge an unequal society. This monument recognizes the events of Sunday, May 14, 1961, when a bus carrying Freedom Riders—an integrated group of passengers peacefully challenging unconstitutional segregation laws in the South—was attacked and set on fire outside Anniston, Alabama, prompting new laws and policies that effectively ended segregated interstate bus travel.

2 27 freedom bus US archivesThe site of the bus burning six miles outside Anniston in Calhoun County, Alabama will be protected as part of the Freedom Riders National Monument. Photo courtesy U.S. Archives.

The process through which a national monument is designated is quite a journey, and this one began with a group of local citizens in Anniston, Alabama working to preserve and remember the events that happened in their region. NPS is committed to telling all American stories, and I was part of a team of very dedicated people who studied the significance of the site and the feasibility of creating a monument that would tell this important story.

During site visits to Anniston, I met with supporters, including Hank Thomas, a surviving member of the original Freedom Riders. It was a privilege to meet with Mr. Thomas (a fellow Howard University alum) and hear his first-hand account of history. He spoke about sitting on the roadside inhaling the smoke after the bus was firebombed, when a little girl brought him water. He revealed his fears of not surviving his youth because he was fighting for something he believed in. It was humbling to meet him and listen to his story, and it is one that we hope to share with future visitors to Freedom Riders National Monument.

2 27 Mural near Greyhound Station Anniston AL 2016 NPS PhotoThis mural depicts the events of May 14, 1961 when the bus carrying African American and white Freedom Riders was attacked. The segregationist mob threw rocks, broke windows, and slashed the tires of the bus. Following police intervention, the bus was able to depart for Birmingham with the mob in pursuit. The Freedom Riders NM includes the site of the former Greyhound bus station building in downtown Anniston, Alabama, located adjacent to this mural. Photo by NPS.

In addition to the local community, NPS worked with the City of Anniston, Calhoun County, the Freedom Riders Park Committee, and The Conservation Fund during the process to make Freedom Riders National Monument a reality. Partnerships are our lifeblood at NPS and we cannot do our work without local partners and national organizations that really look out for the protection of these properties.

The Freedom Riders changed history and I believe there are important lessons to take away from their story:  First, a small group has the power to affect social, political, and economic change. The Freedom Riders started with 13 individuals dedicated to changing what they felt were injustices in our country, grew to more than 400 participants, and ultimately helped bring about change that affected millions.

The second is the power of media. The iconic photographs—of the bus going up in flames, of people sitting on the ground choking on smoke, of the mob and police—were shown around the country and around the world. The media played a role in prompting federal action and making the events known to so many people.

2 27 Joseph Postiglione. Firebombed bus outside Anniston Alabama. 1961The slashed tires of the Greyhound bus gave out and the driver was forced to pull over. The segregationist mob continued its attack, and someone eventually threw a bundle of flaming rags into the bus that exploded seconds later. Photo by Joseph “Little Joe” Postiglione. 

Finally, reconciliation and remembrance are powerful, and can ensure that places like this are preserved so that future generations can stand in the site and learn about what happened there.

Human and civil rights are at the core of United States history, and have been debated, contested and fought over throughout our nation’s history. It is NPS’s mission—and that of our partners—to preserve and protect these places that provide understanding of the past and hopefully inspire a better future.