Oakland, California – On a cool spring day, Fredrika Newton – the widow of Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton – stands next to a bronze bust of her late husband. It is located in a wide, landscaped median in the western end of Oakland that the Panthers called home.
“The Black Panther Party is an American story, and it’s the job of the National Park Service to tell the American story,” Newton said.
Once upon a time, former FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover called the Panthers “the greatest threat to homeland security.”
Half a century later, as the outlook has softened, the statue of Huey Newton could eventually become part of a national historic park. Other possible stops include the former Panther party headquarters, locations of the group’s free medical clinics and free breakfast for kids program, and the spot where Newton was murdered. All of this may one day be patrolled by a ranger wearing a traditional NPS flat hat.
Exploring a Black Panther Historic Site is just one example of how the National Park Service is working to integrate more black history into its narratives about America. The Park Service has a growing network of National Historic Sites across the Deep South that recognize achievements and atrocities during the Civil Rights Movement. But the idea of a Black Panther Party National Historic Park is singularly controversial. In 2017, the Park Service had to scrap the idea after police groups complained to President Donald Trump that the nation was commemorating a violent separatist group.
“It’s one of the most misunderstood legacies of this party,” says Fredrika Newton. “It was not hate. It was not a nationalist organization. It was not a racist organization. Our mission was to fight oppression for all oppressed people.”
But with a Democrat in the White House, the project is once again under consideration.
“I’m encouraged,” she said. “There is a thirst to know what the Black Panther Party has been up to.”
There are currently approximately 40 sites in the park system called “African American Experience Sites”. These include Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Park in Kansas, Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site in Arkansas, Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument in Alabama, Selma National Historic Trail in Montgomery and Medgar and Myrlie Evers. Home National Monument in Jackson, Mississippi. This is the house where the NAACP secretary of state was assassinated in 1963.
It may come as a surprise that the National Park Service — which gave us “America’s Best Idea,” majestic landscapes from Yellowstone to the Grand Canyon — is bringing to light chapters of modern history that some Americans are ashamed of.
“Now is the time,” says Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association, a nonprofit that advocates for the national park system. “We can quote Charlie Parker, now is the time to really start to address these stories, looking at them in a candid way.
Courtesy of the Association for the Conservation of National Parks
“I think there’s a lot of pain there,” Spears adds, “and that’s the pain that comes from having a story that’s unresolved and a story that’s been deliberately overlooked and neglected.”
Even more African American experience sites are in the works.
In addition to a possible Black Panther park, NPS is investigating a location that remembers the 1964 murders of three civil rights activists – James Chaney, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner – in Mississippi, and a location that sheds light on the lynching of Emmett Till in 1955, a 14-year-old black boy accused of offending a white woman in Mississippi. New national parks are created either by act of Congress or by presidential proclamation.
Alan Spears, who is black, says if these new historic designations become a reality, they will create opportunities for visitors to have conversations about race.
“And sometimes that makes them controversial to some people, but critical to people like me,” he says, “who think we gain a lot more than we lose by taking a direct and candid look at our history and our past. .”
As Spears says, part of this story is unresolved.
One example: The National Park Service erected a sign beside the highway outside Anniston, Alabama, where in 1961 white segregationists set fire to a bus carrying the interracial Freedom Riders across the Deep South to protest bus segregation. station waiting rooms. Earlier this year a car slammed into the NPS sign and sprayed mud everywhere.
Yet there is more reconciliation than resentment these days.
Charles Person, now 78, was one of the first Freedom Riders, and he’s urging the Park Service to commemorate their ride. He recalls a trip he took to Anniston and how the city now promotes the Freedom Riders’ official national monument.
“When we got there, a gentleman showed up and he was the grandson of one of the Klansmen,” Person recalled. “And he apologized for the beatings they gave, for setting the bus on fire.”
During this trip, Person continues, “We were so amazed at the things the city was trying to do. I would live there now. I mean, that’s how much people’s attitudes have changed.”
The National Park Service’s Southern Regional Office in Atlanta is studying the designation of future civil rights sites in Mississippi, as well as the West Hunter Street Baptist Church of Atlanta, church of the Reverend Ralph Abernathy, the civil rights leader and close friend of King.
“When we talk about the history of America, its founding, its development and its reality today, many of these stories are noble, but they are sometimes shameful and sad,” the spokeswoman said. of NPS Atlanta, Saudia Muwwakkil. “But, collectively, they define who we are and who we can be.”
One of the first civil rights sites in the NPS network was the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park, established in 1980. It has become a major tourist attraction in Atlanta. Visitors can see his birthplace, his church, the sprawling visitor center and the World Peace Rose Garden.
But it’s not just a place to learn more about the life and times of MLK. For the people of Atlanta, King Park continues to connect them to the spirit of nonviolence and the fight for racial justice.
“When Mandela died, people came here,” says Marty Smith, interpretive ranger at King Historical Park. “When Congressman John Lewis died, people came here. George Floyd, people came here. It shows you how powerful this site is.”
The night Barack Obama was elected 44e president in 2008, Smith says he got out in the field and met hundreds of people who were drawn to historic King Park to celebrate. It is, he says, living history.