Who Will Tell Your Story? Probably Not Donald Trump.

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tags: national monuments, Trump



Tim Murphy is a senior reporter at Mother Jones. Reach him at tmurphy@motherjones.com.

Teddy Roosevelt’s ranch is a national park. His face is a national monument. His Long Island estate is a national historic site—as are the Gramercy Park brownstone where he was born and the Buffalo mansion where he took the oath of office. In Washington, DC, the National Park Service maintains a channel island in the Potomac with a 17-foot statue of the soft-spoken, big-stick-wielding bull moose himself, not far from where the 26th president used to swim with his aides. (“In the buff,” as they say.) The park service, like lots of other custodians of American history, has always had a bias toward great men and heroic arcs, and that is reflected in the places it has chosen to protect and preserve.

But, little-noticed at the time, President Barack Obama’s National Park Service embraced another side of our history. While no one would think the agency had been taken over by Howard Zinn, the record 34 new national monuments it created during Obama’s presidency leaned heavily on social movements and the injustices they fought against—an expansion that reflected the inclinations of the community organizer turned statesman. “I don’t think he thinks like a presidential historian,” a historian who had dined with Obama told the New York Times. “I think he thinks like a social historian.”

The new national sites included Hawaii’s largest internment camp, the birthplace of the gay rights movement in Greenwich Village, the Alabama bus depot where the first group of Freedom Riders was beset upon by the Klan, the site of one of America’s largest labor uprisings, and the headquarters of the National Woman’s Party. (See below.) In January, as one of his final acts in office, Obama set aside the first national park site dedicated exclusively to Reconstruction—an affirmative step toward reclaiming an era of black political power that has been deliberately distortedin the historical memory. This collection of buildings near Beaufort, South Carolina, was a fitting conclusion to an eight-year exercise in soft power.

The Park Service’s earlier attempts to embrace America’s historical underdogs were often met with resistance. When construction workers in Lower Manhattan discovered thousands of slave remains on the site of a proposed federal building in 1991, Washington’s first instinct was to simply move them—it took more than a decade of protests and political maneuvering to set aside African Burial Ground National Monument. The decision to protect Manzanar, the former Japanese internment camp near Death Valley, drew a furious backlash in the early 1990s—one WWII veteran reported driving 200 miles just to piss on the grounds—but Manzanar persists as a monument to tyranny and dissent. The first attempt to designate a Reconstruction monument was shot down in 2003 after an outcry from the Sons of Confederate Veterans. It took years of lobbying and advocacy to tell these stories through government-funded channels, but it also took presidents willing to accept the fact that history, told right, is messy—and seldom pretty.

A federal agency with the power to shape historical narratives cannot be apolitical; the only question is which stories it chooses to tell. So which ones won’t be told in the next four years—and, just as critically, which will? President Donald Trump is already dropping hints. His first official National Park Service site visit took him to Nashville, where he placed a wreath at Andrew Jackson’s grave—making Trump the first president to visit the Hermitage in 30 years. So much for the social historian in chief. ...




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