September 29, 2015

Finding a Place to Reconcile a Painful Past: Explore Three More Sites of Conscience

  • By: Jamesha Gibson
Robert Russa Moton High School

photo by: William T. Ziglar Jr., Wikimedia Commons

The Robert Russa Moton High School, today known as the Robert Russa Moton Museum, tells the story of segregation and a five-year public school shut-down that disrupted a community.

In the Fall 2015 issue of Preservation, we feature three historic “sites of conscience” which challenge stewards to craft reflective interpretations that foster dialogue and compel visitors to engage with the legacies of these “difficult sites.” One of these sites, Manzanar Relocation Center, was included in a theme study conducted by the National Park Service.

Theme studies identify potential National Historic Landmarks (NHLs) related to particular topics of American history and provide essential historical context that reinforces the sites’ national significance. Here, we highlight three historic sites from various theme studies that not only stand as testaments to painful pasts, but also are being employed by their stewards to promote open dialogue and a deeper understanding of the sites’ impact today.

Robert Russa Moton Museum

Racial Desegregation in Public Education in the United States Theme Study (2000)

Robert Russa Moton was a one-story, all African-American high school in Farmville, Virginia, built during the Segregation era. The school, which held over 450 students, lacked a gymnasium and a cafeteria and was in derelict condition -- unlike the two-story, all-white Farmville High School.

In 1951 Barbara Johns, a student at Moton, lead a school-wide strike to protest the unequal treatment. Though the students initially sought better conditions for Moton High School, a representative of the NAACP convinced their parents that the best way to overcome segregation was to legally eradicate it. Their case, which was consolidated as part of the Brown v. Board of Education suit, won in 1954.

However, as part of a “massive resistance” effort against the Supreme Court’s ruling, Prince Edward County Schools (the county in which Farmville is located) closed from 1959-1964. This action had a drastic effect on the residents of Prince Edward County as many students, both African-American and white, had to relocate outside of the county to continue their education. Others went without education for the five-year period.

Finally, in 1964 the Supreme Court ordered Prince Edward County officials to re-open their schools. However, the damage had already been done. A whole community had been disrupted, and some students never returned to school to finish their education because they’d fallen so far behind.

Decades after the traumatic event, Moton High School was converted into the Robert Russa Moton Museum and designated as a National Historic Landmark. The museum’s interpretation bolsters the site’s sense of place by using artifacts and tours to immerse the visitor in experiences of former African-American students. It also delves into the Prince Edward County school closings and cultivates conversations about how the community continues to heal today.

Minidoka Internment National Monument

Japanese Americans in World War II: A National Historic Landmarks Theme Study

Minidoka barracks

photo by: War Relocation Authority, Wikimedia Commons

Barracks at Minidoka Relocation Center

During the late 19th and early 20th centuries, thousands of Japanese immigrants and Japanese-American citizens settled in the United States. Despite discrimination and violence, they were able to create thriving communities and establish farms and businesses.

But everything was shattered after the attack on Pearl Harbor. Afterwards, Americans regarded the Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans with suspicion and fear. In February of 1942, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued Executive Order 9066, which directed the removal of over 100,000 Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans from their homes to internment camps located in the Western and Midwestern states.

Minidoka Relocation Center in Jerome County, Idaho, was one of those camps. Beginning in August of 1942, thousands of people of Japanese descent -- including many that possessed American citizenship -- were detained there. For the next three years, the detainees lived, worked, and tried to re-create a semblance of their communities and lifestyles within the barbed-wire perimeter.

Minidoka closed on October 28, 1945. Although Japanese immigrants and Japanese-Americans were released, the three-year ordeal had devastating effects. The internment had been a bitter experience, and some of their loved ones had died while interned at Minidoka.

Honor Roll at Minidoka

photo by: War Relocation Authority, Wikimedia Commons

In 1943 the U.S. Army created a segregated, Japanese-American combat unit known as the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Though they’d endured a year of internment, 1,000 Japanese-Americans from Minidoka enlisted in this unit alongside others from various camps. To honor them, Kenjiro Nomura and Kamekichi Tokita, two creative artists interned at Minidoka, designed an “Honor Roll,” pictured here.

After Minidoka closed, the Bureau of Reclamation offered parts of the 33,000 acre sites to veterans as homesteads. In 2001, the National Park Service established part of the former Minidoka Relocation Center site as the Minidoka Internment National Monument. The site includes remnants of buildings that were part of the camp as well as a 1.6 mile interpretive trail which comprises historic images, outdoor exhibit panels, and audio units.

In addition, the Friends of Minidoka, a nonprofit group dedicated to honoring and preserving the incarceration experience at Minidoka, holds an annual Minidoka Pilgrimage. This event provides an opportunity for former detainees to share memories and for attendees to ask questions and learn about the Minidoka experience.

Sand Creek National Historic Site

photo by: Carptrash, Wikimedia Commons

A Memorial at Sand Creek Massacre National Historic site honoring those who died during the Sand Creek Massacre.

Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site

The Clash of Cultures Trails Project

On the morning of November 29, 1864, U.S. volunteer soldiers under the command of Colonel John M. Chivington descended upon an encampment of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho Native Americans. Over the next eight hours, Chivington’s forces massacred nearly 200 Native Americans -- the majority of whom were women, children, and the elderly. That afternoon and into the following morning, Chivington’s men walked the encampment, mutilating the dead before they left.

Though the majority of Chivington’s Volunteer Soldiers engaged in this atrocity, a few refused. Two of the men, Captain Silas Soule and Lieutenant Joseph Cramer, wrote letters to their former commander describing firsthand accounts of the Sand Creek Massacre. These letters sparked an investigation by congressional committees and revealed to Americans the true nature of what occurred at Sand Creek.

Yet, for over 100 years the Sand Creek Massacre went unrecognized, and those who lost their lives were only remembered through oral histories passed down to descendants of survivors. In 1998, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Study Act was passed. This act instructed the National Park Service to determine the location of the Sand Creek Massacre.

After an intensive study, and identification of the area where the Massacre occurred, the Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site was established in 2007. Today, the site employs comprehensive interpretive approaches and ceremonial events (including an annual Spiritual Healing Run/Walk) which gives the visitor a critical understanding of the impact of the Sand Creek Massacre and its legacy.

These three sites of conscience, and a multitude of others included in NPS theme studies, recognize the entire American narrative. They also provide us with a profound, reflective experience where we can learn from the past how to better engage and respect one another in the present, while preparing a path of reconciliation and healing for the future.

Jamesha Gibson is an Editorial Intern at the National Trust. She is passionate about using historic preservation as an avenue for underrepresented communities to share their unique stories. Jamesha also enjoys learning about other cultures through reading, art, language, dancing, and especially cuisine.

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