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Places Reflecting America's Diverse Cultures
Explore their Stories in the National Park System
On January 25, 1900, a new child breathed life in Little Italy, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Anthony DiLieto’s parents had entered America past the gaze of the Statue of Liberty and through the portals of Ellis Island five years earlier. Of Neapolitan Italian stock, they had come to the United States seeking a new life, like most immigrants. Three years later, on Christmas Day 1903, Catherine Borup entered the world. Her father Andrew, hailed from Denmark; her mother Mary Star grew up in County Mayo, Ireland. They, too, had settled down in New York City. Borup was Presbyterian and Star a Roman Catholic—a highly unlikely marriage given the times, but nevertheless, a model that would serve Catherine and her future spouse Anthony DiLieto well in the 1920s, once she met and pursued the unusually blonde Italian fellow, who was a trolley car driver.
I knew DiLieto and Borup well—they were my maternal grandparents. Growing up in a large extended family, I listened to my grandparents regale me with tales of what it was like living and courting one another during the early 20th century. What was so unusual was that in spite of their varying European ancestry they were able to cross over lines that were taboo. Traditionally the Irish and the Italians did not get along, and conflict often was evident in places like the Bowery or New York’s Washington Square. Yet DiLieto and Borup cast aside the prevailing conventions of the time, marrying and raising three children. When discussing American immigration in my classroom I invariably turn to the memory of my grandparents, simply telling my high school students I am a “smorgasbord.”
The lives of my grandparents and their immigrant forbearers fit the quintessentially cherished American narrative we call the melting pot, that amalgamation of various European stocks that merged together to create a particular image of the United States. Clearly, my grandparents had to navigate through conflicts of an ethnic nature, but it was easier for them than for some. What about other Americans who did not have it as easy as my grandparents and their conflicted stories and places in American history where the narrative of the melting pot ran smack into a wall? This too is part of the American tale. The most recent generation of historians has laid out stories that counter the myth of the melting pot; slavery, for instance, does not fit comfortably in the Euro-American narrative, nor does much of what American Indians and other people of color, who help define who we are as a nation, experienced.
The National Park Service can help us understand the matrix of the human experience in the United States. Through a variety of well-interpreted historic and cultural sites in all regions of the United States, visitors catch a glimpse and contextual recognition of the power of conflict and subsequent reconciliation. These historic places tell the stories of social, economic, political, and military conflicts.
Other sites help flesh out the particular and tragic narrative of cultural conflict, a story that really began with the settlement of the New World, in English North America at Jamestowne, Virginia. Commemorated at the Jamestowne unit of Colonial National Historical Park is the struggle between the first group of Englishmen to successfully colonize North America and their interaction with the powerful tribes of the region led by Chief Powhatan. Here visitors will learn much more about this story than a fanciful tale of star struck lovers, the Indian maiden Pocahontas and John Rolfe, the member of the Jamestowne colony she married.
In the words of historian Richard Norton Smith, the United States is “always in the process of becoming.” The American story is a narrative of a people and society continually evolving. That process involves conflict, particularly where culture and boundaries, both real and perceived, are at stake. Our national historic sites, monuments, parks, and battlefields are an extension of our democratic experiment. They are places that glorify and romanticize our past and illustrate where we have fallen short of the mark. Nowhere is this more pronounced than in the sites that recall the African American experience. One historic place loaded with such memory is Harpers Ferry National Historical Park. Located at the confluence of the Shenandoah and Potomac Rivers, the park spans three states—Virginia, West Virginia, and Maryland. I always launch field trips for the public history high school class that I teach in Applied History at Harpers Ferry. Visitors who internalize their Harpers Ferry experience are forced to confront a number of issues that reach back to our past but also are relevant today. Harpers Ferry is associated with John Brown’s October 1859 failed raid on the federal armory by which Brown hoped to spark a slave rebellion, an event author Herman Melville argued was “the meteor of the Civil War.” The bucolic setting can stir unsettling emotions, especially when the question raised is, “When does freedom fighting become terrorism?” Brown, an unabashed abolitionist, who, with his white abolitionist brethren, was “enlightened” when it came to race relations, is himself a symbol. He still is perceived in a variety of ways in different regions of the country. To some he is a hero and saint, to others a cold-blooded murderer. Ironically, the first man killed by the raiders was the Harpers Ferry railroad station baggage master Heyward Shepherd, a free black. In the 1930s, the United Daughters of the Confederacy and the Sons of Confederate Veterans erected a memorial in Harpers Ferry to the “loyal” Shepherd. That monument, like the town where it resides, remains at best contested, with the National Park Service deftly interpreting the inscribed stone slab as a vestige of a particular time and place in American history.
The story of self-emancipation, so often ignored in schoolbooks, is crucial in understanding the collective tale of African American oppression and struggle. Nowhere is this better understood than at sites dedicated to the story of emancipation and Civil War. Frederick Douglass National Historic Site honors the greatest abolitionist of the 19th century, a man who endured slavery, worked for and saw it ended, and then fought against injustices to African Americans after the end of Reconstruction. Douglass’ reach can be felt in places like Boston African American National Historic Site when visitors stand before one of America’s greatest public sculptures, Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ 1897 Memorial to Robert Gould Shaw and the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. As Shaw and his black troops march off to their inevitable destiny in the relief sculpture, the bodies of the 16 African American figures that are part of the ensemble move forward in a singular motion. Viewers can read on their faces determination and fortitude, a solidarity that binds them together as they seek to liberate people of their own race and color. They embody Douglass’ words, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on the earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” Douglass helped recruit the regiment across the North, and his two sons Lewis and Charles served with honor.
In 1900, the first African American to receive a Congressional Medal of Honor was Sergeant William Carney, who during the regiment’s gallant assault on Fort Wagner safely returned to Union lines with the national colors. Black troops also paid the price for self-emancipation in front of the Confederate trenches in and around Petersburg, Virginia. Petersburg National Battlefield honors their memory, particularly in the story of the battle of the Crater, a military fiasco on July 30, 1864. In this battle, Union forces dug a tunnel underneath the Confederate earthworks and created a mine packed with tons of gunpowder to blow a hole in the Confederate defenses. A specially trained African American division, consisting of nine regiments of the United States Colored Troops, was prepared and drilled to exploit the breach. At the last minute, because of the potential political ramifications that could occur should the attack fail, Union commanders replaced them with an untrained white division. Of the 15,000 Union soldiers who went into the battle, the black troops charged into the Crater last. Fighting heroically in what has been described as a “horrid pit,” they were eventually overwhelmed in the Confederate counterattack. Of the more than 180,000 African American soldiers and sailors who served the Union cause, 30,000 paid the ultimate price. Abraham Lincoln gave credit where credit was due in claiming that the presence of black soldiers in the Union army made the difference in the balance of the war.
Other sites in the National Park System that honor the continued African American commitment to the nation’s military include Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas and Fort Scott National Historic Site in Kansas. Both forts were garrisoned by the Buffalo Soldiers, the nickname given to black troops who served on the frontier after the Civil War. Near San Francisco is the site of a little known event during World War II that became a unit of the park system in 2009, Port Chicago Naval Magazine Memorial. On July 17, 1944, a huge explosion ripped through this naval munitions-loading facility killing 320 men, mostly African American naval personnel assigned to the hazardous duty of loading munitions on warships bound for the Pacific front. The tale incorporates all the seminal elements of America’s racial history—segregation, discrimination, and white ambiguity.
The man who came to recognize the power of the visual impact was Martin Luther King, Jr. whose life and times are enshrined at Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Park in the Sweet Auburn neighborhood of Atlanta, Georgia. Stepping into the King boyhood home one sees immediately that this champion of social justice was not raised in poverty, but rather in a level of affluence only seen in limited pockets of the black community of the South. Ebenezer Baptist Church, where King preached some of his most important sermons and where he was buried in 1968, is a shrine in and of itself. King championed nonviolent direct action or resistance. Three major television networks of the time covered the gentle warriors of the Civil Rights movement, many of them children. Images of peaceful protestors being hosed down or attacked by police dogs seen around the globe galvanized people of all races, creeds, and colors to make the American dream a reality for those long denied.
Americans of all backgrounds and of every generation endured the conflicts that are part and parcel of the American experience. A decade ago in my book, Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History, I wrote, “Conflict has many shades, subtleties, and nuances…Americans need to wrestle with issues about conflict in relation to the quest for the American dream. Our nation was born out of conflict, but yet conflict did not go away when the nation was launched. In some cases, conflict actually escalated as different people and groups sought to direct the new nation.” Herein lies the great trap and paradox of being an American--we strive for perfection, making that goal our national totem, but being fallible creatures can never truly achieve it. What is really important are the journey and the struggle inherent in living in a democratic republic. Sites administered by the National Park Service can help us see our way forward and understand everyone a little bit better along the way. I encourage you to continue the journey, in all of its dimensions.
James A. Percoco has taught United States and Applied History at West Springfield High School in Fairfax County, Virginia since 1980. As an advocate of history education Percoco is a speaker of national recognition and the author of three books, A Passion for the Past: Creative Teaching of U.S. History, Divided We Stand: Teaching About Conflict in U.S. History and Summers with Lincoln: Looking for the Man in the Monuments. He is History Educator-in-Residence at American University and has been a consultant to the National Park Service.