Last updated: June 18, 2021
By Porsha Dossie, African American Civil Rights Network Program Historian
When most people think about emancipation, it likely conjures images of President Abraham Lincoln’s somber face and figure enshrined permanently in marble and seated in the solemn chamber of the Lincoln Memorial, forever our Great Emancipator. As we celebrate Juneteenth, it is equally important to recognize the role that the enslaved had in their own emancipation.
The National Park Service has the honor of protecting sacred places and histories for the American people, many of which explore enslavement, emancipation, and the fight for equality that are integral to the American experience. Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park on Maryland’s Eastern Shore preserves the very landscape Tubman traversed as she guided others to freedom. The National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, a commemorative program managed by the NPS, preserves and promotes the history of resistance to enslavement through escape and flight. In collaboration with local, state, and federal entities, the Network to Freedom helps to advance the idea that all human beings have an inherent right to self-determination and freedom from oppression.
Some of the most consequential events of U.S. history took place where Fort Monroe National Monument stands today in coastal Virginia. In late August 1619, “20. and odd” enslaved Africans were brought to what was then called Point Comfort, the first enslaved people to arrive in the British-occupied North America, the afterlives of which we still contend with today. But Fort Monroe is not just a site of great tragedy, it also reminds us of the strength and determination of those whose sacrifices made emancipation not just possible but a reality.
With the outbreak of the Civil War in 1861, enslaved African Americans across the newly minted Confederacy saw the war as an opportunity to emancipate themselves. Harriet Tubman and figures such as William Harvey Carney and other members of the famed 54th regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops spent time at the fort and were integral to shaping Union policy on the ground. The enslaved, many of whose names have been left out of the historical record, were no less significant. Countless numbers of these “contrabands” voted for emancipation through their own self-emancipation, crossing into Union lines to demand their freedom and protection at sites like Fort Monroe.
Today the nation’s memorial to President Lincoln is part of the NPS African American Civil Rights Network, an important acknowledgement of the iconic role of the memorial in 20th century civil rights history. Dedicated in 1922, the Lincoln Memorial is the most visited site on the National Mall and has served as the location for some of the most significant demonstrations for racial justice. In 1939, famed African American opera singer Marian Anderson sang to an audience of 75,000 after being barred from singing at nearby Constitution Hall because of her race. Almost 25 years later, the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom concluded at the Lincoln Memorial where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech to nearly 250,000 attendees. The memorial was chosen as the march’s concluding site because of its symbolism and connection to Lincoln’s legacy.
With 423 parks across the system, national parks preserve the spaces and places that allow people to reflect on our nation’s most significant and iconic events. Further, the NPS partners with state, Tribal, and local governments, and nonprofit organizations to document and preserve important segments of the nation’s history through the National Register of Historic Places and the National Historic Landmarks program. Partnership programs like National Heritage Areas provide additional opportunities for NPS to preserve tangible and intangible heritage and cultural traditions. Oftentimes marginalized communities have seen the sites and structures associated with their histories forgotten, but through programs like the Network to Freedom and the African American Civil Rights Network we can preserve, protect, and connect the public and private spaces that remain, ensuring that this history is not forgotten.
As we celebrate Juneteenth, it should be with the knowledge that the enslaved were just as integral to their own emancipation as the presidential proclamation. While we continue to have difficult conversations around race and reconciliation as a nation, the NPS is committed to protecting tangible and intangible resources that demonstrate how diverse and complex our nation’s history really is, ensuring that they’re preserved for the betterment of future generations.
This article was written by Porsha Ra’Chelle Dossie, an NPS historian specializing in African American studies, urban history, and the postwar era South. She is a staff historian at NPS headquarters in Washington, DC, where she serves as the African American Civil Rights Network Program Historian and assists in the coordination of federal activities to commemorate the civil rights movement in the US.