On the “Front Lines” of History at America’s National Parks

a park ranger mounts the majestic steps leading up to a neoclassical monument A park ranger at Lincoln Birthplace National Historical Park in Illinois. Photo: Don Sniegowski/Flickr/CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

The NPS-Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellowship is helping sites across the US increase their interpretive capacities to tell fuller histories.

In 2021, more than 70 statues memorializing the Confederacy were removed or renamed in the United States. It was not the first time—likely not the last, either—public pressure brought down or otherwise changed monuments to historical figures who advocated for enslavement.

Of course, slavery and racism are not the only blots on America’s history. Monuments and statuary, though inanimate and stationary, invite pressing questions. They serve as prompts to talk about difficult historical legacies and how those legacies converge and affect life today.

Engaging with those questions is critical to the pursuit of justice and equity for everyone. So say the trio of postdoctoral fellows who mediated such conversations at select National Park Service (NPS) sites from 2018 to 2021.

NPS has about 20,000 employees and more than 200,000 volunteers. These people are in charge of 423 parks covering more than 85 million acres—from Cape Cod to Guam—including national parks, monuments, battlefields, historic sites, recreation areas, seashores, and the White House.

Eleanor Mahoney, Mia Carey, and Emma Silverman were among the pilot cohort in the NPS Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellowship launched in 2018. There will soon be 30 fellows nationwide; Mellon announced earlier this summer a commitment of more than $13 million to the National Park Foundation (NPF) to support new post-docs in this vital work.

Fellows will serve for two years each, supporting and designing NPS projects to mark the upcoming US semiquincentennial, as well as pursuing other research relevant to their post-fellowship career goals. Information on how to apply is forthcoming in November.

The pioneering projects each fellow undertook as part of the pilot set a high bar for future participants, as shared here. 

“There’s the significance of the specific place—that’s what the Park Service does so well.” 

Eleanor Mahoney on the History of the Labor Movement 

“Labor history is a challenging topic in the US to talk about,” says Eleanor Mahoney, who earned her PhD in that field in 2018 from the University of Washington. Mahoney took up the Mellon fellowship thereafter with multiple goals in mind: to help NPS staffs fill out the stories they wanted to tell visitors about labor history at their sites and to demystify more generally conversations around labor, laborers, and capital. 

“Social class is not really talked about in US history. Especially class conflict,” says Mahoney, noting that even while people avoid acknowledging them, they are inherent in labor struggles. Indeed, class conflicts have been part of US history since the country’s founding, and no two monuments better illustrate this point than those Mahoney worked with: César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California and Pullman National Monument in Chicago.  

The former, named an NPS site in 2012, honors a leader of the farm workers’ movement, which helped achieve better working and living conditions for these laborers in the 1960s and 70s. Pullman became part of the NPS system in 2015 and celebrates one of the country’s first planned industrial communities and the train workers who moved into it, along with their 1894 strike.  

As relatively new additions to the Park Service system, these two sites have modest-sized staffs. Mahoney noted that, “the number of rangers in the park service has been going down. My role as a historian was to support whatever work they were doing, whereever they needed a historian.” 

a person with their head turned to the side; in the background, trees and hills peer out from the distanceLabor movement leader César Chávez at his home in California, which is now a national monument. Photo: NPS

At Pullman in Chicago, for example, that meant Mahoney lent her expertise “to look at the materials, and to talk through the ideas of the exhibit with the staff,” she said. “The site commemorates a period of mass industrialization and people didn’t know what was going to happen. It was also a period of mass immigration. There was xenophobia, and this was also the period of Reconstruction, a period of change and great upheaval.”  

“When visitors come, you want them to think about all of that,” she says. 

That kind of contextualization is precisely what the fellows contribute.  

“There’s the significance of the specific place—that’s what the Park Service does so well,” Mahoney says, “and we’re able to put it into that national scope. We can say, ‘This is what happened [at Pullman] in 1894, but this is why it was important for shaping US history for decades.’ That’s a benefit of the fellowship. And we do it at our sites and throughout the country.”  

The Fellowships create opportunities for discussion as well as generating materials that hone in on the significance of historical events. For the Chávez site, Mahoney wrote a grant to support the collection of oral histories from Chicano farm workers, whose experiences span from the 1960s through today, and put together information on the NPS site about a 1966 farm worker march to Sacramento. More generally, Mahoney teamed up with NPS Fellow Emma Silverman to organize and lead conferences, educational and training workshops, and webinars on the topic of labor history for NPS staffers around the country, ensuring that their work had broad reach.  

They homed in on specific sites and cases, such as the fatal explosion in Port Chicago, California in 1944, to examine how the Park Service interprets that disaster and how it presents the interwoven threads of labor, war, and race that the monument invokes. 

Above all, this fellowship forges connections not just between humanities scholars and Park Service staff, but also among Park Service staff who may have not previously had an opportunity to interact. As a result, Mahoney adds, they are better able to exchange ideas about the humanities and history, as well as how they execute their work daily.

“I know what gaps there were and what areas I could use my skills to improve it.” 

Mia Carey Critically Engages with Race, Gender, and a “Forgotten” President 

Archaeologist Mia Carey was not new to the National Park Service when she joined the Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellowship pilot in 2018. Her connection to NPS started a few years earlier while Carey was working on her doctorate from the University of Florida. 

First, Carey interned at the NPS, and then she took a position as the acting civil war to civil rights national coordinator. In this capacity, she created a range of educational resources and opportunities. These included “Let’s Talk About It,” a distance learning program for the NPS about understanding African American history; articles about iconic figures in African American history; and R.I.T.E.S. of Service, a whitepaper examining how the NPS can diversify the stories it shares, as well as its interpretations, so that the breadth of Americans’ experiences are more fully represented. 

Those positions familiarized her with the NPS and, more importantly, with its blind spots.  

“I had worked for the Park Service for two years at that point,” she says. “I know what gaps there were and what areas I could use my skills to improve it.” 

One glaring gap related to the experience of being a Black woman in America. Carey addressed it in one webinar of a three-part distance learning series she designed for the NPS, which was based on her “Let’s Talk About It” curriculum.

thumbnail_image002_crop.jpgNPS-Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellow Mia Carey work explored the history and meaning of Black womanhood at historic sites. Photo: NPS

It was a resonant topic; 250 employees attended this webinar, which featured a conversation among employees who discussed the kinds of unconscious bias—or more explicit prejudice—they encounter and how colleagues can better equip themselves to respond to these dynamics. 

“These web series were completely new for the Park Service,” Carey says. “You could learn, and you could also engage in different conversations.” 

In addition, Carey wrote biographies of Shirley Graham Dubois, Unita Blackwell, Diane Nash, Recy Taylor, and other NPS employees as part of a series called “Exploring the Meaning of Black Womanhood: Hidden Figures in NPS Places.”  

Like all the fellows, Carey was also available to help individual Park Service staffs and superintendents. In her first year, for example, the staff at the Martin Van Buren National Historic Site in Kinderhook, NY, asked her to compile a bibliography to help site staff better understand and more comprehensively present the legacy of the pre-Civil War president whose relationship to enslavement was, as the NPS site puts it, “incredibly complicated.”  

Carey did so, delivering it together with a collection of anti-racism resources, which Carey further supported through conversations with staff at the site. Collectively, they took time to tour Park grounds, with Carey pointing out opportune places to discuss Van Buren’s legacy vis-à-vis enslavement. 

“Monuments are not eternal, static objects. They change over time.” 

Emma Silverman on Identity, Ownership, and “The Lives of Monuments”

Sensitivities around the significance of monuments in the United States grew much more urgent and acute after the murder of George Floyd in 2020. It was then that Emma Silverman, a recently graduated art history PhD from UC Berkeley, applied for a one-year post-doc as part of the pilot NPS Mellon Foundation Humanities Fellowship.  

“How can the NPS tell different stories about the monuments they are the caretakers for?” That was the query driving both Silverman and the NPS. Specifically, Silverman says she is compelled by the racial politics of cultural heritage and, “thinking about the aesthetic qualities of monuments and the way meaning shifts over time as different publics take them up and claim them. And further, thinking about those moments of ownership as embedded in systems of power that have a lot to do with the politics of identity and nationality.” 

Silverman picked five NPS sites as case studies to explore these questions in an event series, The Lives of Monuments: Memories, Revolutions and Our National Parks. The sites included: Bunker Hill in Boston, the Patriots of African Descent Monument and Von Steuben Statue in Valley Forge, Yorktown Battlefield in Virginia, and the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier in Philadelphia. At each location, Silverman convened and moderated public events with a relevant expert aimed at a general audience.  

“The individual monuments were jumping-off points for conversations about them, and about how we think about the Revolution and the legacy of it,” she says.

bronze and granite monument with pastoral landscape in the backgroundThe Patriots of African Descent Monument in Pennsylvania. Photo: NPS

In the case of the von Steuben statue, for example, that meant an investigation of desire and the interpretation of LGBTQ+ history. “We have evidence that Steuben would be considered by today’s term ‘gay,’ and he's been claimed by queer communities online,” she says. “But how do we reckon with the fact that the definition of queer has changed over time? How do we honor desire for representation, and does it outweigh what actual identifications existed in Steuben’s time?” 

The conversation about the Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier was sparked by graffiti reading “committed genocide” that was sprayed in 2020. Given the anonymity of the entombed, it’s more likely the graffiti was in reference to a nearby statue of George Washington and “his policies toward Native Americans,” Silverman says.  

“That sets us thinking about how to think about graffiti when it has a message about racial justice. The Park Service has to remove it, but should they document it? How do we grapple with the racist legacy of these historical legacies generally?” 

Perhaps the most well-known of the five commemorative sites—Bunker Hill— demonstrated to Silverman that “monuments are not eternal, static objects. They change over time.” 

At Bunker Hill, Silverman was in conversation with a long-time park ranger who discussed how the site had been adopted by different groups. The Proud Boys have aligned themselves with it. The Jewish community has held Hanukkah celebrations there. Pro-Irish graffiti has been found on the site. And the artist Krzysztof Wodiczko once projected a series of interviews with bereaved mothers from the Charlestown neighborhood of Boston on its façade. Now, there is a focus on opening up the Bunker Hill narrative to include the stories of Indigenous Americans. 

“People really came to these events to make connections about what's happening in their own parks,” she says, noting that audiences for “The Lives of Monuments” series included local history buffs, academics, curators, and NPS staff invested in public history. 

Reflecting on her various projects, Silverman said she was inspired by the potential of public humanities and their connection to the NPS. “There are so many interesting conversations to be had beyond the classroom or academic conferences,” she says. “The NPS has over 3,500 monuments and memorials in its care. It’s the largest museum institution in the country. They’re on the front lines of taking these conversations about culture and identity and bringing them to the public.”