I have nothing but the utmost respect for the men and women of the National Park Service, who help to preserve and interpret our nation’s historic sites. They include some of the most passionate and talented historians. For those focused on Civil War related sites their jobs come with increased attention and scrutiny by the media as well as various interest groups who have a stake in maintaining or protecting a specific narrative of the war.
I first read about Michael Allen in the news back in December during the heated debates surrounding the decision to organize a “secession ball” or gala as well as the decision on the part of the NAACP to protest the event. Allen, who is African American, has taken on various roles while with the NPS. He has been instrumental in expanding interpretation at key sites, including Fort Sumter, to include the story of African Americans and other themes associated with emancipation and race. He is clearly committed to an inclusive and honest interpretation, which demands that visitors reflect on the tough questions in our history. On the one hand I am not surprised that Allen would take steps to bring representatives of the NAACP and Sons of Confederate Veterans following the bitter words that were exchanged in the wake of Charleston’s lively secession commemoration. On one level I even applaud the decision, though from the article it is not entirely clear what came of it.
What I am interested in, however, is whether this is an appropriate role for the NPS. How exactly does something like this fit into their overall responsibility to interpret and preserve our historic landscapes and structures? Is there a precedent for such a meeting? Again, I understand the motivation behind the decision. Neither party makes much of an effort to communicate with one another or attempt to understand their respective perspectives.
More to the point, it’s not clear to me which constituencies these two organizations represent when it comes to how we engage or consume Civil War sites. Perhaps that is entirely irrelevant. Does the SCV represent a view of the war and its commemoration that is held by a substantial segment of the population? How about the NAACP? I honestly don’t know. My guess is that Allen believes so, but I wonder whether this is a result of the media’s continued flirtation with those deeply embedded memes of white v. black, North v. South, and SCV v. NAACP.