The US House is considering a bill that would put lynching sites in West Tennessee on track to become part of the National Park Service, part of a trend this year of Congress using the agency to make advance discussions of the country’s troubled and often violent racial history.
A invoice of U.S. Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat from Tennessee, would demand that the National Park Service study the feasibility of adding sites in and around Memphis where white mobs carried out lynchings for decades, right after the Civil War until in the Jim Crow era.
Supporters of the bill say it’s important to understand an ugly past in which black people were terrorized and murdered.
“Until we remind people of our past, we won’t overcome it and we won’t have a better society,” Cohen said during a subcommittee hearing on the bill in July. “We must recognize the mistakes of our past.”
Preserving pieces of history has taken on added importance amid a heated national debate over how the national history of centuries of black slavery and oppression should be taught, said Tiffany Patterson, president of the African-American and Diaspora Studies program at Vanderbilt University. interview.
“There is a backlash coming from the political arena and spilling over to parents, teachers and politicians etc. who are terrified of this being really discussed,” she said. “So I think acknowledging places and making it a kind of museum for educational purposes for the general public is what’s needed.”
Rich Watkins, chairman of the board of the Lynching Sites Project of Memphis, a nonprofit organization seeking to commemorate about two dozen lynching sites in the area, said part of his group’s goal is to establish a set of shared facts that could then lead to meaningful reflection.
“We are, unfortunately, in a time where people disagree on the facts,” Watkins said in an interview.
Thousands of lynchings recorded in the United States from 1882 to 1968
The history of lynching — racist extrajudicial executions — is often not taught in schools, Watkins said. While most of the lynching victims were black, mobs also attacked non-black people who might have helped black people, according to the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, a civil rights organization in long time.
Nearly 5,000 people were lynched in the United States from 1882 to 1968, according to records maintained by the NAACP. The Memphis Project lists 24 sites where 36 people were killed.
A site commemorates the 1917 lynching of Ell Persons, a black man beaten for confessing to killing a white girl. A mob dragged Persons from his jail cell, “then burned, beheaded and dismembered him in front of a crowd estimated at 3,000 who gathered on Macon Road near the Wolf River in Memphis,” according to a press release. from Cohen’s office.
Federal recognition through a National Park Service designation would add legitimacy to the effort to address the history of lynching in the United States, which is addressed at some memorials and sites in the United States, but not directly into the park system.
“It tells a visitor that this is something this country recognizes and that we accept these facts,” Watkins said. “And it left a mark on our society big and small too.”
“For the government to deal with it is one of the ways we will eventually change attitudes,” Patterson said.
Is National Park Service recognition merely symbolic?
The National Park Service recognition may seem purely symbolic, but that doesn’t make it unimportant, said Robert Bland, an assistant professor of history and African studies at the University of Tennessee who specializes in the study of the breed. and memory in the United States.
“I think there’s kind of an instinct to say, ‘It’s just symbolic and what about real political action? “”, Did he declare.
But especially as elements of the political right have mobilized to stifle the story that makes some uncomfortable, symbolic efforts are always important, he said.
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“History has always had propaganda and myth-making purposes,” he said. “Our history has often been used to defend, in many cases, white supremacy.”
Other Bills Passed by the U.S. Congress
There is no committee markup — the next step toward enactment — of the planned Cohen bill. And Watkins admitted it could be a “multi-year” effort.
But Congress passed bills with similar missions earlier this year, voting to add a former Japanese internment camp in southeastern Colorado as part of of the national park system and to expand sites related to Brown v. Board of Education Kansas Supreme Court case that ended segregation in law schools.
At the same July hearing where the House of Natural Resources National Parks, Forests, and Public Lands subcommittee considered the lynching site bill, members also heard about the bills. aimed at honoring Mexican-American farmworker organizer Cesar Chavez with sites in Arizona and California and John P. Parker, an Ohio Conductor on the Underground Railroad who helped slaves escape from the Kentucky.
Natural Resources Chairman Raúl Grijalva, a Democrat from Arizona, applauded the panel for reviewing these bills and their focus on history, especially on underrepresented groups.
“There has been a real effort on the part of this committee – and they should be applauded for it – for beginning to tell the full story of the American experience and American history through our parks, our lands and our public goods,” said Grijalva. at the July subcommittee hearing on the Lynching Sites and Others Bill. “This is a good thing.”
Kym A. Hall, director of the National Park Service’s Capital Region, said the agency is looking to better reflect the country’s diversity.
“The goals of this current administration, and certainly of the National Park Service and the Secretary of the Interior, are to tell larger stories across the United States, things that may not have been presented in the our country’s history in a more meaningful way so that a variety of people can connect to those stories,” Hall said during the hearing.
“We’ve spent the last 10, 20, 30 years of our century-old organization recognizing that there are many more stories to tell,” she added.
Watkins, the head of the Memphis project, said NPS involvement was an important part of national reconciliation.
“With National Park Service sites, it elevates the stature of those sites,” Watkins said. “This site is recognized as federally and nationally significant, and not just in this neighborhood or this city. It means that as a nation we are beginning to accept these wrongs.