Protecting the heritage of all Americans

On March 25, we celebrated the first anniversary of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument in Maryland.  We are grateful for the president’s use of the Antiquities Act to protect the inspiring stories of African-American heroes like Charles Young, military leader and the first African-American to achieve the rank of colonel in the United States Army, and Harriet Tubman, who prior to and during the Civil War, led hundreds of African-American slaves to freedom in the North as perhaps the most famous "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, and in fact served as a spy for the Union during the Civil War. 

As we praise the president for taking these important steps, we also remind the White House and Congress that protection for more places that have meaning for the full spectrum of Americans is needed.

To date, a small fraction of America’s national landmarks -- 112 of America’s 460 national parks and monuments, according to a Center for American Progress analysis -- celebrate the achievements of African-Americans, women, American Indians, Latinos, Asian-Americans, LGBT Americans, and other historically-disenfranchised communities. Clearly, we must continue to enhance our system of parks and public lands to better reflect America’s increasing diversity, so that all walks of America may see their heritage in what has been called “America’s Best Idea.”

To that end, recently the NAACP and 10 other organizations representing African-Americans, Latinos, Japanese-Americans and women, sent a letter to the White House, urging more of the president’s personal engagement and leadership to ensure America’s diverse history and natural and cultural heritage is protected in our national parks, monuments and public lands.

Unfortunately, the places that honor the stories of all Americans will not likely be protected by Congress. For several years, Congress has had very few floor votes on bills to establish and expand national parks. Now the House is attempting to undermine the president’s ability to protect our nation’s rich heritage by moving legislation to prevent new parks (H.R. 1459) -- a direct assault on our public lands conservation heritage.  If passed, the bill would gut our nation’s most important conservation tool, the Antiquities Act. 

The conservation of the places that define us as a people and the diversification of America’s park system will only be accomplished through the president’s leadership, the support of Interior Secretary Jewell, Agriculture Secretary Vilsack and others within the Obama administration.

We implore the president to build on what he’s already accomplished, and to use his executive authority to protect more places that speak to the full range of America’s diverse cultural history.

As the distinguished African-American historian Carter G. Woodson said, “Those who have no record of what their forebears have accomplished lose the inspiration which comes from the teaching of biography and history.”  We cannot as a nation afford to have a significant part of our population become any more disconnected than has occurred already. 

To move forward, we must increasingly protect a diversity of cultural and historical places, so that people of all backgrounds and colors are inspired by the great minds and events that preceded them in American history.

Shelton is NAACP Washington Bureau director and senior vice president for Policy and Advocacy.

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