Seven National Parks Interpreting Difficult American History

Manzanar Guard TowerManzanar Guard Tower. (Photo: Thomas Swan wikimedia CC)

When they hear “national park,” most people think of beautiful scenery like mountains, oceans, geysers, and wildlife. All are important features of national parks, but over half of the now 408 units of the National Park System exist primarily to interpret some aspect, era, person, or event in American history. Presidents, Founding Fathers, and military leaders are well-represented, but many parks deal with history that is often uncomfortable or controversial. Here are seven sites that force us to confront some of the ugliest episodes in our national history:

1) Jefferson National Expansion Memorial, St. Louis, Missouri

This site includes the famous Gateway Arch symbolizing St. Louis’s role as the “Gateway to the West.” Another feature, however, is the Old Courthouse, where several iterations of the Dred Scott case were heard before it went to the U.S. Supreme Court. Scott, an enslaved black man, sued for his freedom on the premise that his owner had taken him to several free territories over the years. In the infamous Supreme Court decision of 1857, Chief Justice Roger B. Taney declared African Americans “so far inferior, that they had no rights which the white man was bound to respect; and that the negro might justly and lawfully be reduced to slavery for his benefit.”

2) Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site, Topeka, Kansas

The 1954 Supreme Court decision in the case of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas declared once and for all that segregation in public education was unconstitutional. This site deals not only with that decision and the actions of the families and attorneys that originally filed suit, but also explores the long history of racism and racial segregation in the United States.

3) Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site, Little Rock, Arkansas

In 1957, Central High School in Little Rock became ground zero of the fight to integrate public schools as codified in the Brown v. Board decision. Nine African American students attempted to register and faced verbal and physical assaults from white classmates and adults as well as resistance from Arkansas Governor Orval Faubus. President Dwight D. Eisenhower deployed elements of the 101st Airborne Division to integrate the school forcibly and escort the so-called “Little Rock Nine” for their protection. Today, Central High is still a functioning high school but also a national historic site.

4) Trail of Tears National Historic Trail, various locations in nine states

President Andrew Jackson signed the Indian Removal Act in 1830, and this site commemorates the final tragic chapter in that sordid history. The federal government forcibly removed over 16,000 Cherokee Indian people from their homelands in Tennessee, Alabama, the Carolinas, and Georgia to make room for white settlement in those states. Thousands of those removed died on the journey west to Indian Territory (now Oklahoma), which was deemed appropriate for “savages” because of its climate and desolate landscape. Ironically, several decades later many descendants of those that survived the Trail of Tears were kicked out of Oklahoma so that land could be offered to whites in the various Oklahoma land rushes.

5) Sand Creek Massacre National Historic Site, Eads, Colorado

On November 29, 1864, nearly 700 U.S. volunteers commanded by Col. John M. Chivington attacked a village of unarmed Cheyenne and Arapaho Indians along Sand Creek in southeastern Colorado. Over the next eight hours, they killed approximately 200 Cheyenne and Arapaho people, most of whom were women, children, or elderly. Chivington was an abolitionist Methodist minister in civilian life. This site seeks to commemorate the incident but also explain the emotionally charged and controversial history that both preceded the massacre and followed it.

6) Manzanar National Historic Site, Independence, California

In 1942, shortly after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the U.S. government ordered over 110,000 Japanese American men, women, and children to leave their homes and be detained indefinitely in remote military-style prison camps. The Manzanar War Relocation Center was one such camp in which thousands of loyal Americans were forced to live and work during World War II. This history is also interpreted at Minidoka National Historic Site in Idaho and Washington.

7) Flight 93 National Memorial, Shanksville, Pennsylvania

This is the site of the September 11, 2001 crash of United Airlines Flight 93. Though it is not known exactly what target the plane’s hijackers intended to attack, it is assumed to have been either the White House or the U.S. Capitol Building. Passengers, many of whom were aware of the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks, fought back against the hijackers, and the plane crashed in western Pennsylvania. The crash killed everyone aboard. It is now commonly accepted that the actions of the passengers forced the hijackers to abandon their plans to strike Washington, D.C. and they purposely crashed the plane instead.

About the Author

Benjamin T. Arrington

Benjamin Todd Arrington is a career historian living in Ohio. He holds a Ph.D. in history from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and studies American political history with an emphasis on the Civil War era and the early Republican Party.

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