As Barack Obama prepares to leave the White House later this week, the accomplishments of his administration and the extent of his legacy will continue to be part of the national conversation. While many parts of his record can and will be debated, one thing he and his administration can definitely take credit for is the preservation of numerous civil rights landmarks. From centerpieces of the Civil Rights movement to places that celebrate suffrage, labor protests, and the lesbian and gay push for recognition and respect, the country’s progressive social movements, and the sites that represent key moments of those struggles, gained National Landmark and National Monument status.
Presidents are given the power to create national monuments representing “objects of historic or scientific interest” by the American Antiquities Act of 1906. Many previous national monuments focused on beautiful scenery, important battle fields, and the homes and residences of famous political leaders. Obama, as well as the Department of the Interior, have widened the definition of which sites are instrumental in telling our country’s story, and have left a diverse collection of monuments and landmarks in their wake.
“I have sought to build a more inclusive National Park System and ensure that our national parks, monuments and public lands are fully reflective of our nation’s diverse history and culture,” Obama said in a statement issued last week. Here’s a look at some of the preservation highlights of his administration.
Belmont-Paul Women's Equality National Monument (Washington, D.C.)
Named after two key players in the early days of the organization—Alva Belmont, who was a major benefactor of the National Woman's Party, and Alice Paul, who founded the Party and was the chief strategist—the home of the National Woman’s Party, also known as the Sewall-Belmont House, is one of the oldest historic mansions in the capital, located on 144 Constitution Avenue NE, near the Supreme Court and Senate office building. According to a statement by the White House, the decision to make this home a National Monument is the culmination of decades of work to preserve the mansion beginning in the early ‘70s, including support from conservationists, elected officials, and community leaders.
Birmingham Civil Rights National Monument (Birmingham, Alabama)
This Alabama city’s pivotal role in the Civil Rights struggle will be showcased by this multifaceted collection of landmarks, from the A.G. Gaston Motel, a symbol of African-American entrepreneurship and a center of movement activity as well as the 16th Street Baptist Church, the tragic site of a KKK bombing in 1963 that outraged the nation. Newly designated last week, this four-block area will welcome visitors starting later this year.
Reconstruction Era National Monument (Beaufort, South Carolina)
Another of the President’s recent National Monument designations, this complex of buildings and museums represent the promises of Reconstruction, the period after the Civil War where freed slaves started realizing their rights and determining their own destiny. This region in the Sea Islands or "Lowcountry" of southeastern South Carolina, liberated by Union forces in late 1861, became the “rehearsal for Reconstruction,” a place where freed blacks began starting up their own businesses, attending school, and starting their own churches, such as the famous Brick Baptist Church.
Freedom Riders National Monument (Anniston, Alabama)
This site honors the bravery and courage of the Freedom Riders, a group of activists who protested segregated transportation in the South. The site in Anniston, Alabama, includes a former Greyhound bus station and the site where the riders were attacked; a mob firebombed the bus and held the door shut to trap everyone inside. A non-profit hopes to eventually build a park at the site.
Medgar and Myrlie Evers House (Jackson, Mississippi)
Medgers Evers was on the front lines of the Mississippi Civil Rights struggle from 1955 until he was assassinated at his home in 1963. His battles in what was called the “deepest bastion of segregation” made him national leader, and his assassination was a catalyst for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. After his death, his wife Myrlie took on a more prominent role in the NAACP.
Wyandotte National Burying Ground (Kansas City, Kansas)
The story of this site, cited in courts across the country, concerns the legal actions of Eliza Burton “Lyda” Conley, a pioneering female and Native American attorney who argued against the development and sale of Native American burial grounds. She took the case all the way to the Supreme Court in 1909, becoming the first Native American woman to argue in front of the highest court in the land. While she lost her case, a law was eventually passed to protect the cemetery.
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture (New York City, New York)
Designed by architect Charles Follen McKim of McKim, Mead & White were chosen as the architects, this Harlem library was a center of the Harlem Renaissance and became one of the world’s leading centers of research into people of African descent due to the work of scholar Arturo Alfonso Schomburg.
Chicano Park (San Diego, California)
Once known as part of Barrio Logan, due to its large number of Mexican residents, this 7.9-acre park in San Diego is home to the nation’s largest collection of outdoor murals. The site became a center of art and Latino culture when residents demanded the city stick by its promise to build a park in the area, and activists occupied the land in 1970 until an agreement was made to build a public green space. The overpasses and support pillars have since been decorated with colorful murals and artwork.
Pauli Murray Family Home (Durham, North Carolina)
An attorney, poet, activist, teacher and Episcopal priest, Pauli Murray was an early civil rights leader and trailblazer, coining the term “Jane Crow” to describe the impact of segregation on women. She even co-authored a judicial decision with future Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, in addition to writing a celebrated autobiography, Proud Shoes. Her 1950 volume on discriminatory laws, States' Laws on Race and Color, was called the “bible of the civil rights movement” by Thurgood Marshall. In 1966, she cofounded the National Organization for Women.
May 4, 1970, Kent State Shootings Site (Kent, Ohio)
During a May 4 protest at Kent State University, the Ohio National Guard opened fire on a group of students marching against the Vietnam War, killing four and wounding nine. The tragedy led to student strikes across the country and altered public opinion about the war. The landmarked site consists of 17.4 acres of campus where soldiers, protesters, and observers/sympathizers moved across campus that morning.
Harriet Tubman National Historic Park (Cambridge, Maryland)
Set to open on March 17 this new park celebrates the life of the Underground Railroad’s most successful conductor, who escaped from slavery in 1849 yet continued to risk her life leading dozens of slaves to freedom. The park, located within the Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland, tells the story of this pioneering activist, who would later be a leading figure in the women’s rights struggle.
Pullman National Monument (Chicago, Illinois)
Nicknamed "The World's Most Perfect Town" due to its orderly layout, green spaces and clockwork public services, this factory town, built by the railroad car tycoon, is a symbol of the rise of both the country's labor movement and black middle class. Industrialist George M. Pullman purchased 4,000 acres in 1879, with construction of the town beginning the following year utilizing bricks made from Lake Calumet Clay. It was one of the first examples of mass-scale, industrial construction, a process that created a village of 1,000 buildings in just three years. Architect Solon Spencer Beman was proud his row houses provided an above-average standard of living for workers.
Stonewall National Monument (New York City, New York)
The Stonewall riots began at this small bar on Christopher Street in New York CIty’s Greenwich Village on June 28, 1969, and are seen by many as the catalyst for the modern LGBT rights movement. An unplanned response to regular, city-sanctioned harassment by the police turned into a nearly week-long conflict that gained the national media spotlight and helped kickstart a new movement for equality.
César E. Chávez National Monument (Keene, California)
Known as Nuestra Señora Reina de la Paz, this estate was home to activist Cesar Chavez, considered the country’s most famous Latino activist, who popularized the “Yes We Can” chant (or "¡Si se puede!"). His work on behalf of farm and agricultural workers, via a myriad of protests boycotts and fasts in California and beyond helped increase wages, secure worker’s rights, and led to the formation of the country's first permanent agricultural union, United Farm Workers.
Fort Monroe National Monument (Fort Monroe, Virginia)
An island in the Chesapeake Bay, this military installation, named after President James Monroe, played a role throughout the history of the Commonwealth, and was one of the few parts of Virginia that remained in Union control throughout the Civil War. This “Freedom Fortress” became a refuge for slaves and freedom seekers throughout that conflict.
Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument (Wilberforce, Ohio)
Born into slavery, Charles Young was a pioneering African-American soldier in the 19th century, graduating from West Point, serving as the first black national park superintendent, and was the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. Army until he passed away in 1922. Young was a leader among the Buffalo Soldiers, the first regular all-black unit in the U.S. military, that fought the Indian Wars of the later 19th century.