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Deferred NPS repair backlog endangers Black history sites

27th February 2017   ·   0 Comments

By Christopher Tidmore
Contributing Writer

As Black History Month comes to a close, one of the key national park sites of African-American history here in Louisiana stands in danger of falling into terrible disrepair. And it’s just one of many landmarks of African-American history around the country whose very existence are threatened by neglect. Under-financing of the National Parks System (NPS) and looming proposed budget cuts, might even make things worse in the coming years, if substantial action is not taken by Congress soon.

For example, in Natchitoches, over $3.5 million is needed at the Cane River Creole National Historic Park. The site was the home of former slaves who came to own and operate their own plantations. Deteriorating physical conditions have left the landmark mostly closed to public visitation, however.

At the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta, there’s an estimated $10 million in deferred maintenance between Dr. King’s boyhood home and the other historic buildings. Floorboards had structural damage from years of neglect due to lack of funding and the site was closed to the public for six months, Some repairs have been made but tours are now limited to just the birth home’s first floor.

The Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site in Alabama may be in even worse shape. The hangars that housed the distinctive red-tailed fighter planes and their support teams — including mechanics, meteorologists, technicians, cooks, and female parachute riggers — need $900,000 in repairs.

Tributes to the soldiers of the civil rights and abolitionist movements like the Underground Railroad have pled for $2.6 million in repairs. The Boston African American National Historic site, home to Shaw Memorial Plaza which commemorates Col. Robert Shaw and the soldiers in the all-Black 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment who fell at Fort Wagner during the Civil War needs $1.4 million to stabilize its plaza and structures.

For decades, Congress has underfunded the National Park Service (NPS). The result is a near $12 billon deferred maintenance backlog – which includes infrastructure repairs and maintenance needs over a year old — across the more than 400 natural, historic, cultural, and recreational sites NPS is responsible for in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and several U.S. territories. And while most of that backlog is in places like Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Zion Canyon, the funding shortfall also significantly affects sites memorializing Black history.

Keith Plessy, President & Co-Founder of the Plessy & Ferguson Foundation, noted to The Louisiana Weekly the importance of bringing attention to this problem. He especially emphasized that the outcry should be more acute at this time of year.

After all, Black History Month began in 1926 as Negro History Week, marked by the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass in February. Carter Woodson, the historian who designated Negro History Week as such, did so with the express purpose of teaching the history of African Americans in public schools. His reasoning was clear: “If a race has no history, it has no worthwhile tradition, it becomes a negligible factor in the thought of the world, and it stands in danger of being exterminated.”

“Black History is American History and should be celebrated all 12 months of the year” said Plessy. “Our views of the past change over time as revelations emerge and theories are proven or disproven. A physical link to the places where the events comprising our nation’s history occurred are an essential foundation for understanding and interpretation. Nowhere is this relationship more meaningful than here in New Orleans, one of the frontlines in the fight for Civil Rights. But in 2017, many of those sites are unknown or underrepresented. And across the country, as America honors Black history, many links to the living history of Black America are in disrepair and are decaying.”

In addition to the preservation of America’s natural wonders, NPS is responsible for the places that celebrate and commemorate both tragic and triumphant chapters of our nation’s history, and that, in no small part should entail robust representation of locations of significant events spanning the Civil Rights struggle.

In Mr Plessy’s words, “New Orleans deserves recognition for it’s role in the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century as far back as 125 years ago. New Orleans native and civil rights activist, Homer Plessy refused to give up his seat on an East Louisiana Railroad passenger car designated for whites only. He was arrested on June 7, 1892 at Press and Royal streets. The philosophy and strategies of the Citizens Committee who selected Plessy as their plaintiff in the landmark U.S. Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, inspired the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century.”

Despite Homer Plessy’s legal defeat in U.S. Supreme Court which subsequently established the ‘separate-but-equal’ doctrine as the law of the land, Plessy’s actions helped inspire the formation of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP). 58 years later, the NAACP incorporated Plessy’s 14th Amendment arguments before the U.S. Supreme in the 1954 landmark case Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, Kansas which overturned the Plessy v. Ferguson decision and declared that state laws establishing separate public schools for Black and white students to be unconstitutional.

On November 14, 1960, New Orleans finally integrated its public schools and began the enforcement of the Brown v. Board of Education decision. On that day, three six-year-old African-American girls (Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, and Gail Ettienne) integrated McDonogh 19 at 5909 St. Claude the Lower 9th ward.

“The NPS recently awarded the Leona Tate Foundation for Change a grant in the amount of $500,000 after seven years of placing a State Historic Marker in the neutral ground in front of the school in honor of the 50th anniversary of the 1960 event,” said Mr. Plessy. “The process of preserving the school as a future NPS Civil Rights Site is underway. Congratulations to Leona Tate for accomplishing the first step in New Orleans receiving the recognition it so richly deserves for our role throughout the Civil Rights Movement of the 20th century.”

Unfortunately, Congress isn’t providing the resources NPS needs to truly fulfill its mission, Plessy maintained. “We can’t allow those places to decay and access to those sites to be limited. We can’t allow the sites at the center of the Civil Rights Movement to fade into obscurity,” said Plessy adding, “Our representative, Congressman Cedric Richmond, is in an excellent position as Chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus to push for funding to reduce the deferred maintenance backlog and repair and to preserve the NPS sites that are of importance to African Americans for future generations. He has been a champion of cooperation across party lines throughout his career. We are confident that he will do everything in his power to accomplish these goals.”

This article originally published in the February 27, 2017 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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