Counting 100 Years of National Parks, for People of Color
When I was 7, or maybe 8, I read a book called The Hundred Penny Box. It told the story of an African-American woman who was 100 years old. She’d put a penny in that box for every year of her life, and whenever she pulled a penny out, she told her great-great-nephew a story.
I remember thinking – 100 pennies is a lot of pennies. I also remember thinking those pennies were the color of my grandmother’s skin, the color of my own skin. Ever since, I’ve associated copper pennies with people of color, mainly because, in many ways, neither are highly valued today.
If I had a Hundred Penny Box, I would keep a penny for every year of the National Park Service. Some of the pennies would remind me of a year when a national park, monument or other piece of public land was singled out to tell a story of some of the neglected people in America.
The penny from 1934, for example, would tell about the Ocmulgee National Monument in Georgia, which preserves ceremonial mounds that Native Americans constructed more than 1,000 years ago.
A penny from 1980 could tell the story of the Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls in upstate New York, site of the first women’s rights convention in 1848 and home to several famous early suffragettes.
You’ve probably heard of Rosie the Riveter, the iconic World War II woman factory worker. In 2000, Congress established the Rosie the Riveter/World War II Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, to encourage Americans to remember the contributions of women and minorities to WWII.
My penny from 1993 would help me remember the African Burial Ground National Monument in Manhattan, protected by President George W. Bush to commemorate the sacred grounds where free and enslaved African-Americans were buried from the 1690s until 1794. Long forgotten, the site was rediscovered in 1991 during a city development project.
In 2008, President Obama designated the César E. Chávez National Monument in Keene, California, to remember the man and the movement to protect the rights of migrant workers, which he helped catalyze.
But my penny from 2014 would tell the story of the public lands closest to my home and my heart: the San Gabriel Mountains National Monument. For more than a decade, Latino and Pacific Island environmental justice and community groups worked to protect to preserve our clean drinking water supplies and the open space Los Angelenos depend on to get outdoors and be active.
All of these stories remind me that the history of America is indelibly connected to place. By preserving special places and interpreting their rich cultures and histories, our parks and monuments help us understand who we are and where we come from. They help us learn about who our ancestors were, and discover what we’re proud of, as well as what we’re not proud of.
For much of the National Park Service’s first 100 years, the lands and sites protected by the White House and Congress were far from where most people live. They were fragile and breath-taking landscapes championed for their beauty.
More recently, as people of color have begun to advocate for conservation, we are seeing more and more places protected to honor the history, achievements and cultural landscapes that matter to us. For instance, many of our parks and public lands are ancestral sites and traditional hunting and gathering grounds for indigenous cultures, and we need to fully honor their connection to these lands.
I hope this trend of recalling the past and telling its truth continues for the next 100 years. The memories are worth every penny.