Interpretive Signs and Programs

September 1, 2019, Department, by Paul Gilbert

2019 September Social Equity Interpretive Signs and Programs 410

Telling all the stories of our nation's past

With liberty and justice for all…. That is the aspiration of America, the lofty goal set out 243 years ago. It would be simple if we always lived up to that goal, but our history is more complicated than that.

Part of the role of parks is to tell the stories of the things that happened on the land. We call them interpretive signs and programs, but they are telling our history. Our choices of what we tell and how we tell it help to shape our regions and inform our citizens about their community’s history.

June 19 is a day of celebration and remembrance known as “Juneteenth.” On that day in 1865, the last of the enslaved African descendants were freed. On Juneteenth 2019, a group of nearly 200 marched through the streets of Leesburg, Virginia, from the site of the old jail to the site where a train station once stood. They were there to remember Orion Anderson, a 14-year-old African American boy, who was lynched at that site in 1889. Decades ago, the old railroad was purchased and converted into one of the first rails-to-trails in the nation. Today, the Washington & Old Dominion (W&OD) Trail, owned by Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority (NOVA Parks), is one of the most popular trails, attracting between 2 million and 3 million users a year.

Healing and Reconciliation
NOVA Parks, working with the Loudoun County Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), created an interpretive sign that tells the story of Orion Anderson and his tragic death at the hands of the Ku Klux Klan more than 100 years ago. Pastor Michelle Thomas, the chair of the Loudoun County Chapter of the NAACP says, “NOVA Parks was great to work with. They understood the healing and reconciliation role that acknowledging a story like this can have in the community. They worked with us to get this story right.”

When the marchers arrived at the trail where Orion was killed, they sang and prayed, and national, state and local elected officials gave remarks. Soil from the site of his death was placed in a container to be sent to the National Memorial for Peace and Justice in Montgomery, Alabama. Every city and county in America that had a lynching during the Jim Crow era, has an obelisk at this memorial in Alabama. Those who publicly recognize this history with a marker, can send soil from the site to the memorial and claim their obelisk. The marker for Orion Anderson is the first to mark one of what are several lynching sites in Northern Virginia.

One month before the dedication, several park and recreation professionals from around Loudoun County visited the area, saw the site and read the sign that would soon be installed. One of those professionals was Malik Willoughby, recreation administration manager from Columbus, Ohio. Willoughby says, “Memorializing some of the worst crimes against humanity within our nation’s storyline, allows us all to address these deep, reverberating traumas and create more opportunities to invest in healing. This effort sets a bold standard by which other conscientious districts and agencies can follow where relevant.”

An Ongoing Task
This effort to tell Anderson’s story was not universally popular. It is a painful story of one of the most unjust periods of our nation’s history, when terror was used to control and subjugate people. However, this history is every bit as real as any other story of America, and, to understand all our history, we must be willing to honestly deal with all the parts of our story, including the difficult ones.

There is a movement in history to go beyond the mainline historical narrative and tell the less-reported events. Stories of Native Americans, African Americans, Civil Rights and voting rights are all essential histories to be understood, the aspirational goals of America, as well as the challenges we have overcome, and the ones we still struggle with. The vision was established in 1776, but the task of achieving that vision is ongoing.

In the past few years, NOVA Parks has been working to tell a broader array of stories. A new exhibit educates about the native people who lived along the Potomac River when the first European explorers arrived. A colonial mansion’s historic park is holding programs to help relatives of the slaves who worked there understand their family history. A Civil Rights park was established that tells the dramatic story that led to the first rural chapter of the NAACP in 1915. And, next year, a new memorial will be built to commemorate the women who were imprisoned for seeking the right to vote in the early 20th century. These newer exhibits, interpretive signs and monuments complement the existing parks and interpretation about the Colonial and Civil War periods.

Michael Nardolilli, NOVA Parks chairman, says, “The properties of NOVA Parks tell the story of America.” As the stewards of important properties, park agencies have a vital role in helping to tell all the stories that inform us about the American experience, and our successes and failures in achieving the aspirations of liberty and justice for all.

The National Memorial for Peace and Justice

This memorial, located in Montgomery, Alabama, opened in April 2018 and “was conceived with the hope of creating a sober, meaningful site where people can gather and reflect on America’s history of racial inequality.” It is set on a 6-acre site that features sculptures, art and “a memorial square with 800 6-foot monuments to symbolize thousands of racial terror lynching victims in the United States and the counties and states where this terrorism took place.” Each of the columns is engraved with the names of lynching victims and, in a field surrounding the memorial, there are identical monuments waiting to be claimed by their respective counties where the lynchings occurred.

Writings from Toni Morrison, Elizabeth Alexander, Martin Luther King Jr. and a reflection space dedicated to Ida B. Wells, a prominent journalist, activist and researcher, who documented hundreds of lynchings. “The memorial is an important space that honors the thousands of victims and helps bring a sense of validation and closure to the descendants. The bigotry and hatred that fueled these murders need to be faced and reconciled for our country to heal,” says Michelle Duster, an author, speaker and educator, who is the great-granddaughter of Ida B. Wells.

Over time, the goal of the National Memorial for Peace and Justice is to “serve as a report on which parts of the country have confronted the truth of this terror and which have not.” The Equal Justice Initiative invites counties across the country, like the site in Loudoun County, Virginia, has done, to claim their monuments and install them in their permanent homes in the counties they represent.

Paul Gilbert is the Executive Director for Northern Virginia Regional Park Authority.