The National Park Service is known as the caretaker of many of America’s natural wonders and historic sites, including designated national parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite.

But for much of the last three years, the NPS has been quietly building a program called the African American Civil Rights Network to recognize historic sites, facilities and programs that relate to the Civil Rights Movement.

A positive twist to the program is that anyone can submit a nomination for a site connected to an event or person; a facility like an archive or museum; or a program like a tour, website, exhibit or performance. Application info can be found at www.nps.gov/subjects/civilrights/join-the-aacrn.htm.

Inclusion in the network is honorific, and doesn’t mean a property owner has to open their property or give up any property rights.

Historic properties must be eligible for or currently listed on the National Register of Historic Places, but this doesn’t apply to facilities or programs.

For example, both the site of Wichita’s 1958 Dockum Drugstore Sit-In (the old Union National Bank Building – now the Ambassador Hotel – listed on the National Register) and Kansas City’s Black Archives of Mid-America (a facility) are both eligible for nomination to the network.

Currently, 31 sites and programs have been named to the network, including Topeka’s Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site and Tulsa’s John Hope Franklin Reconciliation Park, which memorializes that city’s 1921 race massacre.  

“Inclusion in the network is one way to nationally recognize your property, facility, or program as a significant contribution to the African American Civil Rights movement,” the NPS says on its website. “The Network commits to sharing those stories to help others understand and appreciate their importance to America today.

“The applicant … will receive a letter informing them of their property, facility, or program’s inclusion, and a certificate. In addition, members will be eligible to use the program logo in limited fashion, with permission. The National Park Service will provide assistance or guidance with research or the production of educational materials for Network properties, facilities, and programs if requested.”

The network was created by the African American Civil Rights Network Act of 2017, sponsored by Congressman William Lacy Clay (D-MO) and signed into law by President Donald Trump in January 2018. It authorized the National Park Service to coordinate and facilitate Federal and non-Federal activities to commemorate, honor and interpret “…the history of the African American Civil Rights movement; the significance of the civil rights movement as a crucial element in the evolution of the Civil Rights Act of 1964; and the relevance of the African American Civil Rights movement in fostering the spirit of social justice and national reconciliation.”

The most recent sites added to the network are the James Weldon Johnson Park in Jacksonville, FL, and the 1908 Springfield Race Riot Site in Springfield, IL. Johnson Park was the site of 1960’s Ax Handle Saturday, a brutal beatdown of sit-in protestors by a White mob, and the 1908 riot was the event that led to the creation of the NAACP.

Perhaps the most impressive site on the list is the Martin Luther King Jr. Historic Park in Atlanta, GA, which sprawls across 35 acres and includes buildings such as the family home MLK was born in, the original Ebenezer Baptist Church, the King Center, and MLK and Coretta Scott King’s gravesites.

American Civil Rights Network members don’t have to be monumental, though.

St. Louis’ Shelley House, at 4600 Labadie Ave., is a modest two-story private home and not open to the public, but it was at the center of a “family’s struggle for justice that had a profound effect on American society,” the NPS says.

J. D. Shelley, his wife, and their six children moved to St. Louis from Mississippi in 1930 to escape racial oppression, the NPS said, but had trouble buying property due to racially restrictive housing covenants in the city.

In the early 1940s they bought the Labadie Ave. house from a man who agreed not to enforce the covenant, but a neighbor sued to prevent them from taking ownership. The case eventually went to the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that “racially restrictive covenants cannot be enforced by courts since this would constitute state action denying due process of law in violation of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution,” the NPS says.

“President Trump enacted the American Civil Rights Network legislation to tell the complete and often painful story of the struggle for civil rights to foster healing, tolerance and understanding among all Americans,” says David Bernhardt, secretary of the Dept. of the Interior, the parent agency of the Park Service.

For more info on the African American Civil Rights Network, visit www.nps.gov/subjects/civilrights/african-american-civil-rights-network.htm.

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