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In recent years, the National Park System has exploded in popularity, with the towering granite monoliths of Yosemite National Park and the beauty of the Grand Canyon becoming bucket-list experiences for millions of Americans. In 2022, over 311 million people visited a national park.
But, like many American institutions, the parks system exists only because of the violent genocide of Indigenous peoples and their dispossession from their homelands. And for a long time, the stories told at these parks have glossed over these histories and perspectives on the founding of America.
Over the last few years that narrative has started to change. And the stories of not only Indigenous people, but also of African Americans, women and others with marginalized identities are being incorporated into how the park service tells American history.
Through the sites that receive historic designation, or the guidance given to interpretative staff who lead informational talks in the parks or at historic places, the National Park Service (NPS) plays a significant role in telling many aspects of American life.
From 1931 until 2017, the job of chief historian of the NPS, the person responsible for overseeing the history taught at parks, has been filled by White men. But in 2017, Turkiya Lowe became the first woman and first African-American person to hold the position.
Lowe, who has been a historian with the NPS for decades, views the job of the agency’s historians as akin to being the nation’s storytellers. With her background as a social historian and a Ph.D. that focused on African-American history and women’s history, she has aimed to resurface some of those histories and emphasizes the communities and everyday people whose stories have been forgotten.
The 19th spoke with Lowe about her priorities as the principal historian of the park service, the stories she’s focused on telling, and how the service is addressing an often incomplete history of America.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Jessica Kutz: Can you tell me a little bit about your path to becoming a historian?
Turkiya Lowe: I actually grew up believing that I was going to be the next Supreme Court justice, and then Clarence Thomas was appointed as a justice. I’m from Savannah, Georgia, and Pin Point, Georgia, [where Clarence Thomas is from] is less than two miles away from where I grew up, and I thought, “They’re not going to appoint another person from the same area,” so I switched to wanting to become a regular lawyer.
It wasn’t until I went to undergrad at Howard University, when in the last semester of my junior year I decided to take a public history class. It was being taught by a professor at Howard who was a public historian, and two guest lecturers were from the National Park Service. I was fascinated.
Even though Savannah has one of the largest historic districts in the country, one of the oldest, I really didn’t know that was actually something that you can do, be a historian and care for the places where history happens.
I then applied for an internship to a new program with the National Park Service, the cultural resources diversity internship program. I was one of three new interns to this program and the rest just happened from there.
Could you tell me more about the role the National Park Service plays in preserving history? What does it mean to be the principal historian of the National Park Service?
In the National Park Service, we like to identify ourselves as the nation’s storytellers. I call us the keepers of our shared heritage, of the places and repositories and the programs that allow local and state communities to preserve their own history. We have 424 NPS units cared for by the service through our national park system.
We also have more than 72 community assistance programs that provide technical assistance for local communities to preserve their own historical, cultural and natural heritage. So we do that work and we assist our country and the globe, because we do have international programs [that allow other countries] to maintain their own history in their own culture.
The focus of the principal historian is one where I provide guidance and best practices in the practice of history for the National Park Service. Our office is one that provides technical support for individual park units to maintain their administrative histories, to inform their management and operation decision-making, as well as to provide scholarly, relevant and up-to-date information to our interpretive staff to tell American stories from multiple perspectives — the events, the impacts and legacies which informs our present and informs our future.
Typically what is preserved in our nation’s history, whether it’s historical sites or in our national archives, has represented one dominant perspective. How is the National Park Service addressing the absence or misrepresentation of marginalized peoples in our history?
We are always asking ourselves new questions of existing sources, right? Those of the majority, or those who have been privileged to have their voice be part of the historical record. And in those traditional sources there are a lot that talk about communities that have been marginalized, whose perspectives on events or impacts of events in history hasn’t been placed at the center.
So if you look at plantation records, for example of a plantation owner, and they are listing the plantation’s property, and it has tools, and it has mules and it has human beings listed by their first name. We can ask that source, not necessarily what the wealth was of that planter, but what may have been the experience of that human being that was listed only by their first name, or only by their presumed age and gender, and ask ourselves, “What must that person’s life have been like, as only a first name, or gender and age?” and use those previously read sources to then talk about, think about and describe the lives of that person that was enslaved.
And then we do know that there are records that were generated by marginalized communities: women, Spanish-speaking immigrants, those who are working-class and poor rather than an elite status. Those records do exist, but we have to tease them out in different spaces, different archives. Oral histories are one of the tools that we use in order to do that.
Now for the National Park Service, we have an initiative that is called Telling All Americans’ Stories. As an agency we are committed to telling the multiple perspectives and impacts and again legacies of historical events on all of our publics and all of our citizens to be inclusive of those stories. Sometimes they are contradictory. Sometimes the perspectives are in conflict with each other and we have to acknowledge that, but then move forward in the stories that we tell, in order to talk about where we are now and allow communities to express their experiences.
In your Ph.D. program you focused on African-American history and how that intersects with women. How has that informed your work at the park service?
My specific professional research interest is Black women, but also Black women in social clubs and movements in the West. So even though I’m from Georgia, I was like, I’m going to go in a totally different direction and look at the history of Black people in the American West, and specifically in the Pacific Northwest.
In terms of being a principal historian, I’m always drawing on questions about what was happening in the West. A lot of our history is East Coast-centric. So that allows us to expand the questions geographically. So I always find myself asking, OK, did the patterns of our history operate this way in the American West? That allows us to draw in more perspectives of Chicano women, and Indigenous women, who have had significant impacts on what would become the United States of America, as the United States moved from the coast.
And I always challenge our historians and the work that we do to be mindful of this movement of the borders of our nation to incorporate all of these peoples and interests.
I’m curious how the histories of LGBTQ+ communities are being preserved in the National Park Service. Have there been any new initiatives to resurface that history in the park service?
We completed a national historic landmarks theme study for LGBTQ+ history in 2017. That theme study gave the historic context for communities to nominate properties not only for National Historic Landmark status, but also for the National Register [of Historic Places]. We have properties that were designated prior to the existence of the theme study, but this was a specific effort by the National Park Service to support local communities with LGBTQ history to nominate their sites.
Of course, we received into the park system Stonewall National Monument, which we care for, and specifically tells the story of LGBTQ civil rights history. That is one of the foundational places where we undertake our interpretation and public education of this broader history. I can’t give you the numbers on how many LGBTQ sites that are extant in the National Register of Historic Places, but I know several have been added as part of the NHL study effort.
In our Telling All Americans’ Stories, if you look at that website, we also talk about specific people, places and events which are important in LGBTQ+ history.
Previous people in your position were military historians, and you are a social historian. How has that background, along with your own focus on African-American history and women, shaped how you view your role?
I’d have to say that my best practice in terms of how the National Park Service thinks about and does the work of history is to focus on broad events, and their impacts rather than on individual, or elite persons. We highlight the lives of everyday men, women, children, or how they have been impacted by these broader patterns of history within the United States.
For example, we are undertaking right now a new handbook, which is a kind of a brief, concise examination of a topic in United States history. The audience is for our interpreters and public educators in the parks to assist them with designing new programs or adding new content to their interpretation. But it’s also one that the general public can look to, to get a general overview of historic topics.
We’re pursuing one for the history of disability in the United States, and that really is about the everyday lived experience of people [with disabilities]. And not only in the political decisions, the Helen Kellers but those activists, those advocates who are living with invisible disabilities and how they have been presented in United States history and impacted U.S. policy, the Constitution, but also labor and those broader patterns of how people live their lives.
I have to say my tenure as principal historian is one where we look at those who are well known, but also those who have created community.
So my last question for you is, do you have any favorite historical sites?
That’s very easy. I never choose one. I have three. This is very personal to me.
One is the Grand Canyon because as a woman of faith, it feels like God doodled in the sand in the mountain to create the Grand Canyon. The other is Harpers Ferry, because it has multiple layers of history. It has African-American history with John Brown’s raid, and African-American history with a historically black college and university. It has military history, and it has a history of civil rights. It’s the second meeting place of the group, the Niagara Falls Movement, the group that founded the NAACP. So it has this broad history of fighting physically and politically and through community education for civil rights.
And then the third is the Maggie Lena Walker National Historic Site, in Richmond, Virginia. She was the first woman and African-American woman to found a bank; she was just an extraordinary woman with a somewhat tragic life, losing her husband in a tragic way, becoming disabled later in life. But she was one of the wealthiest Black women of the late 19th and early 20th century [who had been] formerly enslaved as a child.
So every time I’ve visited these three sites, it has renewed my spirit.