Since writing my first post on all the coming changes to the National Park System, the bill formerly known as the Natural Resources Management Act has been given a new name! After being passed by the Senate, the House proposed (and the Senate accepted) changing the name of this bill to the John Dingell, Jr. Conservation, Management, and Recreation Act. John Dingell, Jr. passed away earlier this year on February 7th. He is notable as the longest-serving member of the US House of Representatives ever, a 59 year tenure that included 14 years as the top ranking Democrat on the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
By any other name, however, this bill contains a unique provision with the addition of the Quindaro Town Site in Kansas as third national commemorative site that will operate in partnership with the National Park Service. What is a national commemorative site, you may ask? Well, Congress has actually never answered that question definitively by defining the term national commemorative site in law. Indeed, until just one year ago, there was only a single national commemorative site in the nation. With the creation of the third national commemorative site, however, we can start to draw some conclusions.
A national commemorative site appears to be an honorary designation that recognizes the historical significance of a place, without elevating it to the status of a full-fledged unit of the National Park System. In particular, this means that there is no National Park Service management of a national commemorative site, and only minimal federal funding for a national commemorative site, although the National Park Service does become authorized to enter into cooperative agreements with local authorities to improve interpretation at these sites.
A good way to think about these national commemorative sites is to look at where they logically fit into the heirarchy of historic designations in the United States:
- The National Register of Historic Places was established in 1966 and currently includes more than 90,000 listings, making it the broadest designation. Listing on the National R
- A national historic landmark must meet a higher standard of national significance than a listing on the National Register of Historic Places. National historic landmarks have been designated since 1935, and there are currently more than 2,500 such landmarks. All national historic landmarks are automatically listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
- National historic sites all must meet the criteria for being a National historic landmark, and most must also meet the National Park Service’s criteria for administration as a unit of the National Park System. Upon passage of the Dingell Act, there will be 76 national historic sites* in the National Park System, 54 national historic parks in the National Park System, another 9 National Historic States that are affiliated areas of the National Park System, and 1 national historic site operated by the National Forest Service.
The national commemorative site designation seems to fit right between national historic landmark and national historic site in terms of level of recognition and Federal involvement. It definitely provides a bit more recognition and Federal involvement than designation as a national historic landmark. However, the relative obscurity of the national commemorative site designation and the very minimal Federal involvement places it well below the designation of a national historic site.
The first national commemorative site was designated in 1998. The Charleston Public School Complex in Charleston, AR received this unique designation in recognition of the fact that it was the first school system in the South to fully desegregate following the historic Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision in 1954. Most notably, the process of desegregation at Charleston occurred entirely peacefully – which is surely as worthy of recognition as the places where violence occurred.
This designation remained one-of-a-kind for nearly 20 years until Congress revived it again by designating the Landmark for Peace Memorial in downtown Indianapolis, Indiana as the Kennedy-King National Commemorative Site in April 2018. The Memorial is close by the site where then-Presidential Candidate Robert F. Kennedy was informed that Martin Luther King Jr. had been assassinated earlier that day, and proceeded to deliver extemporaneous remarks on racial reconciliation – rather than his planned stump speech. That speech is credited with playing a role in Indianapolis not seeing any race riots that evening, unlike so many other US cities. Its interesting that once again, the national commemorative site was used almost for what didn’t happen, or at the very least, what happened peacefully.
Once the Dingell Act is signed into law, the Quindaro Townsite archeological site in Kansas City, Kansas will become the third national commemorative site. Quindaro was a town founded by abolitionists in 1856 at the height of the “Bleeding Kansas” years. They were seeking to ensure that Kansas would eventually be admitted to the Union as a “Free State” where slavery was prohibited. The town became a stop on the Underground Railroad, and also played an important role in Reconstruction by setting up schools and other educational opportunities for freed slaves. The location of the townsite was eventually lost to history before being rediscovered in the 1980’s. This national recognition is the latest in a series of attempts to draw attention to the story of Quindaro and the role that it played in both the Underground Railroad and in Reconstruction. This post by Kansas Travel blogger Keith Stokes has detailed information on how to visit the Quindaro Townsite.
* – For simplicity, I included two sites with slightly different designations in these totals: (1) St Croix International Historic Site, an early French settlement on the border of Maine and New Brunswick; and (2) Aleutian World War II National Historic Area, an affiliated area of the National Park System on the island of Amaknak in Alaska.
For the curious, Grey Towers National Historic Site in Pennsylvania is the former home of Gifford Pinchot, founder of the US Forest Service, and remains a US Forest Service site rather than a National Park Service site.
This article is Part II of a three-part series on all the changes occurring to the National Park System in early 2019. Click here to read Part I.
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