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Black Women Superintendents Teaching Civil Rights History at National Parks

Judy Forte remembers a 1966 judge’s desegregation order forcing her and her brothers to transfer to the all-white elementary school near their home in Phenix City, Ala. Even as a third grader, she noticed teachers at the new school treating her differently, particularly when it came to security. White classmates frequently targeted them for abuse under the teachers’ indifferent gaze, and she and her brothers had to endure fights and name calling.

 “To be honest, it seemed like we did a lot of running instead of walking home back then,” Forte says.

At night, during the news, her father explained what the marches, demonstrations and the Civil Rights Movement were about, and who Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was. Today, Forte is superintendent of the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park in Atlanta. It is her job to illuminate how King inspired the world to fight for peace, justice, equity, and basic human rights.

Forte isn’t the only woman teaching the nation’s civil rights history in the south. Keena Graham and Joy Kinard, PhD, are also national park superintendents; Graham is responsible for the Medgar and Myrlie Evers Home National Monument in Jackson, Miss., and Kinard heads three National Park Service (NPS)  sites in Alabama—the Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site, Tuskegee Institute National Historic Site, and the Selma-to-Montgomery National Historic Trail.

All three African American women hold leadership positions at the Washington, DC-based NPS. The federal agency operates 423 parks around the country. The workforce is primarily male and white; in 2020, Black women comprised only 2.8 percent of the agency’s 20,000 employees.

“I feel the visibility of African American women in leadership roles at the National Park Service adds distinction to our culture,” said Forte.

All three women face their share of challenges. Kinard manages multiple multi-million-dollar projects, including the renovation of the George Washington Carver Museum and Booker T. Washington’s home at the Tuskegee Institute.

“I am advancing the way we tell the stories we interpret here at the central Alabama Civil Rights sites using technology, oral history, upgrades to exhibits, and upgrades to historic buildings,” she said.

Kinard is expanding the existing Selma Interpretive Center into a six-property visitor center complex where people can learn how the city of Selma was a catalyst leading to the signing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and about leaders in the movement. The additions will be a revenue and publicity boost to the city, currently suffering a 36 percent poverty rate. But before any construction can begin the NPS requires title to the property. Ultimately about $10 million will be needed to fund construction. The National Park Foundation is working with the city of Selma and the state of Alabama to purchase the property and turn title over to the NPS, just as it did with the birth and family homes of Martin Luther King Jr., presently within the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park.

Forte is busy overseeing the restoration and refurnishing of the King family home where the Kings raised four children. Later, the home served as the initial headquarters of the King Center and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference.

Graham wants the home of slain civil rights icon Medgar Evers to open to the public. Tougaloo College donated the property to the NPS in 2020, but the home needs a new foundation and driveway, and the rusty windows must be repaired or replaced. Before the park can open, Federal law requires the completion of costly studies, including a historic structures report with an accessibility plan, environmental assessment, and load bearing and cultural landscapes studies, along with a general management plan. Depending on what the studies find, additional repairs may be required.

The Biden Administration requested $1.2 million in Fiscal Year 2022 for the Evers monument, but the home received only $180,000. Rather than fully fund the Evers monument, the NPS opted instead to fund more Civil War monuments;  there are hundreds of Civil War sites nationwide compared to about 30 park sites honoring our civil rights history.

Graham’s concerns will not be entirely resolved even if the Evers home receives adequate funding; there is not enough room on the property for a visitor center, and no place to park vehicles. Additionally, the site occupies a residential city street without sidewalks and is zoned with an R4 “limited multifamily residential” designation, according to Jackson city planners. Rezoning the property will be required before designers even consider enlarging it for parking and amenities.

But Graham is passionate about the history of Medgar Evers and his wife, Myrlie, and their combined efforts to obtain equal rights for African Americans. Graham also wants to tell the stories of lesser-known people who played a significant role in the civil rights movement, including Fannie Lou Hamer. These are the heroes who don’t necessarily have a museum or historic site recognizing their work.

“Even though (Hamer) doesn’t have a park named after her, she is very much connected to the story,” Graham said.

Forte shares Graham’s interest in amplifying the voices of those who have been historically silenced. “We are committed to telling the whole story, including that which is noble and that which has been hidden and silent,” she said.

Appointed superintendent in 2006, Forte found that visitors want to learn more than history.

“They are also seeking clarity on questions they have about the Civil Rights Movement, including the psychology and methods (strategy) behind it,” she says. “People are coming, regardless of race, to find a sense of calmness, sense of peace, and Dr. King’s message of nonviolence. People are more interested in lessons of nonviolence, how we should treat and respect each and most importantly, how we should love each other.”

All three women share personal ties to the civil rights movement. Graham’s maternal grandparents joined marches and demonstrations and raised money for the movement. Forte’s father participated in the famous Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights, known as Bloody Sunday, on March 7, 1965, when armed Alabama State Troopers assaulted protesters. Kinard’s great-grandparents attended Tuskegee Institute and her parents were civil rights activists as college students in the 1960s. She learned to protest apartheid in South Africa. Kinard’s father, John, was also the first African American director of the Anacostia Museum, a Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D.C.

All three joined the agency as interns or temporary workers—Forte in 1978, Kinard in 1994, and Graham in 1999. And they have risen through the ranks, serving in various roles, including law enforcement officers and interpretative rangers at multiple parks.

Now, as superintendents, they say they value their role in ensuring the park’s interpretative and education programs are inclusive and based on factual research and scholarship.

“We work hard to make sure we get it right,” Forte said.

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