African-American Experience Fund director on the importance of learning the whole American story.
(The Root) -- The Washington, D.C.-based African American Experience Fund, a program of the National Park Foundation, is dedicated to supporting, preserving and celebrating historic and national park sites that tell the story of black people's history in America. But the organization's work isn't just about the maintenance of structures or setting up tours. It's to ensure that "our whole national story is passed on faithfully, completely and accurately."
Over the next year, the AAEF will tell that story in part by joining with the National Park Service to plan celebrations around the country commemorating significant moments in civil rights history, including the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation and the 50th anniversary of the March on Washington. By doing so, Executive Director Lydia Sermons told The Root, "We hope to get more individuals engaged in telling the under-told and untold stories of African-American history."
Sermons weighed in on the lesser-known sites from coast to coast that she hopes people visit (there's much more than the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Memorial, she says), her theory about why schools and parents alike are falling short when it comes to teaching African-American history, and her belief that an enriched understanding of the roles blacks have played in this country will have a direct impact on the community's sense of self-worth and hope for the future.
The Root: What do you most want the African American Experience Fund to accomplish?
Lydia Sermons: First and foremost, to raise funds to support the preservation and promotion of African-American historic sites throughout the country, and the national parks that have significant African-American history [running] through them. To make sure they're around for future generations to come.
Another key goal of the AAEF is to ensure that there's equity in telling the story of American history. The stories of African Americans and their major [contributions] to American history have often gone untold or unnoticed. So what we're trying to do is to make sure African-American history is told in ways it's never been told. If you don’t know where you came from, you don’t really know where you're going. So it's especially important that African-American children understand their history, because it has a direct impact on their self-worth, their self-esteem and what they can aspire to be in the future.
TR: Do kids learn enough African-American history in school, and from their parents?
LS: By and large, kids are not taught African-American history. In fact, very little history is told in schools. As a result, since past generations were not formally taught African-American history, they don't know it and can't tell it in accurate and compelling ways to their own children. The generation born during the civil rights era -- my generation -- lived some of that history. But the generations following us are very disconnected.
TR: As a result of that disconnection, do you find it difficult to drum up interest in historic African-American sites? And did you see any renewed interest in black history when President Obama became the first African-American president?
LS: I have found that it's not a tough sell, actually. When you help people understand that our shared heritage is in jeopardy of being lost because of a lack of understanding of that history – including oral history, photographs and historic places that played a significant role in who we are as a nation -- people understand that.
I do believe that the election of President Obama created a heightened self-esteem among African Americans and heightened our sense of what is possible. In all of that positive energy, there has been a resurgence of pride and self-worth, and that can lead to people wanting to understand more about who they are, what their history is and what they can become.
TR: What's one of your most popular sites, and what are a couple that you wish people would pay more attention to?
LS: I believe the most popular site is the Martin Luther King Jr. memorial. But one site that I think is very important for people to learn more about is the Maggie L. Walker [National Historic Site] in Richmond, Va. She was the first African-American female to found a bank: the St. Luke Penny Saving Bank. And this was in 1903! It later merged with two others and stayed open until 2011. She helped establish an entire community called Jackson Ward in Richmond. It was one of the most successful African-American communities in the country.
Another is the Boston African American National Historic Site. There's a monument that's right across from the Statehouse in Boston to the first African-American regiment to fight in the Civil War. Their 50th anniversary is being celebrated next year. There's a whole African-American Heritage Trail that's part of the Underground Railroad network to freedom that leads to the African Meeting House in Boston.
In New York, there's the African Burial Ground National Monument, right in Manhattan. In New Orleans, there's the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park. We have sites out west, too. Stop in Diamond, Mo., at the George Washington Carver National Monument. These are places people don't necessarily think of.
Jenée Desmond-Harris is The Root's staff writer. Follow her on Twitter.