03 Dec Unhidden ~ A new Joy Trip Project of exploration and discovery
Earlier this week I met for lunch at the Mayflower Hotel in Washington D.C. with my new editor Allyson Johnson from National Geographic. A few weeks ago we finalized the details of a contract for me to write an ambitious new journal that shares the enduring legacy of Black American history as interpreted by the National Park Service. In part inspired by the Negro Motorist Green-Book published by Victor Hugo Green from 1936 through 1966, this project aims to reveal the hidden stories of our common heritage as citizens of the United States of America that are too often allowed to fade from our remembering of the past and cloud our understanding of the world in which we live today. Illustrated with images by famed photographer Kris Graves, the title of this book and the interactive social media project that begins today is “Unhidden”.
The pages of this book will delve into the remarkable narratives that we share as a united people. There is a resonant tread that winds its way through the fabric of time and space that binds all Americans together. I have found that the trajectory of our legacy as a nation is not linear but cyclical. As described by my friend Betty Reid Soskins, author of the book “Sign My Name To Freedom” and at 100 years of age, the oldest living National Park Ranger, American history is “an ascending upward spiral of chaos. And it is in these moments of chaos when democracy is redefined.”
From the moment that an Italian explorer, under the flag of Spanish monarchs stumbled upon the shores of an ancient world populated by more than 100 million human inhabitants, American history is an astonishing cavalcade of seemingly unrelated events that weave together an exquisite tapestry of profound beauty. As we follow the treads of time an amazing pattern emerges to reveal a narrative that is indeed the story of our lives.
As a child growing up in Los Angeles, my mother Rubye used to tell me that the only thing worse than being late is being early. Even when arriving for a Sunday dinner of Thanksgiving leftovers at your cousin’s house, it’s best not to impose the pleasure of your company sooner than expected. It’s just good manners. My Aunt Jody Titus was my mom’s best friend in college at UCLA and though we’re not technically related, she practically raised me. From her I Iearned much of what I know now as proper etiquette. So when I arrived at her oldest daughter Daphne’s house on M Street in Washington D.C. at 6:50 pm I stalled outside the gate for 10 minutes holding a bottle of Malbec before I rang the door bell. It was in these moments of undistracted thought, as I stood there killing time along the sidewalk on this chilly November evening, that I discovered something truly remarkable.
Just off the plane from Madison, Wisconsin I was in D.C. for the lighting of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree. Every year I work with the U.S. Forest Service and the non-profit organization Choose Outdoors to deliver an enormous evergreen tree from one of our many national forests across the country. On the west lawn of the Capitol Building this tree is decorated with ornaments and lights as a gift of peace and joy to the American public. This year our 84-foot tall White Fir tree came from my birth-state of California. Known as the People’s Tree I am its official photographer. Nicknamed Sugar Bear, it’s my pleasure to tell the story of the long journey it took over three weeks and 3,500 mile from the Six Rivers National Forest to our nation’s capital. I won’t lie. It’s the best job ever.
With just a bit of downtime between several receptions to celebrate the hard work of the many dedicated Forest Service professionals that made this delivery possible, I managed to sneak in a few personal visits with friends and family. Whenever I am in D.C. I make a point of dropping in on my cousin, her husband and their twin children. So as I’m standing there cooling my heels outside of their house I see for the first time a bronze plaque on the rot iron gate in front of their vintage brownstone that reads “Blanche K. Bruce House Has Been Designated a National Historic Landmark”.
Now if you know anything about me, I’m a bit of history buff. Dare I say a nerd. Of course I was wildly curious to know more about this house and its previous occupant. So when I asked Daphne about Bruce and what makes him historically significant she says, “Oh he was the first Black Senator to complete a full term of office in the U.S. Congress. I think he was from Mississippi.”
I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped to the floor. Once I recovered my senses I immediately launched into the lecture I give my students each summer at the University of Wisconsin, Madison on the Reconstruction Era. At the end of the Civil War in 1865 and after the ratification of the 13th, 14th and 15th amendments to the U.S. Constitution, over 2 million Black American men were eligible to vote. The new legislation respectively abolished slavery, guaranteed citizenship to anyone born in the United States and granted the right to vote to all men of legal age regardless of race or ethnicity. From 1865 to 1877, 14 Black men were elected to the U.S. Congress to represent states of the fallen Confederacy. Among them was a formerly enslaved man by the name of Blanche K. Bruce.
At this point I should tell you that when I’m not photographing gigantic Christmas trees I teach a course at the Gaylord Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies. As an academic without portfolio I share stories about the historic events and circumstances that have shaped our abilities as citizens to access and enjoy public land, in particular our national parks. More than 13 years ago I began the Joy Trip Project to tell the many incredible stories I discover in my travels around the world. From these most compelling narratives I help folks to understand why we see so many racial and cultural disparities in who spends time in the great outdoors and who does not.
It was in an interview with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns in 2009 that I first learned of the Buffalo Soldiers and their role in the creation of Yosemite National Park at the turn of the last century. Burns and I spoke in advance of the release of his film series The National Parks America’s Best Idea. At the dawn of the national movement to preserve public land more than 400 Black men of the U.S. Cavalry were tasked with the duty of protecting one of our first national parks. That single conversation made me painfully aware of the many narratives of our not-so-distant past that have been hidden from our collective view and shared national heritage as American citizens. Though the stories are certainly there for all to see, if we fail look for the signs that are literally on display all around us, we might never put into context the amazing events of the past and their profound significance, their relevance, in the present.
The Reconstruction Era came to an abrupt conclusion as a consequence of the presidential election of 1876. In one of the most contentious moments in U.S. History, the nation was divided in its selection of Rutherford B. Hayes over Samuel L. Tilden. With a turnout of almost 85% of the electorate that now included a wave of newly minted citizens that were formerly enslaved, the contest had in question the validity of the Electoral College votes from three Southern states of Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina as well as Oregon. But in a back room deal, commonly known as the Compromise of 1877, a bargain was struck to give the election to Hayes. In exchange, the new president withdrew all federal occupation troops from the defeated South. Without the presence of an armed military to enforce the provisions of the Constitutional amendments that assured the rights of Black Americans, the Reconstruction era came to an unceremonious end.
Beginning in 1877 the former Confederate states devolved into a lawless period of racially motivated violence with the intent of suborning voter suppression and intimidation. Though the institution of legal slavery had been abolished, many of the liberties achieved for Black Americans that resulted from a devastating Civil War were eroded bit by bit with new laws, both state and federal, that disenfranchised their right to vote in much of the South and other regions around the country for three quarters of a century. This began an era in U.S. history commonly known as Jim Crow.
The first Black American Senator after Reconstruction was Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, elected in 1967. The first Black woman to serve would be Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois who took office in 1993. To date only 11 Black Americans have held seats in the United States Senate. So as I sat there in the living room of my cousin’s house on M Street, a room that Senator Bruce and his wife, Washington D.C. socialite Josephine Beall Willson, likely called their parlor, I reveled in the magnitude of what this lovely house represents. Designated as an historic landmark by the National Park Service it is a modern artifact of our shared heritage that must not be hidden in the obscurity of failed memories and forgotten achievements of the past. Grinning a bit too broadly with delight in excess of the occasion as we chatted over a bottle of sparkling wine, I imagined how this particular story might be included in the pages of my new book.
The purpose of Unhidden is to reveal the stories of the past in order to frame a contemporary context for the present. Hidden behind the better known narratives of U.S. history that feature familiar figures, which include almost exclusively wealthy, white men, are the lived experiences of people from all walks of life that have been unfortunately relegated to the margins of our society. Though few of us know their names or the pivotal roles they might have played throughout our enduring national heritage, it is my intention to share these moments in time to more firmly weave everyone into the fabric of the stories we share as American people.
On the day that the People’s Tree was set alight in Washington D.C. I walked through the halls of the U.S. Capitol Building. As the official photographer of the Capitol Christmas Tree I was granted access to the People’s House so that I could accompany an inspiring young man named Michael Mavris and his family to take their picture in advance of the ceremony. Mr. Mavris, a 5th grader from Mary Peacock elementary school in Crescent City, California and a member of the Yurok tribe, wrote a wonderful essay that expressed the depth of his feelings for the land and natural resources of his home community. For his beautifully written words he was invited to flip the switch on the tree and kickoff the holiday season. As we walked together down the central corridor of the building, I took a moment to enjoy the portrait of Hiram Rhodes Revels, who was the first Black American to be elected as a U.S. Senator. Also from Mississippi like Bruce, he was elected to complete the term of office held by Albert G. Brown who withdrew from the Senate when his state succeeded from the Union in 1861 at outset of the Civil War. Revels served from 1870 through 1871. Blanche K. Bruce, however, who was elected in 1875, would serve his full six-year term of office until 1881. But after the Compromise of 1877, as Black representative began to lose their political power, the Mississippi legislature amended its Constitution, along with all the Southern states of the Confederacy to disenfranchise Black citizens of their right to vote. By the turn of the 20th century there would not be a single Black American member of Congress, until three years after the signing of the Civil Rights act of 1964.
When the reality of these historic facts are unhidden it becomes much easier to understand how we have come to this particular moment in time. Legislative measures that
systematically deprive under represented citizens in our country of their right vote continue to this day. But if we can come to understand the socio-cultural impacts of discriminatory practices of the past that persist into the present, we can work toward legal remedies that will prevent them from recurring in the future. First however, we must learn our history.
With the scope of my research limited to the interpretation of national parks, monuments and battlefields, photographer Kris Graves and I will visit a variety of historic sites across the country. At each location we will attempt to find the untold stories of our past with a particular emphasis on the contributions of Black Americans and other people of color. We look forward to having our completed work published in 2024. As we make our way from coast to coast we hope that you will share your thoughts, comments and suggestions on the places we should visit and share with us those amazing stories that must be unhidden.