The National Park Service was founded one hundred years ago on August 25. Natural conservation efforts accelerated during the Progressive era, where the increasing emphasis on environment and progress was inspired by a “broad range of social scientists [who] argued that human beings responded to their environment; people changed when their surroundings changed.” 1 J.N. Teal, Chairman of the Oregon Conservation Commission, echoed these ideals in his speech at the 1909 National Conservation Congress, where he declared that “[w]e have today within the limits of this nation all the natural resources to make a happy, prosperous and contented people.” 2
Gifford Pinchot, along with Theodore Roosevelt, John Muir, and others with a deep, abiding love for the United States’ natural resources, spurred the call to protect the forests, lakes, mountains, parks, and valleys whose boundaries were steadily being encroached upon by urban sprawl and the mechanized agricultural industry. Pinchot’s The Fight For Conservation is considered a seminal text in conservation history.
Within a year of the act’s passing, the public reservations under control of the National Park Service included Crater Lake, Mesa Verde, Mount McKinley, Wind Cave, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Muir Woods, and more.
The National Park Service is offering free admission to all 412 national parks from August 25 through August 28, and is hosting a variety of events to celebrate their centennial. Visit FindYourPark.com and EncuentraTuParque.com for more information.
Michael McGerr. 2003. A Fierce Discontent, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 80. ↩
Many would love to believe that life one hundred years ago was gentler, better mannered, and simpler than today. I love history dearly, and I love historic sites, period dramas, and the like. I wouldn’t be working in museums and archives if I didn’t believe in the power of history for truth, reconciliation, justice, and healing.
But the past isn’t the sepia tinted photographs of ancestors or the technicolor images of Downton Abbey. The past, to paraphrase L.P. Hartley, is sometimes a foreign country where they do things differently, but what happened then laid the groundwork for today. And that includes the most horrific, bloody, and unjust every day occurrence in the Gilded Age and Progressive Era: lynching.
James Weldon Johnson labeled the year 1919 as the “Red Summer” because of the extraordinary violence and blood shed as African Americans, many of whom were returning home after serving in WWI, were met by Judge Lynch across most of the United States. The relationship between Americans and extralegal violence dates back to the Revolutionary War, where, according to Robert L. Zangrando, lynchings were “used initially to punish suspected criminals and Tories.” As the practice spread with western expansion across the frontier, it became a regular method of dealing with ” gamblers…antislavery advocates…Native Americans.” After the 1890s, immigrants, political radicals, and others who broke local mores were targets of mob violence. During Reconstruction, lynching became the method of intimidating, terrorizing, and controlling African Americans; the various vigilante groups we often identify as “KKK” expanded in the South on the backs of such violence.
The Gilded Age was in full swing in the 1890s, but so was the increasing use of lynchings to oppress African Americans and halt their attempts to achieve economic, educational, and civic prosperity. Ida B. Wells emerged during this decade as a powerful anti-lynching crusader after the murders of two businessmen friends in Memphis, whose successful grocery store aroused the resentment of their white competition.
OUR country’s national crime is lynching. It is not the creature of an hour, the sudden outburst of uncontrolled fury, or the unspeakable brutality of an insane mob. It represents the cool, calculating deliberation of intelligent people who openly avow that there is an “unwritten law” that justifies them in putting human beings to death without complaint under oath, without trial by jury, without opportunity to make defense, and without right of appeal. — “Lynch Law in America,” The Arena 23.1 (January 1900): 15-24.
Wells’ activism, the attention of the black press, and various organizations (some made up of white and black members), placed significant pressure on government officials to respond to lynching. Presidents Benjamin Harrison, William McKinley, and Theodore Roosevelt condemned lynching during their administrations, and a number of congressmen attempted to introduce anti-lynching bills between 1884 and the early 1900s, but public sentiment about the cause of lynchings–the threat black men posed to white women–hampered any serious efforts to make them a crime. Even Mark Twain was moved by the violence to pen a lament against lynching in his essay “The United States of Lyncherdom,” but he declined to publish it in his lifetime, declaring “I shouldn’t have even half a friend left down there [in the South], after it issued from the press.”
The NAACP, formed in 1909, increased its membership in the 1910s on the platform of pouring resources and strength by anti-lynching legislation. The appointments of James Weldon Johnson and Walter Francis White focused the organization’s anti-lynching crusade, particularly in the racist, xenophobic atmosphere fostered by D.W. Griffith’s The Birth of a Nation (1915), whose revisionist history of the Civil War and Reconstruction inspired a new Ku Klux Klan; their targets this time were blacks, Jews, Catholics, and other “undesirables” who undermined good, moral American values.
This film only fanned the flames of the general anti-immigrant and anti “hyphenated Americans” anxieties of the WWI era, where many German Americans were interned in camps as alleged German spies, where the government instituted surveillance against African Americans deemed as “unpatriotic,” and mob violence struck East St. Louis in 1917 and in Georgia, where a Jewish American factory superintendent named Leo Frank was lynched after being wrongly convicted of murdering a thirteen year old white female employee.
The Red Summer was only the culmination of an inflamed America. Between April and November, African Americans were lynched and terrorized from coast to coast, with the uprisings in Chicago, Elaine (AK), Knoxville (TN), and Washington DC being the most notable. It is sadly ironic that the NAACP released a book of their investigative research, Thirty Years of Lynching in the United States, 1889-1918, right as the Red Summer began. In it, the NAACP detailed the lynchings of black and white men and women (“78.2 per cent. of the victims were Negroes and 21.8 per cent. white persons”), their geographic location, offenses, and charts of all facts, and included the stories of one hundred lynchings during the period.
NAACP efforts increased in the 1920s, focusing mostly on the Dyer Anti-Lynching Bill, which was introduced by Rep. Leonidas C. Dyer (R-MO) to Congress during the 1922-24 sessions–and was filibustered by Southern Democrats all three times. By the end of the decade, lynchings had decreased, perhaps because the general prosperity of the Roaring Twenties was a good distraction; however, the Great Depression spurred a renewal of lynchings and the NAACP and their Congressional allies pushed once more for anti-lynching laws. Once again, they were met with failure, as first the New Deal and then WWII ensnared America’s attention. Yet, according to many historians, the fight for anti-lynching inspired significant interracial and inter-class partnerships to rid the United States of this injustice.
Looking back at this period from 2016 reveals that the past isn’t a foreign country–it illuminates and shapes today. And just as the violence touched the lives of the diversity of people who make up the United States then, it remains the same right now, and it takes courageous people, politicians, and organizations to fight for justice.
Los Angeles in 1913 had a population of 465,000, and boasted of over 600 miles of graded and graveled streets, of its position as the commercial capital of southern California, and of its spacious homes. The following photographs are from Frank W. Staley’s Views of Los Angeles.