National Park Service Launches Initiative To Identify LGBT Historic Sites

David Smith and John Evans pose at the Grand Canyon, where they were once worked, with their children Jakiah and Dante. CREDIT: DAVID SMITH.
David Smith and John Evans pose at the Grand Canyon, where they were once worked, with their children Jakiah and Dante. CREDIT: DAVID SMITH.

David Smith is thrilled that the National Park Service is launching a new initiative to identify key places and people of significance related to LGBT history. He and his husband, John Evans, have both been working for the Park Service for over two decades, where has has found “total acceptance.” “The gay and lesbian community are also part of our landscape,” he explains, and its history is “just as relevant” as the many other cultural and religious groups that “make America so rich.”

Interior Secretary Sally Jewell is announcing the new plan Friday morning, which will entail convening a panel of scholars to identify relevant sites to be included on the National Register of Historic Places, to be designated as National Landmarks, or to be considered national monuments. Park Service Director Jonathan Director hopes that the department’s role as “America’s storyteller through place” can expand to represent the “full complement of the American experience.”

Smith currently lives with Evans and their two children, Dante (age 12) and Jakiah (age 10), in Topeka, Kansas, where he serves as superintendent for the Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site. The site consists of Monroe Elementary School, one of the four elementary schools in the city that were segregated for African-American children prior to the decision, and is one of 26 National Parks supported by the Park Service’s African American Experience Fund.

Similar Heritage Initiatives exist to help preserve other groups’ histories, including the LGBT community. A Center for American Progress report found, however, that fewer than 15 percent of National Parks and Monuments have a dedicated focus to under-represented populations and none dedicated to the LGBT community. Currently, only one LGBT property is designated a National Historic Landmark — the Stonewall Inn in Greenwich Village — and three others are included in the National Register of Historic Places. Smith hopes that the new effort can expand these lists, and possibly lead to recommendations for Congress or the President to designate historic sites as official park units. Though a historic place could be recognized by no more than a plaque, an official park “has to be preserved forever.”

Smith explains that parks are “relevant to all Americans,” so even at places like the Brown v. Board historic site he oversees or the new César E. Chávez National Monument, which have historic significance to a particular social group, the implications of the stories chronicled there impact everybody. He hopes that the new initiative recognizes more LGBT locations for this same purpose, like Harvey Milk’s camera shop in the Castro of San Francisco, but, he notes, “There have been gays and lesbians involved in every park in the United States at one time in history.”

The study is being funded by philanthropist Tim Gill and is expected to be completed by 2016.