“During National African American History Month, we honor the men and women at the heart of this journey . . . I call upon public officials . . . to observe this month with appropriate programs, ceremonies, and activities.”
— President Obama’s 2014 African American History Month proclamation
In every large organization, there are always some who never get the word.
Today’s clueless may be the National Park Service.
Perhaps its leaders were out to lunch when President Obama’s African American History Month proclamation arrived.
How else to explain the dustup between the park service and supporters of the National Archives for Black Women’s History?
The focus of the ironically timed struggle is the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site, which is home to the archives. They contain more than 100 years of documented history of achievements by African American women.
And when it comes to African American women, it’s hard to come up with a more storied 20th-century figure than Mary McLeod Bethune.
The 15th child of former slaves, born in humble circumstances in South Carolina in 1875, Bethune rose from working in the fields to become a renowned educator, a national civil rights leader and a consultant to presidents. She founded what has become Bethune-Cookman University in Florida.
The National Council of Negro Women, which advocates for women and families of African descent, was founded by Bethune in 1935. The council says it reaches nearly 4 million women through 39 national affiliate organizations.
Bethune’s legacy is enshrined in a Washington townhouse, on Vermont Avenue NW, that has been designated a National Historic Site.
Thus today’s Black History Month issue: honoring — or, some would argue, the dishonoring of — one of the most significant African Americans.
The National Park Service has shut down the National Archives for Black Women’s History and is moving the collection outside the nation’s capital to a government site in suburban Maryland.
In a letter to supporters of the Bethune site, Timothy Jenkins, the former vice chairman of the original Bethune Museum and Archives Board, calls the park service’s decision a “travesty” that “must not stand.”
The park service maintains otherwise.
In a statement published on its Web site in January, it said that “the Carriage House at Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site . . . does not provide adequate protection for the resources.” The move, the agency said, would ensure the safety and availability of the archives.
The agency contends that its Museum Resource Center in Landover is a better location for the nation’s archives of black women’s history.
It went so far as to give directions to the public: Take “the Metro towards New Carrollton. You will get off at the Landover Metro Station and take the 27 Bus Lines to the intersections of Dodge Park Road and Hubbard Road.”
The bus. Always the bus.
Return of the archives to their original location in Washington, the statement said, depends on whether such a step “is financially and structurally feasible.”
So until the National Park Service makes up its mind, it’s the burbs for the black women’s history archives.
National Park Service Director Jonathan B. Jarvis stressed in an interview and follow-up e-mail this week that the government is sensitive to public concerns about relocating the archives. He said the service acted because “irreplaceable documents are at serious risk from fire and water damage” at the current location.
Jarvis said that he and Interior Secretary Sally Jewell recognize the keen public interest in the Bethune historic site. They have decided to “reconstitute” the now-moribund Mary McLeod Bethune Council National Historic Site Advisory Commission, he said, to “ensure that all voices are heard as we work together to not only preserve the archives but Bethune’s house as a center of African American culture, history and dialogue.”
That 15-member advisory commission was mandated by Congress 22 years ago (Public Law No. 102-211).
The law required that the interior secretary and an advisory commission meet and consult on the management and development of the Bethune historic site, including the archives. In appointing members of the commission, the law called for people to be drawn from organizations in which Bethune played a key role, as well as archivists, experts in historic preservation and individuals who have “professional expertise” in the history of African American women.
Unfortunately, the National Park Service apparently decided to go it alone and chose to write its own chapter on black women’s history.
Now it’s cleanup time.
And so it goes on President Obama’s watch in African American History Month 2014.
Read more from Colbert King’s archive.