Maybe it’s because of my background as a seasonal park service employee, but in recent years whenever I’ve seen photos or newsreel footage of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, I’ve taken a moment to wonder about the identities of the park rangers standing just to King’s left. That’s also got me thinking more about King himself.
Lunch counters seem like a quaint piece of early 20th century Americana, and I have long loved them for that. But as with so much of the iconography of Americana, the ugly shadow of racism has tainted our memory of lunch counters and their place in the culture. And when I say lunch counters, I’m really thinking about one lunch counter in particular: the one that once stood in the Woolworth store in Greensboro, North Carolina.
If I had to name one historic site of truly national significance that should have been taken over by the National Park Service long ago but wasn’t, I’d have to plump for Washington’s Crossing. Right now the site is split between two states, neither of which seems willing to put in the resources a site like this deserves.
It’s hard to overstate how much difference a good interpretive guide can make to your experience of a historic monument. I’ve had visits to great monuments spoiled by poor interpreters and visits to less well-known sites really brought alive by inspired historical interpretation. Longfellow House is a happy example of the latter category.
I used to be a big fan of “The West Wing” on TV, and the term—used to describe an extension to the White House that includes the Oval Office and other offices of the president—has become synonymous with the presidency. But there are West Wings and West Wings. The one that is attached to Independence Hall in Philadelphia isn’t as famous or as deserving of fame as the one stuck to the Executive Mansion. But it is a bit of a hidden gem in terms of what it contains inside.
The last time I visited Gettysburg the ranger who was giving the tour of the National Military Cemetery there decided to do something a bit different. He wanted to take us to what scholars now think was the actual spot at which President Abraham Lincoln gave the Gettysburg Address on November 19, 1863. That spot is in a public cemetery still used for funerals, and enclosed by a black iron fence with a gate that normally is locked. But that day the gate was open, so the ranger decided to take us in, even though it wasn’t a normal part of the tour.
I could come up with all sorts of examples to illustrate how the new United States Congress, sitting in Congress Hall, tried to figure out how it was going to work, either through legislation or through norms and practices that became the accepted way of doing business. There are way too many examples to choose from, so I’ve decided to pick and choose and come up with a Top Five. These are all useful examples because they help illustrate the rocky road to national government that these early legislators had to tread. They tell a story that isn’t always pretty, but then Congress never has been particularly pretty to watch in action.