Protecting Places: Historic Preservation and Public Broadcasting

Marginalized Stories in the Landscape

Historic preservationists have long focused on nationally-recognized heroes and events, yet since the 1960s, they have begun to recover other historical themes and narratives that are embedded in preserved landscapes.12 One example in the American Archive of Public Broadcasting shows an even earlier recognition of the need to preserve marginalized perspectives in the historic landscape. A 1956 recording from WNYC includes a speech from Alexander Hamilton, a descendent of the Founding Father, who served as the Secretary Treasurer of the American Museum of Immigration at Ellis Island. In the recording, Hamilton noted the importance of preserving historic structures and called for the future museum on the island to include the perspective of immigrants who passed through that space.

Local communities have been leaders in the initiative to preserve perspectives often marginalized within the broad story of American history. A 1997 episode of Open Air from Mississippi Public Broadcasting drew attention to the grassroots efforts that led to the designation of Farish Street as an African-American historic district at the state and federal level, while a 2011 episode of Connections from South Carolina Educational Television gave a platform for little-known African American historic sites in South Carolina. Such efforts illustrate how local communities are working to save and interpret the sites they encounter on a daily basis.

Public broadcasting has also allowed for historical narratives centered on women to garner a larger audience. Since the mid 20th-century, historic preservationists’ inclusive focus has resulted in more sites interpreting narratives previously absent from the historical record. The National Park Service took some initiative in 1997 by publishing a Placing Women in the Past edition of their cultural resource management guides. The effort to find traces of women’s history in the built environment has become an important way to expand upon the history of the United States, where men are typically renowned as the great architects and arbiters of place. In public broadcasting, programs have spotlighted preserved sites of historic importance to the struggle for women’s rights and suffrage. As early as 1954, two episodes of Boston University’s New England Renaissance explored Concord, Massachusetts’ Orchard House Museum, home to author Louisa May Alcott. The home was opened as a museum by the Concord Women’s Club in 1912 when the women were divided over political issues like women’s suffrage, temperance, and immigration. These political divisions influenced how Alcott’s life and her novel Little Women were interpreted at the home.13 Additionally, an episode of In and About New York State History from WXXI explores Seneca Falls’ relationship to the women’s suffrage movement, which became the Women's Rights National Historical Park in 1980.

Native American tribes, too, have struggled to preserve built and natural spaces meaningful to them, and public broadcasting has covered some of these efforts.14 San Francisco public television station KQED offered important coverage of the nineteen month occupation of Alcatraz Island, part of the larger Native American Civil Rights Movement covered in AAPB's "Speaking and Protesting in America" Digital Exhibit. Under the Sioux Treaty of 1868, Native Americans were entitled to surplus land that was no longer in use by the federal government, so when the mythologized Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary closed in 1963, Native Americans claimed this property as their own.15 Native American protesters used their occupation of the island to draw attention to the federal government’s continued mistreatment of Native Americans. During their occupation, Native American protesters used public broadcasting to draw attention to their message with Radio Free Alcatraz, covered by the Pacifica Radio network. By broadcasting on their own terms, Native Americans were able to frame the occupation of Alcatraz in their own words, and interject themselves into the historical narrative from which they had been previously erased. Today, Alcatraz draws tourists eager to learn about the history of incarceration, but the site also preserves the Native American perspective through exhibits and even a water tower with graffiti that reads “Peace and Freedom. Welcome. Home of the Free Indian Land,” a replica of graffiti produced by Native Americans during their occupation of the island.16

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Next: To Plan or Preserve? Historic Preservation in the Wake of Urban Renewal

Awaiting examination, Ellis Island. Ellis Island New Jersey New York, ca. 1907. [Between and 1921] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Detroit Publishing Co., Copyright Claimant, and Publisher Detroit Publishing Co. Orchard House, Concord, home of the Alcotts. Concord Massachusetts, ca. 1900. Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

H.L. Standley, Colorado Springs, Colo. Pageant celebrating the 75th anniversary of the Seneca Falls Convention, Garden of the Gods, Colorado Springs, Colorado. Colorado Colorado Springs United States, 1923. [Sept. 23] Photograph. Retrieved from the Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

Carol M. Highsmith. Alcatraz Island is an island located in the San Francisco Bay, 15 miles offshore from San Francisco, California, 1980. Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress.

Courtesy of the Library of Congress

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