These National Monuments Provide Places for Reflection, Solace, and Hope
From colonial horrors to Civil Rights landmarks.
"National monument" is a pretty confusing designation. Whereas very likely know what you're getting into with a national memorial or a national battlefield, the monuments are seldom the statues or shrines their titles evoke: Most, in fact, are sprawling natural wonders that give the national parks a run for their money.
Still, several of the the 128 national monuments actually deliver on their promise to commemorate history. Some are the sites of atrocity, memorialized so that we never forget. Some are the childhood homes of trailblazers, while others are stirring memorials to the fallen. They encompass both despair and home, celebration and cautionary tales. Whether smack in the middle of a metropolis or off the highway on a road trip, they're the national monuments where we can all stop to reflect on our past as we step forward into the future.
Amid the bustle of Manhattan, the site of a colonial-era cemetery—once called "Negroes Buriel Ground"—received national monument status in 2006 after it was discovered during an excavation project in the '90s. It's estimated that the site, established in the 1600s, once housed the remains of some 15,000 slaves and freed African-Americans. Only an estimated 419 remain after centuries of careless excavation and disregard for the bodies. Today, it's a place of solemn reflection, highlighted by a sleek pavilion tucked into the busy city built largely by the hands of the untold thousands once buried there.
Established—as were many sites on this list—by outgoing President Barack Obama to commemorate important sites of the Civil Rights Movement, this monument is a powerful fixture of the Birmingham Civil Rights District. The area includes the A.G. Gaston Motel, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and others made their headquarters during their nonviolent campaign for civil rights. Pair it with a visit to the nearby Birmingham Civil Rights Institute for a full immersion in this city's pivotal place in history, both in peaceful protest and the violent resistance to change.
What appears to be an unassuming and charming vintage house on Capitol Hill became the home base of the National Woman's Party and, in effect, the home front of the battle for women's suffrage, where Alice Paul and others fought tirelessly for their voices to be heard. Today, the building doubles as an immersive museum dedicated to the women who fought for equal rights and a symbol for the work still to be done.
Surrounded by the rolling hills of Virginia, this remarkably preserved 200+ acre tobacco plantation is the birthplace of American icon Booker T. Washington, who was born into slavery and rose to become a profound orator, educator, and figurehead in the long crawl toward equal rights. The site includes live animals and "living history" reenactments to help bring his story to life.
Chávez' fight for farm workers' rights made him an American hero, and it's only appropriate that the final resting place of the union icon be somewhere beautiful: serene naturescape complete with gardens, wildlife, and fountains. Nuestra Señora Reina de La Paz is a peaceful compound in the gorgeous Tehachapi Mountains, a place that allows you to immerse yourself in the fight for workers rights while also also offering an idyllic environment in which to reflect, including a Memorial Garden with year-round roses in bloom.
Like the man who called it home, this two-story home in rural Ohio has climbed in ranks over the years, being promoted from national landmark to national monument. Young escaped slavery as an infant, and spent his adult life serving his country as the third Black graduate of the US Military Academy and the first Black Army Colonel, among other accomplishments. The 60-acre farm—located near the National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center in Wilburforce—is also rumored to be a stop on the Underground Railroad.
Fort Monroe is where slavery first came to America: In 1619, a European slave ship docked here for provisions, trading off "20 and odd" lives initially intended for Spanish Caribbean colonies and kicking off centuries of suffering on American soil. That alone makes the now-decommissioned Chesapeake fort a key, and often overlooked, site in understanding the US’s troubling past. But the Fort is also a place of hope, having become “Freedom’s Fortress” in 1861, a place where any slave who reached the fort would be granted freedom. Its history is complicated, its legacy deep. Here. atrocity and dreams commingled, with luminaries ranging from Harriet Tubman to Abraham Lincoln having entered its walls.
The semi-recently designated Freedom Riders commemorates the violent response to the anti-segregationist bus protests in 1961 Alabama, a pivotal and horrifying moment of the Civil Rights Movement. The site includes the a mural and displays near the Greyhound station where a mob that included the KKK attacked a bus carrying Freedom Riders. Outside of town, the monument extends to the stretch of road where the bus was burned and its riders beaten. The monuments are part of the Anniston Civil Rights Heritage Trail, which includes the hospital where those attacked were greeted by yet another mob, as well as the train station where they were finally able to leave—only to endure even more violence en route to Birmingham.
The first president might be the most memorialized George Washington, but Carver got his due as the first Black man (and the first non-president) to receive a monument in his honor. The sprawling boyhood home of the famed scientist, agriculturist, and humanitarian—who didn't actually invent peanut butter, but whose work with cotton alternatives and soil depletion ranks him among the 20th century's most celebrated scientists—includes acres upon acres of forested trails, statues, and other commemorations.
For more than a century, Little Bighorn was simply remembered as the site of Custer's Last Stand, complete the gravesite of hundreds of US Army soldiers but little acknowledging the Lakota and other tribespeople fighting on the reservation during the Great Sioux War. In 1999, however, the long-mythologized Western-expansion battlefield was augmented to memorialize the tribespeople who were slain in battle, with multiple markers on the long, solemn prairie in place to honor those who fought for their land in this dark period of US history.
After escaping enslavement at 27, Harriet Tubman repeatedly risked her life leading nearly 70 African Americans to freedom as a conductor on the Underground Railroad. This monument, enveloped in the larger Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park, sits on a difficult landscape of brackish muddy marshes, thick woodlands, and abandoned canals similar to what Tubman navigated. The area is sprinkled with sites that shaped her youth, like the former home location of Jacob Jackson, a free black veterinarian who assisted Tubman in rescuing her brothers. A modern visitor center offers insight into Tubman’s life on Maryland’s eastern shore, while a legacy garden provides space for reflection.
New York City
Located in Greenwich Village, Stonewall is the gay bar known for the historic June 1969 riots, when queer activists fought back against discriminatory police raids. It is considered by many to be the birthplace of the LGBTQ liberation movement—of Pride itself—and the turning point in demanding rights for those whose very being was considered illegal. Today, the monument includes the Stonewall itself, plus the statue-laden adjoining Christopher Park.
At the height of World War II era, Japanese-American families—children included—were rounded up en masse and shipped off to 10 isolated sites around the country. The largest of these internment camps was Tule Lake, which was later turned into an actual POW prison. Today, the site, complete with its stockade and guard towers, stands as a reminder of what can happen to Americans when ignorance and fear overtake humanity and logic.
The 1963 assassination of civil rights activist and NAACP field secretary Medgar Evers by a white supremacist in the carport his home put a spotlight on civil rights issues and spurred the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The very design of the house is an example of the precautions Medgar—the public face of the NAACP—and his wife Myrlie, who ran the field office, would take for protection. In the middle-class African American Elraine Subdivision, there’s no front door. The side carport entrance was chosen specifically to avoid the exposure of entering the home from the front. As it’s a newly acquired park unit under development, it’s not currently open for tours.