Happy Birthday To One Of America’s Most Important Laws: The Antiquities Act
Today is the anniversary of the Antiquities Act—the 110-year-old law that allows presidents to create new national monuments. Thanks to the Antiquities Act, we have the Statue of Liberty, Pullman National Monument, Canyon de Chelly and Jewel Cave. We can also thank the Antiquities Act for 25 national monuments that are part of the National Conservation Lands, including Grand Staircase-Escalante, Rio Grande del Norte, and Fort Ord National Monuments to name just a few of these extraordinary places that, based on local, grassroots support, presidents have chosen to protect for all Americans—present and future.
The first monument I can recall visiting was the George Washington Carver National Monument in southwest Missouri. Carver was born into slavery and suffered horribly as a child, yet managed to pursue education in piano, art, botany and agriculture. He became an inventor, teacher, world-renowned researcher, and advisor to three U.S. presidents and other leaders. The monument was established in 1943 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and protects Carver’s boyhood home and about 240 acres of prairie and woods. It was also the first monument to honor an African-American and the first to honor someone other than a president. My visit took place more than 40 years ago when I was only 8 or 9 years old, but I came home wanting to build a little science lab and fill it with jars of strange liquids and plants. Carver’s story was truly inspiring and has stayed with me.
Since the Carver monument was established, U.S. presidents—and our national monuments—have come a long way. Our monuments honor Americans who come from many backgrounds and who have wide-ranging experiences. Here are just a few:
- The Cesar Chavez National Monument
- World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument
- Belmont-Paul Women’s Equality National Monument
- Honouliuli National Monument that recognizes Japanese-Americans who were unjustly imprisoned during WW II
- Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument
- African Burial Ground National Monument that memorializes more than 400 enslaved people and the role of Africans in colonial and early New York history
- Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument
- Monuments protecting ancient and continuously inhabited Native American lands and cultural sites
- Monuments memorializing battlegrounds and forts
- Numerous monuments protecting habitat for North America’s wildlife and migrating bird species
President Obama has used the Antiquities Act to make our monuments better reflect who we are as Americans—and he has six months left in office to accomplish more. For example, the Penn Center in South Carolina is the site of Penn School, one of the country’s first for freed slaves. Legislation has been introduced in Congress to protect it; if Congress fails to act on the bill, the President can designate it.
In Utah, a coalition of five Native American Tribes are working to protect a region called Bear Ears. It has tens of thousands of sacred Native American sacred and ancestral sites. Tribal Nations, conservationists, veterans, businesses, sportsmen, faith leaders, and others are asking President Obama to use the Antiquities Act to establish Bear Ears National Monument.
And advocates are asking the president to protect the Stonewall Inn in New York City as a monument—commemorating the long fight for lesbian and gay civil rights. While the monument to George Washington Carver was the first to recognize an African American, the Stonewall site will be the first to recognize contributions of LGBTQ Americans.
One of the greatest things about the Antiquities Act? If we protect and defend it as law, future presidents can use it too. Places we don’t even recognize yet as having cultural or even ecological importance will have a chance of being protected. Future presidents could protect places that are like Bears Ears, Stonewall Inn and Penn Center once were: not yet recognized for their great part in our continually unfolding and rich American story. That makes the Antiquities Act an exciting part of America’s future–and one worth fighting for.