WASHINGTON - September 29 - The 32 sites, programs, and projects in 15 states added this summer to the National Park Service's National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom have gained a prestigious distinction, but are unlikely to receive the level of assistance that Park Service staff aim to provide network partners unless Congress includes a $1.5 million funding increase for the program in the Interior Appropriations bill this year, said the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA) this week.
"Being recognized as a part of the Network to Freedom is wonderful, but that recognition would be more valuable if the program supporting this vital work were properly funded," said NPCA Associate Director of Diversity Alan Spears. "Less than $2 million would help ensure the survival of the Network to Freedom program, help those new sites with important preservation and interpretation, and help expand the network to create an even fuller knowledge and appreciation of our national heritage."
The new sites, programs, and projects added to the network range from the White Hall state historic site in Kentucky, home of emancipationist Cassius Marcellus Clay, to abolitionist Mary Ellen Pleasant's burial site in a privately owned California cemetery, to Stones River National Battlefield in Tennessee, which commemorates a significant Union victory that was critical to the legitimacy of the Emancipation Proclamation, a significant step in the transformation of the Civil War into a campaign to end slavery.
Authorized by Congress in 1998 to help communities to research, recognize, and preserve sites that were part of the Underground Railroad, the National Park Service's program has already identified or helped preserve more than 180 sites in 26 states and the District of Columbia. Over the past six years, the Network to Freedom program has provided grant money and/or technical expertise that enables local historians, preservationists, even family archivists to continue their vital research and interpretation.
Named to NPCA's 2004 list of America's Ten Most Endangered National Parks, the program has been under-funded since its inception. Without a modest $1.5 million increase, the program will be unable to support the vital partnership and outreach efforts that are necessary to grow the network of preserved sites and improve the quality of interpretive programs and materials used by national parks, teachers, and others across the country.
"The Network to Freedom program empowers people all across the nation to tell their part of this uniquely American story," said Spears. "The loss of this program would create a void not filled by any other extant initiative and would set back efforts to preserve and interpret Underground Railroad history by a decade or more."
This month the Senate appropriations committee approved an additional $500,000 for the program in the Interior Appropriations bill, which has stalled. With the 108th Congress expected to recess in October, the current session is the last set opportunity this year to include the needed $1.5 million increase in the Park Service's budget.