Unpacking A Complicated History: A Visit To Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
When we look back on our photos from our March 2020 visit to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site in St. Louis, Missouri they bring out so many mixed and complicated emotions.
We visited the site on the last leg of our Midwest National Park Road Trip. It was Thursday before the country went on the initial lockdown for the coronavirus pandemic and a few months before the death of George Floyd would thrust our home city of St. Paul-Minneapolis into the global conversation about race and inequality.
If only we could warn our smiling faces in those photos about where we’d be six months later. Pretty sure we’d tell ourselves to slow down and listen a little more deeply to the complicated history of Ulysses S. Grant. Our own stories were about to get a lot more complicated too.
Where do we go with history now?
Looking back at our visit to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site has just been one of the many examples of how this year has helped us stop, take stock, and reflect. In the end, isn’t that what national parks were made for, right?
For starters, we’re still grappling with what it means in our times to honor and preserve the history of a national leader that embodied many of the institutions and traditions we desperately need to reform. Like so many others, we’re continuing to struggle with questions like:
How do we share history and teach each other about the past, but still ensure that stories reflect different perspectives?
How do we preserve buildings and artifacts and structures that detail eras gone before–even when these places represent different (and sometimes horrible) things to others?
Ulysses S. Grant isn’t even among the more controversial American figures to be memorialized. Yet even he isn’t free from scrutiny in our current times. Consider Grant’s complicated record on slavery and race.
Grant and Slavery
One of the many things the National Park Service interpretive program at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site aims to share is how Grant’s life and legacy is filled with contradictions – including Grant’s position on slavery and the rights of African Americans during the Reconstruction era.
Visitors to his White Haven home on the property learn in great detail how both the Dent (Grant’s in-laws) and Grant himself profited from enslaved labor. In fact, Grant was the last United States President to participate in slave ownership. In one of the video portrayals of the slaves at White Haven, there’s even suggestion that enslaved people on Grant’s family farm attempted to flee rather than stay in their living conditions.
This darker history stands in direct contrast to Grant’s record on attempting to expand the rights of African Americans during his Presidency. He emancipated one of the slaves at White Haven and was a strong supporter of the 15th Amendment. Fredrick Douglass at one point lent a strong endorsement to Grant and his efforts to help African Americans achieve greater equality following the Civil War.
If Grant was an ardent ally for equality, when then did he not recognize it in his own memoirs? Written at the end of Grant’s life to save his family from financial ruin, Grant mentions almost nothing about being a slave owner or his interest in helping achieve equally in his greatest works.
When A Family's Values Clash
Perhaps some of Grant’s cloudy legacy on slave ownership and racial inequality come from the complex and complicated family dynamics Grant had with Julia Dent and her family, the original owners of the White Haven home and property on Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. Grant and his father-in-law stood on the opposite side of many of the ideological issues of the time. During our ranger-led guided tour, we could repeatedly feel the tension the young Grant must have experienced when he visited the Dent family.
It’s not unlike the polarizing gaps opened between us in 2020. It’s been incredibly painful to watch our neighbors, friends, and family members come down hard on opposite sides of issues we don’t think should be so complicated and divisive.
We may think that national issues pulling us apart is some how new to us. Navigating these divisions was difficult for Grant then and it’s just as difficult now.
Grant's Final Legacy
Whether you look through the lens of a global pandemic or a fight for racial equality—or just a quiet #parkchasing visit to the next park unit on the list, we still don’t have a sense of Grant’s lasting impact and final legacy. Like so many of the things we’ve experienced in 2020, it’s complicated.
Grant’s record on slavery is complicated.
His family life and time at White Haven was complicated.
As a result how we tell stories like the ones at Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site going forward also gets complicated.
We aren’t entirely sure yet where we stand on the whole thing. We can bet that many of you are going through the same things. All the more reason to plan a #parkchasing trip to see it for yourself.
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About Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site
Location: St. Louis, Missouri
Park Website: https://www.nps.gov/ulsg/index.htm
Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site preserves White Haven, the historic home and property of our 18th President. Grant first met and proposed to his wife, Julia Dent here. The park was designated as a National Historic Site in 1989. Today visitors can take a guided ranger-led tour of the home, walk through exhibits that detail the life, military career, and Presidential legacy of Ulysses S. Grant.
During our two-hour visit we started with the park film, had a private guided tour through the home and outbuildings, and enjoyed strolling the walking tour around the park grounds. Don’t forget to grab your Junior Ranger book and national park passport stamps–you’ll find them at the front desk of the Visitor’s Center.
We recommend planning 1.5 to 2 hours for your visit to Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site. It’s a great addition to a Midwest Road Trip or a stop at Gateway Arch National Park. The Arch is just a quick 25 minute drive to downtown St. Louis from the historic site.
Park Chasers would like to acknowledge that the present day location of White Haven and Ulysses S. Grant National Historic Site were once the historical lands of the Kiikaapoi, Osage, Miami and Očeti Šakówiŋ (Sioux) peoples.