The Secret Lives of Parks

The Heart of America’s Story

Episode Summary

National heritage areas are some of the country’s most beloved hidden gems. In this episode, we feature three of the people who know these distinctive destinations best and who worked for decades to create two of our seven newest sites.

Episode Notes

Created by President Ronald Reagan in 1984 as "a new kind of national park," national heritage areas are large, regionally distinctive sites that celebrate human experience and achievement. Congress passed new legislation expanding and improving the heritage area system late last year--yet many people are unfamiliar with these hidden gems and the economic benefits they offer. 

Now, as national heritage areas could be entering a new era of improved visibility, host Jennifer Errick speaks with Sara Capen, chair of the Alliance for National Heritage Areas and executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area in New York State; Bernard Turner, writer, historian and executive director of the Bronzeville Black Metropolis National Heritage Area; and Dr. Tina Naremore Jones, vice president for Economic and Workforce Development and assistant provost at the University of West Alabama on why heritage areas are so important to the communities they serve.

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. This episode was produced by Jennifer Errick with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Linda Coutant and Vanessa Pius. 

Special thanks to Alan Spears, NPCA’s long-standing expert on national heritage areas. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about national heritage areas at

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at 

The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. With more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation’s only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

Learn more and join us at

Episode Transcription

The Secret Lives of Parks

Episode 20
The Heart of America’s Story

Jennifer Errick: National Heritage Areas preserve dozens of distinctive cultural destinations that drive tourism and inspire regional pride. Last year in a rare act of bipartisanship, Congress passed a bill formalizing the National Heritage Area System and creating seven new sites. 

In this episode, I speak with three of the people who know these hidden gems best and discuss what you can see at two of our newest heritage areas in Chicago and Alabama. 

I'm Jennifer Errick, and this is The Secret Lives of Parks.


In the final weeks of 2022, an unusual event occurred in Congress. All 100 senators voted to pass a bill. Even better, it was a good bill, especially for people who love travel and history.

The legislation established seven new National Heritage Areas across the country and created a better framework for managing and funding these large regional sites. Despite this broad political support, many people are unfamiliar with National Heritage Areas. 

Created by Congress, overseen by the National Park Service and managed through local partnerships, these sites are nationally significant but distinctly regional. They highlight unique cultures from the Gullah Geechee people of the Southeast to the Mormon pioneers of Utah. They celebrate the places where people built specialized communities and industries, and they help build economic growth based on local customs, histories, institutions, and artistic traditions. 

Odds are you've been in a National Heritage Area without even realizing it. I've come to see them as some of the country's best kept secrets. But now that this important legislation has passed, National Heritage Areas could be entering a new era that could help them gain more publicity and entice more people to explore them.

Sara Capen: Heritage areas are easy to love for almost any audience.

Jennifer Errick: That's Sara Capen, chair of the Alliance for National Heritage Areas and executive director of the Niagara Falls National Heritage Area in New York State.

Sara Capen: I've been the executive director for Niagara Falls National Heritage Area for just over a decade and came to realize quickly how significant our work was. It blends so much together, whether it's economic development, history, cultural heritage, conservation, and had such a tremendous appreciation of that.

Jennifer Errick: President Ronald Reagan created the first National Heritage Area in 1984, calling it, "a new kind of national park." Since that time, the program has become one of the most cost-effective preservation efforts that the park service manages. 

Congress allocates a modest amount of funding and each heritage area is required to match that funding dollar for dollar with money raised from other sources, such as local foundations and private philanthropists. Across the board, heritage areas exceed this minimum requirement raising an average of $5.50 for every dollar they receive and investing that money in the communities they serve.

Sara Capen: It empowers the people in the community to share their story, to share their history, to find a place at the table where they can open up and say why a community is important to them.

Jennifer Errick: National Heritage Areas aren't places like Yellowstone or Shenandoah that are intentionally undeveloped or where the government has even removed people from the park to minimize human influence. These sites center the human experience and showcase the small towns, cultural landscapes and thriving urban centers where people live and work. For residents of these communities, this tourism provides the kinds of jobs that can't be outsourced, and it supports the cultural institutions that aren't found anywhere else. Capen has personally worked for years to pass the new legislation improving and expanding the system. She watched earlier versions of the bill die in committee again and again and thought she was headed for another heartbreak when the larger funding package that had included the heritage area bill fell apart in the last few days of the congressional session.

Sara Capen: It was devastating. The pit in my stomach was as hard as a rock because I couldn't imagine having to tell my fellow National Heritage Areas that we weren't in this package.

Jennifer Errick: The conventional wisdom was that having the heritage area legislation as part of a larger group of funding bills was the likeliest way for it to pass, but when the larger package failed, advocates scrambled to urge senators to vote on the heritage area legislation as a standalone bill, and amazingly, it worked. They all voted in favor.

Sara Capen: Amazing is such an understatement because I don't know another time that I would look at Congress and say, "Yes, I can get all 100 senators to vote in agreement."

Jennifer Errick: Once that unanimous vote took place, advocates had only a matter of hours to urge a congressional committee to meet that hadn't been scheduled to meet. With just hours left to spare, the bill cleared its last congressional hurdle and in the first few days of 2023, President Biden signed the bill into law.

Sara Capen: One of our very close congressional staffers put it to me this way. He has worked in Congress for over 35 years, and he's only seen this happen twice, and one of the times was us.

Jennifer Errick: One of the most significant benefits in the new bill is that heritage areas can simply continue existing for longer periods of time. Previously to receive federal funding, a heritage area would have to apply for reauthorization every year or two, taking valuable staff and volunteer time away from program and preservation work. Imagine a national park site like the Statue of Liberty or the Grand Canyon, having to ask Congress to reaffirm its existence every couple of years just to be able to fund its staff and serve its visitors. It was a time-consuming and frustrating process.

Sara Capen: We're fixing something for them and us because they certainly don't want 55 individual bills every two years to reauthorize us for a short period of time. That's a lot of work for congressional staffers. It's a lot of work for congressional members. It's a lot of time in hearings.

Jennifer Errick: For those of us who don't run heritage areas the best part is probably the new sites the bill establishes. Bernard Turner is a Chicago-based writer and historian and the executive director of one of these brand new sites, the Bronzeville Black Metropolis National Heritage Area on the South Side of his city. He's worked for two solid decades to see it established.

Bernard Turner: I didn't really lose hope. The only thing that I was really concerned about was that if it didn't happen in 2022, we'd have to start all over again with a new Congress.

Jennifer Errick: Turner became involved in the history of Bronzeville, a historically Black neighborhood where he grew up, after retiring from a career with an educational publisher in 2000. He became a docent at the Chicago History Museum where he still works and decided to specialize in the history of his neighborhood. In 2002, he wrote a book, “A View of Bronzeville,” and before long he was running with the local preservation crowd.

Bernard Turner: If you start writing and learning about these places, you're going to meet people. So, I met people who were involved in saving buildings from being demolished, helping buildings to become renovated, and these are the people that I was attracted to and hung out with, and they taught me how to give tours and so forth.

Jennifer Errick: The Bronzeville neighborhood grew and flourished during the Great Migration when hundreds of thousands of Black people fled racism and severe economic oppression in the south and migrated to northern cities. Chicago was one of the largest urban refuges for Black families during this time, roughly the 1910s to the 1940s, but discriminatory laws within the city forced them into the Bronzeville neighborhood.

Bernard Turner: It was a place where everyone had to live because of restrictive covenants. So, people who came from the South, they all came to this one neighborhood and they couldn't move to other neighborhoods because of these horrible, restrictive covenants that were illegal and unconstitutional and everything. So, it became more like a city within a city.

Jennifer Errick: Turner is quick to point out that Black people had lived in Chicago long before the Great Migration, and the city itself was founded by a Black man from Haiti in the 1700s. The first half of the 20th century brought a new wave of people, however, and established the city as a beacon of hope and accomplishment.

Bernard Turner: This community grew by leaps and bounds. Over a period of about 50 years, over 500,000 people came from the south and they were fleeing lynching and poor schools and being cheated out of their pay that they worked on farms, the whole Jim Crow debacle. It was just horrible. So, Chicago and other places, Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia looked like a pretty wonderful place to go.

Jennifer Errick: I asked Turner, why Chicago?

Bernard Turner: There were several factors. One was the easy transportation via the train line that came from the south, went through Mississippi and Tennessee and other states on the way to Chicago. 

At the same time, the Pullman porters who worked on those trains took newspapers to the south, so they took Defender Newspapers to the south with them every time they went, and that told people, wow, here's jobs, here's opportunities. And even though the people in the South didn't want those newspapers distributed because they were losing their workforce, they were still distributed clandestinely, and that was one of the big reasons why people came to Chicago. 

And if your cousin goes, they're probably going to tell you, "Come on up here. Here's a really good place for you to stay and there's jobs. You're going to have a better life." So, the word spread.

Jennifer Errick: The result was a vibrant Black cultural and institutional hub with visionaries in nearly every field. From legendary journalist and activist Ida B. Wells-Barnett to poet Gwendolyn Brooks, the first African American to win a Pulitzer Prize, to Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to hold a pilot's license, to Dr. Daniel Hale Williams, the first doctor to successfully perform open heart surgery. And Black entrepreneurs thrived here too, serving a community that faced discrimination in every other corner of the city. Black-founded institutions flourished from life insurance companies to clothing and grocery stores, and some of these iconic businesses such as the Chicago Defender Newspaper and Parker House Sausages still exist today.

Bernard Turner: Parker House Sausage is like the Black version of Oscar Mayer.

Jennifer Errick: But one of the things Turner remembers best from growing up in Bronzeville was the music.

Bernard Turner: You could hear jazz music, blues music in the streets. I grew up with Dinah Washington and Ahmad Jamal and Ramsey Lewis, All of these people who recorded at Chess Records think of Chess Records as being a mecca for people who came from the south during the Great Migration to start their musical careers.

Jennifer Errick: Bronzeville was also home to Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong, among others. Turner gives tours of the neighborhood and often focuses them on just one type of music, such as gospel or jazz, because there's just so much to feature. Now that the heritage area is established, Turner will be focusing his efforts on how to manage and interpret different facets of this history. Fortunately, he has decades of experience and there's already an excellent infrastructure to build on.

Bernard Turner: How are you going to tell this unique American story, which is the Great Migration? Well, it just so happens that a lot of that is already in place, so all we have to do is really solidify the story and be able to tell it in a lot of different ways that people in the city as well as people who come to visit can understand it and appreciate it.

Jennifer Errick: He assures new visitors how easy it is to learn all about his hometown.

Bernard Turner: Chicago is a very navigable city. All you have to do is go get on the L and find an intersection that you know is in Bronzeville and look around. You're probably going to see three or four places on the National Register of Historic Places, or you're going to see several city landmarks and the signs are there to tell you that that's what it is. So that's what I would tell people to do. Just walk around there. You're going to know where you are and what you're seeing and how significant it is.

Jennifer Errick: In contrast to the bustling Black Metropolis of Bronzeville is the rural Black Belt of Alabama, an area that is so undeveloped, you can see the lack of light pollution from space. This very different region of the country is also home to a brand new National Heritage Area, all 19 counties of it.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: It is this place of diversity, this place of struggle, but this place of great beauty that connects the individual, no matter where they came from or who they are.

Jennifer Errick: That's Dr. Tina Naremore Jones, vice president for Economic and Workforce Development and assistant provost at the University of West Alabama. She began researching the potential for creating a National Heritage Area back in the early 2000s. Now she serves as executive director for the educational center that manages the Alabama Black Belt National Heritage Area.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: In the areas or the communities in which heritage areas exist, you see a rise in quality of life. You see economic development. You see them tackling issues such as water, air quality and some of those other things that contribute to making the place better.

Jennifer Errick: Like Bernard Turner, she had been interested in preserving the history of her area and had studied stories of the Black Belt as a student at the University of West Alabama. But one of her primary goals in pursuing a heritage area was to bring the benefits of tourism to this largely underserved region of the south. She joined a committee roughly 20 years ago around the same time that the state of Alabama had been exploring a number of tourism initiatives, including a birding trail. State officials hired a consultant and sent him to her area. He did look around at the birds, the birds were pretty cool, but ultimately he wanted them to think bigger.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: What that consultant did in hearing our stories started to say, "Have you ever considered a National Heritage Area? We think you have a powerful story to tell." So that committee then morphed into, well, what is a heritage area? What does that mean? Also, self-reflection of what is the Black Belt? How do you define it?

Jennifer Errick: It turns out that definition is more complex than it may seem.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: There is no one answer. The Black Belt term comes to us from our past and refers back to the soil and the Blackland Prairie. This is prairie soil.

Jennifer Errick: Culturally, however, the Black Belt term means much more. When Dr. Jones' committee first began researching the heritage of the Black Belt, the official map defined the region as a 12-county swath across the center of the state, but the committee asked people throughout those counties and beyond whether they identified with the term and what it meant to them. Over time, that boundary expanded.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: We looked at historical definitions, but literally then we went and knocked on those communities' doors and we talked to the leaders in those communities, "Do you align yourself historically, culturally with this place?" And by the time we got through with this, this is the 19 that said, "You know, this resonates with us. This is who we are."

Jennifer Errick: One of the counties that got added to the map is Montgomery County where Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a segregated city bus in 1955. It's also where Freedom Riders were beaten by a mob in 1961 and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. preached and led protestors in the fight for voting equality on his famous Selma to Montgomery march in 1965.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: We think about the history of Montgomery, particularly in recent years in the modern Civil Rights Movement, especially. How do you tell the story of the Black Belt of which the modern Civil Rights Movement as is such a strong component, and you leave out Montgomery?

Jennifer Errick: Civil rights is one of the major themes the heritage area will use to interpret its history. The region also has significant sites showcasing Native American history such as Moundville just south of Tuscaloosa, a rich archaeological site that was once the largest American city north of Mexico, and which Jones refers to as "the New York City of the 14th century." Years later, white settlers would covet the same rich soil attacking and disenfranchising the Mississippian people of the region. The same fertile land ultimately gave rise to the cotton industry and the plantations that exploited slave labor in the South. After the Civil War, this is where the Black Panthers would form in Lowndes County and where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. would choose to start his ministry.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: You can still walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge and you can then continue on to Highway 80 and end up in Lowndes County and experience where Tent City was or see the campsites, and then you can go on to Montgomery and walk into those steps and up the capitol and look out over and see what individuals saw at different periods of time, and I think that's really important that those places still exist.

Jennifer Errick: It turns out the chalky geology was also exceptional for preserving a different kind of history.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: We have been an area like many rural areas of extraction, and so some of our stories as a result and some of the things that have made us significant have been taken away to other places because of the chalk. We have a tremendous fossil record, probably the largest of any in the southeast. The Basilosaurus, which is a prehistoric whale, is a state fossil, but nowhere in the Black Belt can you actually view that. We have to send people to the Smithsonian. We even send them to other parts of the state. I want one day for them to see it in their hometown.

Jennifer Errick: Jones also highlights educational pioneers who hail from the region and the generations of artisans who still practice their traditions, including potters, painters, basket weavers, and the renowned Gee's Bend quilters.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: No one visitor follows one path, and so we want to make sure there are crossroads. Maybe that first question we asked, they know us because of the Edmund Pettus Bridge. However, there may be something in Selma that connects them to a different path or hub, and so what are those gateways into those communities, one, and then, two, where are the natural kind of centers of those stories that then could help push people out to discover them more deeply within the Black Belt?

Jennifer Errick: Jones has already seen initial benefits from the official recognition of the Black Belt as a heritage area.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: Designation mattered because suddenly there was an upswell again of that pride, and so now it's, let's roll up our sleeves again and go to the next step.

Jennifer Errick: Her own inspiration to become involved stems from her studies at the University of West Alabama.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: I did attend the University of West Alabama as an undergraduate and worked with a professor who was doing research on a woman named Ruby Pickens Tartt, who was from this region. She was an artist, and in the 1930s as part of the WPA Project worked with ethnomusicologist, John Lomax and others and collected the folklore, the folk stories, recorded ex-slave narratives, recorded music from the region. But there was this wealth of stuff, and it was all like, it happened right here, and it was a connection back to things like blues music and spirituals, that the legacy still exists, but we don't necessarily know it as well.

Jennifer Errick: Jones became inspired to make this history better known to the people in the region to help build that sense of pride.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: The narrative was all these things that were wrong are broken. And, yes, we do have difficulties, but there's so many marvelous things that have happened here, so I always like to say embrace the cool factor.

Jennifer Errick: As a testament to that cool factor, Jones helped capture testimonials from residents as part of vision sessions that guided her process. These personal statements kept her inspired throughout the 20 years she's been working toward establishing the heritage area. She still has these statements captured on sticky notes in her office, and as we talk, she pulls one of them out and starts reading from it.

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: The Black Belt is a surreal and serene place of stark contrast, Black and white, rich and poor, generous and greedy, beautiful and ugly, unlimited possibility and repressed opportunity, unbounded success and unspeakable tragedy. There is no single definitive explanation of what the Black Belt is. It is many things to many people. It is the soil into which we interred the remains of our loved ones and from which we derive our cultural souls. The more important question may be what will the Black Belt become?

Jennifer Errick: Now that the National Heritage Area legislation has passed and funding for these sites is more secure, Sara Capen and others are looking to focus on the future, including how to make these hidden gems a little less hidden.

Sara Capen: Visibility is key, and we haven't been able to focus on that because we are basically saving ourselves first, and we realized that once we were able to get that bill passed, then we could focus on those next critical steps.

Jennifer Errick: Capen hopes, part of building that visibility will be investing in dedicated staff.

Sara Capen: This will probably come as a surprise, maybe to you, Jennifer, maybe you already know it, but we're predominantly an all-volunteer organization. I've been volunteering as chair since 2016. We have very limited paid staff that does administrative details for us, but we don't have that large powerhouse structure that I think we need now. We've reached the point where we're on a national platform. We have 62 National Heritage Areas now, right? That's a lot to organize with just volunteers.

Jennifer Errick: I asked Capen how she became an advocate for heritage areas and her passion was clear despite her long hours of volunteer service and the many ups and downs she's endured in her decade of work.

Sara Capen: They don't tell you about National Heritage Areas in school and they don't tell you about this career path. And over the years I've learned and grown, and the best way to be an advocate is to share why you love this program so dearly and why it's working in communities where other things don't work, and especially in places that have been disinvested but are the heart of America's story, that makes the advocacy easy when you could sell something like that.

Jennifer Errick: The Secret Lives of Parks is a production of the National Parks Conservation Association. Episode 20, The Heart of America's Story was produced by me, Jennifer Errick, with help from Todd Christopher, Bev Stanton, Linda Coutant, and Vanessa Pius. 

Special thanks to Alan Spears, NPCA's longstanding expert on National Heritage Areas. 

Original theme music by Chad Fischer.

Learn more about the Alliance of National Heritage Areas at 

Learn more about this podcast and listen to the rest of our stories at

For more than a century, the National Parks Conservation Association has been protecting and enhancing America's national parks for present and future generations with more than 1.6 million members and supporters, NPCA is the nation's only independent, nonpartisan advocacy organization dedicated to protecting national parks. 

And we're proud of it too. 

You can join the fight to preserve all our national parks and our national heritage areas. Learn more and join us at

Dr. Tina Naremore Jones: Every day there's something else you uncover. This will not stop. It is just ongoing.