THE WASHINGTON POST – Tom Cummins knew a little something about Mary McLeod Bethune. He had read about the civil rights activist in the context of Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s “Black Cabinet,” a group of African American leaders that the president and his wife consulted in shaping their New Deal programmes. So when Cummins’ guidebook suggested the Mary McLeod Bethune Council House National Historic Site as an off-the-beaten-path tourist destination, he and his wife, Shelley Potter – who were visiting Washington, DC, from San Antonio, Texas – were game.
The couple had been to Washington plenty of times before and had seen all the major sights. “We were looking for new places to visit,” Potter said as we made our way through the tall, elegant townhouse with our guide, National Park Service Ranger Vince Vaise. We moved through the stately rooms where Bethune, founder of the National Council of Negro Women, had greeted visitors, and Vaise pointed out her desk and telephone and an enormous dining room table around which she held meetings.
Bethune’s story was remarkable; unfortunately, however, not enough people were learning it. I’m a history fiend who seeks out just this kind of hidden place, but I was also there to talk to Vaise because I’d stumbled across a 2018 Park Service list ranking national historic sites by visitor numbers. And the Bethune house was listed in last place – 75th of 75 sites.
Also in the bottom 15 were the First Ladies site in Canton, Ohio, the Clara Barton site in Glen Echo, Maryland, and the Maggie L. Walker site in Richmond, Virginia – women-centered sites all. The only woman-related site to break out of the bottom 20 was the Eleanor Roosevelt site in Hyde Park, New York, which graced spot number 26 on the list.
“National historic site” is just one of many Park Service designations. The Jefferson Memorial, for example, is a national memorial; Abraham Lincoln’s birthplace in Kentucky is a national historical park. Sites tend to be smaller in scale. Think Ford’s Theatre (No 4), the Allegheny Portage Railroad (No 10), Hopewell Furnace (No. 33). In 2018, the most popular national historic site was Fort Point, near the Golden Gate Bridge, with 1,400,491 visitors.
The Bethune site, by contrast, had exactly 109 visitors in 2018. Vaise quickly pointed out that this was mostly due to its having been closed for maintenance from the fall of 2016 until December 8, 2018. That certainly explained a lot. In 2015, by contrast, the house had 8,249 visitors. Nevertheless, it still ranked near the bottom – 63 out of 72 listed sites that year.
For last year, the Clara Barton House sat just above the Bethune site at 74th place, with 425 visitors. The Steamboat Gothic house stands at the end of a quiet road, stained-glass red crosses glowing from an upper-story window. Inside, Barton thriftily used bandage muslin as a covering for the ceilings and walls and to suspend a light fixture. The neighbourhood’s developers had wooed Barton, the founder of the American Red Cross, to settle here, Ranger Kevin Patti said, to boost the area’s visibility. “She was famous for 50 of her 90 years,” Patti said. But what about now?