We are met on a great battle-field of that war. We have come to dedicate a portion of that field, as a final resting-place for those who here gave their lives, that that nation might live. It is altogether fitting and proper that we should do this. But, in a larger sense, we cannot dedicate, we cannot consecrate—we cannot hallow—this ground. The brave men, living and dead, who struggled here, have consecrated it far above our poor power to add or detract.”Abraham Lincoln, excerpt from the Gettysburg Address, Nov. 1863
About the PASS Project
As with the Gettysburg battlefield and cemetery that Lincoln famously said were consecrated and hallowed by brave men, the United States possesses dozens of singular, consecrated, and hallowed places where citizens and others can visit to absorb elements of the nation’s depth of pain, triumph, awe, reverence, disappointments and dreams. Our project’s title, “Sacred Spaces,” in this context refers to physical sites that help define America where we can literally stand and take in profound layers of meaning that have the capacity to help citizens plumb the depths of our national character and to help heal our wounds in the process.
Our goal with PASS is to identify, visit, and document important American sites that we believe Americans should visit, absorb – and be absorbed into – in order to help us understand what citizenship in this nation means, in all its complicatedness. Then, our goal is to produce works of writing and other forms of documentation that will help to encourage people – citizens and visitors alike – to visit these sites.
As with Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, we believe that it is “altogether fitting and proper” to visit and recognize the significance of such sacred sites as the cemetery where he stood to make his speech. As President Lincoln said, we believe that the “full measure” of the meaning of these places he speaks of are not ours to imbue. Rather the sites themselves hold a special consecration that we hope to take in and hold in reverence. As millions know, Lincoln’s speech helps us with understanding the sacrality of Gettysburg today. We believe there are other places in America that call for similar visits and work. Simply put, this fitting and proper work of identifying our hallowed ground is our goal.
The four basic concepts represented by our name guide us.
- Pilgrimage – In this context, “pilgrimage” means to travel to a place with reverence, openness of the heart and mind, on a serious quest for truth. Most important, by using the term pilgrimage, we mean to show we believe in actual travel to places is essential. And, as with all pilgrimages, the going is as important as the arrival. In other words, more than saying something about arrival, pilgrimages are about an attitude of someone on a sacred journey, with the attitude of the pilgrim being as important as any emphasis on a single destination.
- American – The United States of America is a storied place with many historical, cultural, and even spiritual meanings that teach us why we should hold this place dear. As stated above, America calls for a patriotism that means we must accept as our own a meaning of “American” in all its complicatedness, both its pain and promise. We must allow the truth of America, even when it is hard, to enter us and transform us.
- Sacred – To emphasize the sacred is to take on an attitude of reverence. Most human beings already understand and undertake an attitude of the sacred when we stand at solemn places with a sense of respect and even awe, as with burial sites. Perhaps the best-known places of this sort in America along with Gettysburg are Arlington National Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial in New York City, and the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, DC. We believe that there are other lesser-known, but equally important, sacred spaces that we must visit and study in order to understand the United States in all its fullness. Sites such as those pictured above (Manzanar, the Trail of Tears, and the site of Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech at the Lincoln Monument) are just a few examples. There are many others.
- Spaces — In some theoretical frameworks, places are spaces imbued with human experiences and meanings. We could have said, therefore, that America’s sacred places are those locations that are given special significance. The problem of using the word “places,” here, is that in America, a land of conflict and confusion as much as certainty of orientation. Using the term “spaces” provides for the possibility of multiple interpretations, or places, for a variety of people. Sacred spaces are places we imbue with meaning, but in the sense of this project, it’s not always certain which version of a place we should privilege. Take Little Big Horn, for example. There are two major conflicting viewpoints of why we might hold such a place sacred. Thus, while in many senses, “place” and “space” could be used interchangeably, here we prefer to keep the possibilities open for multiple interpretations and use “spaces.” A space can allow a “pilgrim” to travel to a place and experience without being told what to think. A sacred place, say for example a synagogue or church, has a specific meaning attached to dogma and tradition. In contrast, a sacred rock may have many different significances of place associated with it. Leaving it as a space allows for a diversity of views.
In 2018, a Bass Connections project team (see project team pictured below) helped launch a multiyear, in-depth documentary research initiative to tell the stories of essential American places providing the early foundational materials for an interactive website, app, and field guide. Team members collected oral history narratives, images, maps, video and supplementary readings about two initial sites and identified people, community resources and archives to consult in each location. The Bass project served as a think-tank for future work on PASS.
An inspiration for our Bass Team was the Toni Morrison Society’s Bench by the Road” project. Excerpts from their website follow:
“The Bench by the Road Project is a memorial history and community outreach initiative of the Toni Morrison Society. The Project was launched on February 18, 2006, on the occasion of Toni Morrison’s 75th Birthday. The name “Bench by the Road” is taken from Morrison’s remarks in a 1989 interview with World Magazine where she spoke of the absences of historical markers that help remember the lives of Africans who were enslaved and of how her fifth novel, Beloved, served this symbolic role:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book had to”
Toni Morrison, The World, 1989.The goal of the Bench by the Road Project is to address the lament that Toni Morrison expressed in her interview by placing Benches and plaques at sites commemorating significant moments, individuals, and locations within the history of the African Diaspora. Since 2006, the Toni Morrison Society has placed 20 Benches at sites, including Sullivan’s Island, South Carolina; Walden Woods in Lincoln, Massachusetts; The 20th Arrondissement in Paris, France; Fort-de-France, Martinique; and, most recently, the Schomburg Center in Harlem, New York. See more here: https://www.tonimorrisonsociety.org/bench.html
Some of the places we considered in the first phase. Note that as we further researched the sites and developed criteria for selection of finalists, some necessarily rose to the top of the list and others fell off the list entirely.
Some of the places we have considered in our discussions:
16th Street Baptist Church, Birmingham, Alabama*
Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama
National Memorial for Peace and Justice, Montgomery, Alabama Denali National Park, Alaska
Canyon de Chelly, Arizona
Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona
Sedona Vortex, Arizona
Little Rock, Arkansas
Catalina Island, California
Chinatown, San Francisco, California*
Donner Party, California
Mt. Cuchama, California
Redwood National Park, California
Walnut Grove Chinese Historic District, Walnut Grove, California Yosemite, California*
Boulder County Courthouse, Boulder, Colorado
Mesa Verde, Colorado
Sandy Hook Elementary School, Newtown, Connecticut Disneyworld, Florida
Key West, Florida
Stoneman Douglas High School, Parkland, Florida
Pulse Nightclub, Orlando, Florida
Moore’s Ford Bridge, Georgia
Iolani’s Palace, Hawaii
Mauna Kea, Hawaii
Pearl Harbor, Hawaii
Pu’ukohla Heiau National Historic Site, Hawaii
Burr Oak Cemetery, Alsip, Illinois
Hull House, Chicago, Illinois
Tribune Tower, Chicago, Illinois
San Francisco de Asis Mission Church, Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico French Quarter, New Orleans, Louisiana
Whitney Plantation, Edgar, Louisiana
Harvard University, Cambridge, Massachusetts
Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts
Hitsville USA, Detroit, Michigan
Motown, Detroit, Michigan
Mall of America, Bloomington, Minnesota
Little Bighorn, Montana
Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada
Las Vegas Strip, Nevada
America’s Stonehenge, Salem, New Hampshire Asbury Park, New Jersey
Acoma Pueblo, New Mexico
Central Park, Manhattan, New York
Harlem, New York
National September 11 Memorial & Museum, New York, New York
New York Public Library, New York, New York
Niagara Falls, New York
Occupy Wall Street, New York, New York
Seneca Falls, New York*
Statue of Liberty, Ellis Island, New York*
Stonewall Riots, New York, New York
Times Square, New York, New York
Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire, New York, New York
Woodstock, Bethel, New York
Yankee Stadium, Bronx, New York
YWCA Harlem, New York, New York
Anna Julia Cooper Gravesite, Raleigh, North Carolina
Bennett Place, Durham, North Carolina
Charlotte Hawkins Brown Museum, Sedalia, North Carolina
Great Smoky Mountains National Park, North Carolina
Greensboro Woolworths, Greensboro, North Carolina
Hart House, Stagville, North Carolina
NC Mutual Life Insurance Building, Durham, North Carolina
Nina Simone Birthplace, Tryon, North Carolina
Pauli Murray Home, Durham, North Carolina
Ritcher House Frank Lloyd Wright, Raleigh, North Carolina
Somerset Canals, Terrell County, North Carolina
St. Agnes Hospital, Raleigh, North Carolina
Tobacco Workers Protest in Rocky Mount and Winston Salem, North Carolina True Value Hardware Store, North Carolina
Great Serpent Mound, Ohio
Harriet Beecher Stowe House, Cincinnati, Ohio
Kent State University, Kent, Ohio
Crater Lake, Oregon
Kam Wah Chung Company Building, John Day, Oregon
Independence Hall, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania Touro Synagogue, Newport, Rhode Island
Fort Wagner, Charleston, South Carolina
Sullivan’s Island, Charleston, South Carolina
Wounded Knee, South Dakota
Tabernacle, Salt Lake City, Utah*
Topaz Internment Camp, Millard County, Utah
Charlottesville, Virginia Jamestown, Virginia Southampton County, Virginia Yorktown, Virginia
Panama Hotel, Seattle, Washington*
Harpers Ferry National Historical Park, West Virginia
Devil’s Tower, Wyoming*
South Pass Oregon Trail, Wyoming
Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming
Ford’s Theatre, Washington, D.C.
National Mall, Washington, D.C.
Vietnam War Memorial, Washington, D.C.
Blue Ridge Mountains, (Georgia, Maryland, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia)
Cumberland Gap National Historical Park, (Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia)
Great Northern Railway National Park, (Minnesota, Montana, Wisconsin)
Hoover Dam, (Arizona, Nevada)
Rio Grande, (Colorado, New Mexico, Texas)
Standing Rock Indian Reservation, (North Dakota, South Dakota)
Trail of Tears (Alabama, Georgia, Illinois, Kentucky, Montana, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Tennessee) U.S. Mexico Border (Arizona, California, New Mexico, Texas)
* indicates that in-depth research has been completed on this location
Final criteria for selection of sites
In preparation for selecting saced spaces, Charlie Thompson wrote up the following thoughts.
- We should know “backwards and forwards” what we mean when we say
“ sacred spaces.” If we are not comfortable using this term, we should discard it and use something else that everyone likes. If we like “sacred,” we must know why are we are using this loaded traditionally-religious term for a civic meaning having to do with a nation.
- When I first conceived of this project, it had as its backbone a belief that the United States as an idea (all are created free, democracy, land of immigrants, etc.) is worth salvaging from its own sordid history of atrocities that belie it. Why do I believe this? Because not believing this is to give up fighting and either let the naysayers have our future, or join the anarchists who believe in no possible idea of nation as workable. While the other ideas are tempting, I started trying to garner support for this project because, even after living through so many disappointments and downright depressing outcomes, I still had some inkling of faith in possibilities for the U.S. In other words, I thought of this as a project espousing, “hope against hope,” (a phrase from the Bible and later used by Tolkien and others) meaning, even when there is little reason to hope, hope anyway.
- We should know the most prominent nodes/crossroads/intersections/crises of U.S. history that we are trying to represent spatially, culturally, and historically as a means of helping us decide which spaces we choose. If there is overlap, we should be able to say why one place is like the other, or not.
- Adriane Lentz Smith gave us a reading that helped me see anew that history has had a “spatial turn” that is worth our embracing. In other words, Adriane talked about history’s rediscovery of the field of geography. Norman Wirzba studies theology’s turn toward land as a crucial move in those circles. I note that anthropology has long been place-centered when studying cultures. Land and place are crucial to understanding indigenous peoples anywhere. And there can be no understanding of the “Trail of Tears,” for example, without the concept of “sacred space.” If all sacredness were believed to be situated in another realm like heaven or Valhalla, then people wouldn’t need to feel the same attachment to places.
- I love Woody Guthrie’s song, “This Land is Your Land” for its place-centeredness. It contains a verse not often sung that discounts the idea of “No Trespassing” signs. His song inspires me to think that space can be revered without it being possessed or fenced. The idea of the intellectual and spatial Commons is what this project is after – at least in part.
- Again, we should know why we are doing this work. Is it because we believe that people when they go somewhere will understand America’s meaning? We have to know our motivations about this. Why travel?
- As I said when I talked about pilgrimage, going places has deep meaning for many. Take, for example, the return to the Edmund Pettus Bridge by President Barack Obama. When we list to the speech he gave there, we realize it could not have been given anywhere else. Our president had to stand in the shadow of that bridge named for a Confederate general in order to convey its place in America’s march toward freedom (and here we know we are talking about a literal march, covering space and thereby reclaiming it for sacred purposes of human and civil rights).
- We must acknowledge how crossing spaces/borders/bridges can be easy for some, but painful and even deadly for others.
- We must ask whether we are willing to challenge America’s myths as we make selections. I heard some of this in the Hawaii ideas presented in our meeting. Is Pearl Harbor the real crossroads we seek or is it merely a part of the story of colonialism and displacement on the island? Can’t it be both?
- We must not only list the sites we hold dear, but the epochs and episodes of U.S. history that we are representing so that nothing foundational is left out.
- What is national? What is local? Why is this project about the national?
We should consider the idea of layered/buried histories. What places can we dig down into and find multiple meanings. Again, take the Edmund Pettus bridge. Why the Confederate naming; what significance the river before the bridge; why Selma was there; coming of slavery, plantations, Native American presence at the river, etc.?
After much deliberation and disagreement, students on the Bass Connections team crafted the following selection criteria for any final lists of America’s Sacred Sites:
- Includes a contribution to understanding and absorbing the broad patterns of history.
- Addresses the significance of historical erasure in the United States and our responsibility in reclaiming the invisible places of significance.
- Contains evidence of significance within its physical geography. In other words, one has to be able to go to a site to take it in.
- Is visually interesting and stimulating to the senses. While some sites have been disappeared or forgotten, there should still be ways to experience and represent spaces as something deeper than urban wasteland.
- Prompts and allows for an experience gained by visitation.
- Commemorates or memorializes a historic person or event.
- Contains multiple layers of history. This may simply be that what’s on the surface of a place is not its only significance.
This list of seven criteria will inform our continuing efforts of selection. We will seek to add other criteria as we progress.
After two semesters of research and writing, the team compiled final documents and entered the Bass Connections Showcase in 2019, where we won second place in the Poster Competition audience award.
Moving forward with our project, we will seek funding to finalize our site selection methodology, our list of first sites for documentation, and then in early 2021 we plan to start traveling to each of them, staying for a length of time in order to conduct deeper ethnographic/qualitative investigation. The goal will be to work with local organizations to connect to places through people who live near them and who interact with the designated spaces on a regular basis.
Interested parties should contact Prof. Charlie Thompson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Charlie Thompson is Professor of the Practice of Cultural Anthropology and Documentary Studies.