Friday, May 21, 2010

African-American managing Jefferson Davis Park

Here is an interesting story from this week's Todd County Standard:

By Tonya S. Grace
Todd County Standard

Ron Sydnor cuts an imposing figure as he stands near the entrance of the museum at the Jefferson Davis State Historic Site in Fairview.

He is framed in the rear by the park’s famed Jefferson Davis Monument, known as the tallest unreinforced concrete structure in the world, and by the flags flying overhead in the breeze on this sunny spring afternoon.

He is a good fit for the park — for the historic site along US 68 where Sydnor, a former Marine, a student of history and native of Russellville, is now the park manager.

Officials with the Kentucky Division of Parks cite his background in history and the military and his knowledge of the local area as assets for his new job.

“He’s got a lot of familiarity with the area, and he knows that history backward and forward,” observed Chris Kellogg, the department’s communications director.

Sydnor is likely the first African-American to manage the local park, which is the site of the birthplace of Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy during the Civil War.

And Sydnor said he believes that his ethnicity too will be a plus in his capacity as park manager. He said it will give him a chance to dispel some of the myths surrounding the history of the Civil War era, and he noted that black history is intertwined with that history.

“I see myself as a bit of a historian, and this is history,” said Sydnor, who has a bachelor’s degree in history with an emphasis on the colonial era through the Civil War.

“None of us can deny that this happened,” he continued. “As long as I look at it from a standpoint of history, it’s not an issue.”
Sydnor said he was “welcomed with open arms” during a planning meeting for a re-enactment that will be a part of the Jefferson Davis Birthday Celebration in June, and he said park visitors and local residents have received him well at times when he’s been introduced as the new manager.

Sydnor grew up in Pembroke and attended Pembroke Elementary School. He served 20 years in the Marine Corps before retiring in 1992.

Eight years later he returned to Pembroke, and Sydnor began working in the state parks system five years ago when he was named assistant manager at Kenlake State Resort Park.

In March 2006 he became assistant manager at Lake Barkley State Resort Park and spent seven months at that post before being named park manager at Fairview.

Kellogg said Sydnor is among only a handful of African-American park managers in the state’s parks system.

His first day on the job was Monday, and he said he has plans to expand offerings at the park, including new programs that will focus on the Union perspective of the Civil War era, on the lives of Union and Confederate soldiers, on the women’s role at home, and on the part that both African Americans and Native Americans played during the Civil War era.

Sydnor noted that both the Union and Confederacy had color troops, or troops of African Americans who fought with them. Both sides also had Native Americans fighting, and the women were “making do” with their families while the men were away, according to Sydnor.

He said the dolls played with by young girls of the era also had an integral part in the Civil War. They were used to smuggle medicine.

“Eventually where I want to get to is to be able to have at least one program a month,” Sydnor said.

He also noted that his ultimate goal is to keep the park open throughout the year.

Right now it closes on Oct. 31 and reopens on May 1 each year, and hours of operation are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily.

Sydnor said the park attracts about 25,000 people each year for tours of the park and monument and another 50,000 to 60,000 who use the two rental shelters and enjoy the park‘s other amenities.

The historic site also has open areas that are free for use and a gift shop where visitors can purchase Civil War souvenirs and other items. The museum offers a video presentation that shares the history of the park and museum.

Sydnor said the current presentation talks about Jefferson Davis and the Confederacy, although he hopes to develop additional programs in the future.

He noted that the local park is embarking on a new era now that will include people from all walks of life.

“It’s going to be a park where everybody, regardless of background, will be able to come and enjoy (it),” Sydnor said. “The history here is not just one group of people’s history. It’s all of our histories.”

The Pembroke man observed that African Americans tend to stay away from things that have an association with the Confederate States of America, but he said he hopes to utilize the park as an educational tool “because they need to know” the

He noted that there are black families that use the park for reunions, but that is not enough, he said, noting that more participation is needed from the black community.

Sydnor said he came to Jefferson Davis because Stefanie Gaither, a regional manager with the Kentucky Division of Parks, thought he would be a good fit for the park given his military background and studies of history.

Kellogg said it was his contributions to the area, his passion for history and his military background that all came together to make Sydnor a good fit.

He also worked previously with the Boys and Girls Club in Hopkinsville and did a good job with that organization, Kellogg said.

“The sesquicentennial of the Civil War is coming up next year, and the opportunity to juxtapose the history of the area is absolutely critical,” she noted. “There’s a great story to be told. Kentucky had a critical role in the Civil War, and (Sydnor) has the expertise to take care of all that.”


Blogger susanna in alabama said...

Sounds like Sydnor is a wonderful choice regardless of his race - he's got the knowledge and experience to make Civil War history come alive. His race, to me, just means that he probably has greater knowledge about the African-American element of the Civil War discourse (a complex area), and will have greater credibility with some groups when he presents the tangled truths behind the conflict. Too often the Civil War is painted as a conflict over one issue - slavery. That's not true. Many who fought on the Confederate side did not have slaves or support slavery. Sounds like Sydnor plans to present it all. That's great. I hope to get out there once he's had time to develop and produce his ideas.

1:03 PM, May 24, 2010  

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