Profile 2021: A deserving award for those who preserve our history
The story appeared in The Vicksburg Post’s annual Profile magazine. This year’s theme was “Letters From Home,” featuring 26 stories of people, places and things from throughout Vicksburg and Warren County.
For those associated with the Vicksburg National Military Park — those with the National Park Service, and those with the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign — it would be understandable if 2020 would be categorized as a year of disappointment.
And while the number of those who visited Vicksburg’s and the state’s most popular attraction was significantly lower in 2020 as compared to 2019, the year provided park supporters the chance to let other facets of their work and preservation shine. That work has also drawn the recognition of state historical officials.
Recently, the Friends organization was named one of six recipients of the Award of Merit presented by the Mississippi Historical Society. It marks the first time the park and the Friends have earned such an honor.
“From funding interpretive signs, expanding the boundaries of the park to prevent commercial encroachment, volunteering to keep the park open during government shutdowns, and advocacy efforts with government officials, the Friends of the Vicksburg National Park and Campaign’s efforts will preserve and enhance the park for future generations,” Marshall Bennett, president of the Mississippi Historical Society, said.
The Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaign is a non-profit organization that supports the mission and the operations of the Vicksburg National Military Park through advocacy, monument restoration, educational efforts, volunteer programs and more.
Awards of Merit are presented annually to individuals or organizations for their outstanding archival, museum, historical preservation, or media interpretation work.
“We work very hard for the preservation of these sites for future generations and having that work recognized by the state really signifies the state is behind our efforts. It makes us very proud,” Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park Executive Director Bess Averett said. “A lot of times our organization is known for the visible things we do — the volunteer workdays, the concerts, the programs, the authors, the student Junior Ranger camps, but a lot of what we do is behind the scenes in preservation and advocacy, trying to work out land deals and land contracts, and trying to provide interpretation for new sites.
“All of that is not as visible, but in 2020 — when you took all the public events away — I feel like we have gotten more recognition for the work that we do on things like repairing the National Cemetery road and the advocacy work that we do in D.C.,” Averett said. “That is a very big part of what we do, but it is not a very visible part of what we do. 2020 at least gave us an opportunity to shine a light on that facet of what we do.”
Brig. Gen. Robert Crear (Ret.), President of the Friends of the Vicksburg National Military Park and Campaigns’ Board of Directors, said the recognition also shows that part of the group’s effort to get more attention from local and state officials and residents is starting to provide results.
“People come from far and wide, from throughout the United States and around the world, come to visit our battlefield, but sometimes the locals, and the state, we felt that perhaps did not give us the recognition we needed,” Crear said. “This park is a treasure for them as well. Having this recognition is certainly in line with what we are trying to do of getting our local community and our state to understand the importance of what goes on here.”
In 2020, the park welcomed 191,385 visitors, nearly 70 percent fewer than in 2019, when more than 600,000 came through the park.
Due to the pandemic, the park’s visitor center and museums were closed on March 17, while the Tour Road was closed to vehicles on April 4. The road reopened in June.
But even though the number of visitors was down, the importance the park plays has continued.
Averett, who serves on a steering committee with other Friends organizations throughout the country, said the pandemic forced residents to look at the National Parks, especially those with natural features, differently.
“The natural parks have been overrun with people during the pandemic. That is where people found peace of mind, a mental break and a place for recreation where you can do it safely,” Averett said. “We have recreational users, but that has never been our priority, our priority is our history, obviously. But during the pandemic, it was the recreational visitors that came through, which is a great reminder of what we have.”