By Briana Mosley, NNPA Special Correspondent –
WASHINGTON (NNPA) - The national Park Service is prohibited from gathering race-connected activity or numbers; so anything that its employees might observe about the people visiting Washington, D.C. monuments would be unscientific and just based on personal anecdotes.
That’s why Bill Line, a spokesman for the National Parks Service who has worked for NPS for nearly a decade, was strongly reserved about commenting when asked by a reporter whether he could confirm speculations that African-American tourists have begun to flock to the Nation’s Capital to see the White House, monuments and museums that have been more often visited by White Americans over the years. But, ultimately, he said the obvious:
“The short answer is yes, I would say that to the eye – to my eye and probably other people as well - I think that we have seen an increase in the number of African-Americans that are coming to visit the sites on the National Mall whether it’s the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Jefferson Memorial, the World War II Memorial or also to visit the White House,” he said in an interview with the NNPA News Service. “Can I prove anything,? No. But my guess is that it may well be as a direct result of Barack Obama being president. I can’t prove anything, but it’s a guest at best on my part.”
Line is not alone in his observations. As Washington welcomed spring at the National Cherry Blossom Festival that attracts thousands to D.C.’s National Mall every year, African-Americans were clearly there in greater numbers, say long-time observers who agreed that increase is being seen across the board.
Chriss Portella, a 35-year-old native of Paris, France, has been living in the District for 10 years and manages Bistro Franca restaurant at M and Wisconsin in Georgetown. Every spring, Portella visits the flowering trees festival, but lately he has also noticed the colorful diversity in the throngs of people. More Black folks are now visiting the National Mall and the Cherry Blossoms than before Obama’s inauguration, he said.
Virginia Johnson, a roads crossing guard for the National Mall, said, she has seen a change, too.
“Forty percent of the tourists are Black that I have noticed,” she said. “The rest are a diverse group.”
African-American tourists and international tourists are not distinguished by the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center, but an increase in visitors overall has been noticed. Tom Fontana, the Marketing and Communications Director for the U.S. Capitol Visitor’s Center said, “Since 2008 there has been double the amount of visitors. We welcomed 2.5 million visitors last year compared to half that in prior years.” Fontana credits the increase to the accessibility of the visitor center.
The change is being welcomed by those who work the tourist industry and enjoyed by those who are partaking.
It was a balmy Spring Saturday afternoon and Loris Ayierebi watched as her three grandchildren made an Eco-vase at one of the exhibit tables at the National Building Museum in the District.
Ayierebi was one of the thousands of Cherry Blossom revelers who flocked to the Tidal Basin at the beginning of the two-week long annual National Cherry Blossom Festival.
“I needed something fabulous and fun to go to for my grandkids and I couldn’t be happier,” said Ayierebi, a Silver Spring resident, bobbing her head to the tunes of salsa music in the background. “This is my first time coming, but it was the best choice we could have made. I will definitely come back next year and maybe even be a volunteer!”
The Cherry Blossom Festival began in 1935 to commemorate the friendship between the United States and Japan, which gave the city cherry blossom trees in 1912. Organizers said they expect one million visitors, 45 percent of whom will be tourists from the nation and the world.
Gaithersburg resident Katrina Thomas was also among the first-time African-Americans at the festival. She brought her son with her and both would be coming back next year, she said.
“There is a lack of exposure in our communities,” Thomas said. “You must be open to exposing yourself to different cultures. I would have still come to the celebration even without a Black president in office.”
The two week annual Cherry Blossom Festival is kicked off in late March with a Family Day in the National Building Museum which this year crowded with young families of different backgrounds and cultures, including a sprinkle of Black families. They engaged in activities, performances, and displays throughout the expansive hall decorated with origami and Japanese pastel pink and green umbrellas. A warm family atmosphere arose as the hum of chatter and laughter echoed throughout the building.
It was a bit overwhelming for the 4-year-old daughter of Lorna Mccandless-Moss, who moved to DC from Tennessee three years ago.
“She’s having a hard time adjusting to the crowds,” said Mccandless-Moss, a first-time visitor to the festival. “In Tennessee, there were seldom free events. I see a lot more diversity here; it’s not just Black and White.”
Meanwhile, Ayierebi could not contain her enthusiasm for the festival.
“The children are fascinated to be here; kids love this and it’s great for all families!” she said.
Line, at the National Park Service, enthusiastically speculates that the increase in African-American will continue as exhibits grow to include racial history.
“In about two years, when the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial is completed and finished and open to the general public, we would further suspect that that would be yet another reason for an increase in African-Americans visiting the National Mall and that the MLK Memorial will cause a spill over affect [to other exhibits], for example, because its located in such close proximately to the FDR Memorial, the Lincoln Memorial, the Korean War Memorial, the Vietnam Vets Memorial and the World War II Memorial,” Line said.
Line says the apparent growth in diversity among the 25 million annual visitors to the National Mall is a positive change that the NPS embraces.
“We the National Park Service, as we always have - and we always will - we welcome every body here,” he said. “We believe there are reasons for all Americans and international visitors that come here.”
NNPA Editor-in-Chief Hazel Trice Edney contributed to this story.
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