Michael Allen: Preserving culture and heritage a way of life
Michael Allen, Community Partnership Specialist at the National Park Service, is well known in local and regional circles. For 33 years he has worked at getting people to recognize their place in our American experience. From preservation to education, Allen’s hands have been on many items of cultural importance.
In thanks to his dedication and commitment, he was nominated and has been chosen to receive the 2013 Historic Preservation Governor’s Award. The award will be presented by Governor Nikki R. Haley outside the governor’s office in the lower lobby of the State House followed by a reception hosted by Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice at the Histon Preston Lorick House, 1717 Hampton Street, Columbia on Tuesday, June 11 at 2:30 p.m.
He was nominated by Jannie Harriot of the African American Heritage Commission.
“The award is one we have been sponsoring in partnership with the South Carolina Department of Archives and History and the office of the governor,” said Michael E. Bedenbaugh, executive director of the Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation. “We manage awards to help recognize folks sacrificing and spending their life working on preservation issues and who are successful and making a difference in their own respective communities.”
Allen is an education specialist at Fort Sumter and Charles Pinckney National Historical sites. He also is a board member for the African-American Historical alliance. He worked extensively to create the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor, among many other resources.
Allen grew up in Kingstree and is a 1982 graduate of South Carolina State College with a degree in History Education. He began his public career as a Cooperative Education Student with the National Park Service in 1980. He has served as a Park Ranger, Education Specialist and is the Community Partnership Specialist for the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor/Fort Sumter National Monument and Charles Pinckney National Historic Site.
He has been a community activist for most of his professional life. Allen has a deep-seeded interest in the nation’s spiritual growth as it relates to history and culture. He played a major role in the National Park Service’s Gullah Geechee Special Resource Study which began in 2000.
The Gullah people, also known as Geechee in some areas, are the descendants of enslaved Africans brought from West Africa to work on plantations in the fertile coastal crescent from the St. Johns River in Florida to the Cape Fear River in North Carolina. The language, food and religion of their native Africa was integrated with the circumstances forced on them in America to form a distinct culture rich in language, art and culture. The Gullah Geechee Special Resource Study examines the feasibility and suitability of establishing educational centers as well as determining ways to increase interpretation and preservation of this valuable culture.
Gullah Geechee Heritage
The final report by the study was presented to Congress in May of 2005.
In October of 2006 the U.S. Congress through the leadership of Congressman James E. Clyburn (SC-06), the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act was passed which established the first African American Heritage Area in the country. In October of 2007 Allen was instrumental in the establishment of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Commission which is comprised of 25 members from all four states of the corridor.
Allen continued to provide inspiration and guidance to the corridor as it coordinator. Thus his primary responsibility is to ensure that this journey of establishing a new National Heritage Area become a reality in an effort to provide hope, opportunity and support to grass root organizations and the wider Gullah Geechee Community.
In October of 2009 Allen was formally elevated to the coordinator position for the corridor and is directing the efforts to develop a management plan which will guide the operations of the corridor for the next decade.
Allen has also been involved in designing exhibits and presenting interpretive programs that involve local communities and history. These programs are designed to attract non-traditional audiences to National Park Service sites. He was instrumental in 1999, in erecting the “African Importation Historic Marker” on Sullivan’s Island; in 2008 he assisted the Toni Morrison Society in erecting a “Bench by the Road” at Fort Moultrie to memorialize the islands participation in the African slave trade.
Finally in 2009 he was instrumental in unveiling “African Passages” an exhibit which highlights the African arrival, presence and contributions to Gullah Geechee Culture and American society through the eyes of Africans and African American who passed through Sullivan’s Island on their way to be enslaved in the Charleston and beyond. An additional focus of his career has been the inclusion of the socio-economical and political influences that brought the country to Civil War. He recently was appointed by State Representative Bobby Harrell to the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee which will oversee the observance of the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War as well as the events of Reconstruction.
On June 1, 2010, Allen celebrated his 30th year with the National Park Service.
Allen is currently involved in an innovative project designed to engage new audiences in understanding and appreciating African and American history. He is a founding board member of the International African American Museum, which is slated to open in 2016 in Charleston. It will offer a glimpse of Africans and African Americans contributions in the making of the modern world.
In addition to his association with the International African American Museum, he was a founding member and former vice president of the South Carolina African American Heritage Commission. He was the past treasure for the South Carolina Council for African American studies. He also served as a board member for a number of local and statewide organizations such as, The African American Historical Alliance, Habitat for Humanities East Cooper and the Sweetgrass Cultural Arts Festival Association. He recently was appointed to the NPS Culture Resource Advisory Board.
He and his wife are the co-founders of Bridge of Hope, a Community Outreach 501 (c) 3 non-profit organization created to serve the needs of the underserved in North Charleston. Finally Allen’s motto is, “to understand the present and move toward the future, you must first know and accept your past.”
Palmetto Trust for Historic Preservation has a selection committee made up designees from the Palmetto Trust, the South Carolina Department of Archives and History, the African American Heritage Commission, the governor’s office, South Carolina Parks and Tourism Commission, the Confederation of Local Historical Societies and the National Trust. Nominees are then weighed, and special honors are given to numerous recipients. This lifetime achievement award is designated to one special person each year. This is the 18th year the award has been given.
“Nikki R. Haley has been very cooperative with her time and participation in the award presentation,” said Bedenbaugh. “It’s always been a success to have so many people celebrating the good work other people commit to in their lives.”
He said the recipients chosen over the years run the gamut and are from all walks of life. “It shows how many people who are out there, within the common fabric of our state, doing a lot of good hard work and making a real difference. These award recipients have not been not elected officials or community leaders - just good common folks that do good work,” he said.
“The State of South Carolina wouldn’t be as special as it is without their work, time and dedication. The Palmetto Trust is honored to honor them.”
The Palmetto Trust is a membership organization that is the only statewide historic preservation organization dedicated to preserving and protecting historic places of South Carolina.
Allen was nominated by Jannie Harriot of the African American Heritage Commission.
When I was first approached about this,” Allen said, “I learned it was a lifetime achievement award. And as I looked at it today in my 33rd year with the National Park Service, I could never have imagined I would remain and be engaged as publicly as I have for 33 years. I never imagined the opportunities I would have to really engage the American public. But I’ve been able to encourage, enlighten, and educate them.”
Allen said that when he adds up all that he has been able to accomplish, and all of the things he has worked on corroboratively, he is struck with awe that people entrusted him and put faith in him to help them and bring these things to life.
And while this recognition is a lifetime achievement award, Allen is not ready to retire.
“I still have miles to go, things to accomplish and things I want to help others accomplish as well,” he said.
“That is the essence and what it means to me to receive this award. And I am grateful my family was able to put up with me on phone and traveling all these years to accomplish so much.”
And in reflecting on his life of public service, Allen sits on the porch of the Charles Pinckney house. Pinckeny himself was a public servant. “And this is a part of the narrative to bring the stories to life and it is rewarding,” Allen said.
“I am grateful for the honor and appreciative to the African American Heritage Commission for nominating me and all organizations been involved with over the years in my public career.”