By Barney Blakeney
Since 1980 National Park Service Ranger Michael A. Allen has been a fixture in Charleston playing a pivotal role in telling the story of African Americans in the region before and after the Civil War. Allen, a Kingstree native who graduated South Carolina State University with a degree in History Education, began his career with the NPS as a Cooperative Education Student. He has served as a Park Ranger, Education Specialist and Community Partnership Specialist for The Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor/Fort Sumter National Monument and Charles Pinckney National Historic sites. Effectively, Allen has been a foremost advocate and promoter of Black History and culture in the region. In December, after nearly 38 years with the park service, he retired.
Hailing from the farming community of Kingstree, Allen grew up in an environment that nurtured a cultural history as rich as the soil that grows some of South Carolina’s finest tobacco. His parents were politically active in the community where distinction among the races was stark. He recalls his parents taking him to see the late Dr. Martin L. King Jr. speak at the local Black high school when he was about six. Their activism was embedded in him as part of Allen’s DNA and he grew up with a love for history and culture.
Allen said it was when he left Kingstree after graduating Kingstree High School in 1978 and went to South Carolina State University that he realized there was so much missing in the conservative traditional southern education he got in schools there. His education at SCSU revealed a reality beyond his original horizon. But still he was unprepared for concepts he would encounter as a National Park Service Ranger in Charleston.
He started working with the park service as a Cooperative Education Student while still in college. When he started working full time as a ranger he quickly saw that the experience of African Americans either was neglected, inadequately explained or misunderstood in the historical narrative being presented. He became determined to change the narrative.
Over the course of nearly four decades Allen throughout his career, was involved in designing exhibits and presenting interpretive programs that involve local communities and history. The programs were designed to attract non-traditional audiences to National Park Service and other historic sites. He was instrumental in 1999 in erecting the “African Importation Historic Marker” on Sullivan’s Island.
Allen has been a community activist for most of his professional life and has had a deep-seeded interest in our nation’s spiritual growth as it relates to the 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-Geechee Special Resource Study examined the feasibility of establishing educational centers as well as determining ways to increase interpretation and preservation of the valuable culture. The final report was presented to Congress in 2005. In 2006 the U.S. Congress through the leadership of Congressman James E. Clyburn, passed the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor Act establishing the first and only African American Heritage Area in the country.
An additional focus of Allen’s career has been the inclusion of the socio-economic and political influences that brought the country to civil war. He was appointed and served on the South Carolina Civil War Sesquicentennial Committee, which oversaw the observance of the 150th anniversary of the Civil War as well as events of Reconstruction. In 2014 Allen was assigned to participate as a team member on the NPS Special Resource Landmark Study exploring the history and legacy of The Reconstruction Era. As a result of this groundbreaking effort a new national park service site in Beaufort, the Reconstruction Era National Monument, was established January 12, 2017.
Allen has received numerous awards and recognition for his contributions including the 2013 Historic Preservation Governor’s Lifetime Achievement Award from the Governor’s Office Palmetto Trust and the South Carolina Dept. of Archives and History, the S.C. State University Distinguished Alumnus Award, the South Carolina African American heritage commission Lifetime Achievement Award and the Williamsburg County School District Hall of Fame Award. All of which notwithstanding, Allen says he’s not done yet. The collaborative effort that has been his career with the NPS won’t stop with retirement, he vows.
“I’ll be here to provide whatever service to the community I can, just as I have in the past. I’ve been blessed by and because of that and I realize to whom much is given much is required,” said Allen who is both a husband and father. “And I want to be a good husband, father and grandfather,” he said.