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Minority communities push for more inclusive US history

Efforts underway to tell the untold stories

NEW YORK -- American students often get the impression from history classes that the British got here first, settling in Jamestown, Va., in 1607. They hear about how white Northerners freed the black slaves, how Asians came in the mid-1800s to build Western railroads.

The lessons have left out a lot.

Forty-two years before Jamestown, Spaniards and American Indians lived in St. Augustine, Fla. At least several thousand Latinos and nearly 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War. And Asian-Americans had been living in California and Louisiana since the 1700s.

Now, more of these and other lesser-known facts about American minorities are getting more attention. The main reason is the nation's growing diversity.

More than one in four Americans is not white, and many minority groups are gaining strength -- in numbers, political clout, and resources -- to bring their often-overlooked histories to light.

Minority communities ``are yelling for inclusion in the national consciousness," said Gary Okihiro, a historian at Columbia University. ``One needs to understand what's true about the past to be able to make sound judgments about our present."

There are hundreds of efforts underway to tell the untold stories.

Although Hispanics are the nation's largest minority group -- 14.5 percent of the population, according to Census Bureau figures released last week -- there is no national museum dedicated to their history. Democratic Representative Xavier Becerra of California is pushing a bill to study building one on the National Mall in Washington. ``When you walk the Mall in the capital of the United States, there is no better place to try to understand what Americans are and where we have been," Becerra said. ``But it's still an incomplete picture."

The Mall has dozens of sites highlighting American culture and history, including the National Museum of the American Indian that opened in 2004, 20 years after it was authorized. Organizers in June settled on the future site of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, but its opening date is still years away. A Latino museum would be even further off.

Other federal agencies are shifting their work to incorporate more minorities' stories.

Six years ago, National Park Service historians met to reevaluate how park sites tell the story of the Civil War, said Donald W. Murphy, deputy director of the parks. Old battlefield exhibits mainly discussed who fought and how many died. Now they include personal diaries, including those kept by slaves.

Some tales have gone untold because, in the less-diverse America of the past, minorities didn't make the decisions on textbooks and other means of passing along history. And in many cases, minorities who had faced blatant discrimination wanted to discard evidence of past horrors.

But some who came of age during the civil rights movement are determined to pass the stories on.

``It is so important that children of color are not made to feel that they're asking for anything -- they're claiming what's rightfully theirs just like any other child," said Cynthia Morris Lowery, executive director of the African American Experience Fund. ``I tell my grandchildren `Grandpa has earned that spot for you.' "

Sometimes, history is recalled through criminal investigations.

Prosecutors in Jackson, Miss., last year exhumed the remains of Emmett Till, a black teenager killed in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman. Medical examiners performed a new autopsy, and investigators are poring over thousands of documents.

Technology advances also have fueled new interest in history.

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