A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part five)


Andrew Johnson’s grave

(part five of five)

For Women’s History Month, we’ve been talking with women who work in Civil War public history. This week, we’ve been sharing a conversation with Emma Murphy, park guide at Andrew Johnson National Historic Site. While earning her undergraduate and graduate degrees, Emma did stints as a seasonal ranger at Richmond, Fredericksburg/Spotsylvania, and Gettysburg before arriving in Greenveville, Tennessee earlier this year for her first full-time permanent position with the Park Service.

Chris Mackowski: So you mentioned that you’ve been there for two weeks, so you’re still learning your park. What do you love about the park so far?

Emma Murphy: There’s a lot to love. I think that I love the fact there’s room for the park to grow through more planning and community outreach. There’s a lot we can do with the national cemetery. The national cemetery not only has President Johnson and his family, but has veterans from decades all the way up to modern day. The cemetery is something we can still talk about up through the modern day because these veterans want to be buried in the same cemetery as President Johnson. That’s saying something about his place in the community, his place in Tennessee, and the legacy that he leaves. It’s a huge honor to be able to be buried alongside a president of the United States. 

I also love the ability to grow and to find new ways of interpretation and challenging the visitor, whether they just came for a homestead tour or something else. Many people come in for a furniture tour, or they’re presidential junkies, but there is a lot of context to work with. Johnson and his story basically sit right in the center of Reconstruction. Not many people know about Reconstruction, so I like to fill in that whole a little more.

Johnson’s trunk, on display at his homestead

I also hope to have more community outreach to bring in the neighboring communities, to be able to partner, to try new programs. It’s basically like what we did with History at Sunset [evening programs at various National Parks that expand the story beyond typical park resources.] Rangers would go and make a relationship with either a family or a community and make that connection work alongside their programming. I love how Spotsylvania and Fredericksburg did that.

The Park Service is well known in this community, and if we start showing ourselves, going out and building that community outreach, I think we could really make the park on the map. That’s what I really love about it: the ability to grow and to reach out.

CM: I was wondering, as I got off the exit from the interstate, what I was going to find out there. I was so pleasantly surprised and delighted to see all the stuff there was in Greeneville and at the park to look around and see and learn about.

EM: There’s so much to learn about, and there’s a local history museum right across the street from the homestead and a college that basically has a whole Johnson library. We have programs that are at the local state campground, Davey Crockett State Campground. I haven’t been out there yet because they haven’t started their programs yet since that’s usually more of a summertime thing. That’s a huge partnership because not only are they short-staffed, but they want to have something that engages the visitors of the local history and history as a whole. That gives us a great opportunity for community outreach that grows, because they can’t stay there forever, they travel. Word of mouth is sometimes the best way to get visitors to come to your site. That is so relevant right now that it’s important to help put us on the map.

CM: It sounds like there’s plenty of opportunity for a young professional who is just getting her foot in the door of the park service.

Johnson’s room

EM: I’m excited. I have so many ideas, and I’m writing them all down because my brain moves a mile a minute, and something I have to understand that this park is very small compared to other parks I’ve worked at. The staff total is nine people—but the nine people we have do so much, and they are truly incredible rangers that are multifaceted and multitalented because they do everything. They organize the functions of the park like a well-oiled machine. The ability to have that structure already there means we have the ability to branch out and try new things without risking that something else will crumble or be forgotten about or let go. We have the ability to all work together. It’s obvious they’ve worked together a lot. They work hard to keep the park functioning and clean and acceptable. I’m a fresh pair of eyes and someone who is all geared up and ready to go. I would be more than happy to come up with new ideas and new programs and, if they like them and want to use them, I’m absolutely ready for it. It is a great creative ground on which to build—a foundation and a base that hopefully leads to a wonderful NPS career.

CM: The other day, [a mutual friend, ECW author] Doug Crenshaw, said, “I’m so glad you got to talk with Emma. She tried real hard to get the job out there.”

EM: Doug was on one of my programs at Cold Harbor in 2013 where we had a couple that had no concept of the Civil War, and asking if Grant was in the trenches at Cold Harbor, and if Cold Harbor was the beginning of the Civil War. They had no idea, so I was trying to give the Battle of Cold Harbor tour and it just kind of turned into a basic Civil War explanation: this is the Confederate side, this is the Union side. Doug said, “This isn’t your normal tour.” I said, “No, it’s not, but don’t worry about it—they’re trying really hard.” He was just enamored that I brought it down to their level, and he said he’d never seen a ranger do that. But they’re visitors, too, and I wanted to make it as accessible to them as possible, even if it meant I had to sacrifice all of the details of the battle of Cold Harbor. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that they walked home with an idea of the significance of the Civil War and what that significance means. Maybe Cold Harbor is tucked in there somewhere, but not the main focus, because if it had been, they would’ve been confused and unhappy.

CM: Good luck as you get settled in at ANJO!


1 Response to A Conversation with Emma Murphy (part five)

  1. This was such an interesting interview. Good luck, Emma. When I come to Tennessee this fall I will hope to look you up. I have been a Johnson cynic since I was studying the Civil War and Reconstruction in graduate school fifty years ago. You might change my perspective.

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