How we find “unity across our diverse population”: This photo mosaic of WWI hero Sgt. Henry Johnson is comprised of over 3,500 images of today’s service members, guard, and veterans. America250 unveiled the project in Kansas City on Veterans Day. (Image: America250)

“America250” is planning a multi-year celebration that will culminate on July 4, 2026, the 250th anniversary of the United States. The nonprofit partner of the US Semiquincentennial Commission,  America250 is reaching out to communities across the country for ideas that will allow every American to take pride in the country’s diverse heritage.

As KCAW’s Robert Woolsey reports, the group recently presented in Sitka, and found a community that was ahead of the curve.

This may be the first time you’ve heard the term semiquincentennial, but it won’t be the last. America’s 250th birthday is likely to resemble the US Bicentennial in just about every way but one — an emphasis on inclusivity. 

The US Semiquincentennial Commission was created by Congress, and is charged with “orchestrating the largest and most inclusive anniversary remembrance in our nation’s history.” The private-sector arm of the Commission, America250, recently presented in Sitka, looking for input on how to make the 250th anniversary of the United States more inclusive. 

Nicole Malli is the senior manager for National Community Partnerships for America250. 

“Sitka, I’m here because I’m inspired to make this the most inclusive commemoration, and celebrate that there is no single form of the American Experience,” said Malli. “Rather, that we are a nation that celebrates the beauty of difference, and finds unity across our diverse population.”

Malli appeared from Washington DC with two of her colleagues, who took turns outlining the specific goals of America250. They then wanted to hear from Sitkans about how to achieve them. The advice they heard was: Start the hard conversations now.

 Paul Kraft, Sitka campus director of the University of Alaska, said that Sitka was already engaged in this work.

“I think Sitka’s an amazing community, but it’s not without its challenges, not without disagreements, without different viewpoints,” said Kraft. “And sometimes the expression of those viewpoints is heated and loud and public. So I think it’s an opportunity, thoungh, to host those conversations leading up to it.”

Kraft added that “it’s the colors of the quilt that make it interesting.”

Chamber executive director Rachel Roy explained how Sitka had begun a process of reconciliation. She said that a “balancing” was taking place, and that a Tlingit Mourning Ceremony was becoming an element of the community’s Alaska Day Celebration — an observance that traditionally focused only on the Alaska purchase from Russia.

Roy felt the mourning ceremony was a moving complement to the day.

“This year I was able to participate and join the group that was up on the location where the purchase happened, which was formerly a Tlingit fort site,” she said. “So sharing some mourning songs, sharing some happy songs, and just being able to gather there was really beautiful and empowering.”

Roy said that Sitka’s reconciliation had been evolving over the years, and that some of the conversations had been uncomfortable, but they were also an opportunity for healing.

She thought Sitka could be a template for other parts of the country.

“I think Sitka’s work could be used as an example for other communities that are trying to figure out and navigate how to move forward with telling the other stories that aren’t always the front line,” said Roy, “Or how we’ve always told the story, I guess is the other piece of it.”

Roy’s observation struck a chord with America250’s engagement coordinator, Maricela Dominguez, who said this was what America250 was created for.

“What we’re really looking for is those histories that aren’t usually talked about, and that really, really need to be talked about,” she said. “Those people who have done exceptional work, and they need to be highlighted. They need to be put on the front line. A lot of the time it’s things that people don’t even know about. There are articles that I’ve read and went ‘Oh! I would have liked history a lot sooner if I had read this!”

America250 unveiled one of its first projects this month on Veterans Day: A 14-foot tall photo-mosaic of over 3,500 active-duty service members, reservists, guard members, and veterans that honors Sgt. Henry Johnson, an African-American soldier and hero of World War I. The exhibit is on display at the National World War I Museum in Kansas City.