Remembering 1st African American head of National Park Service

Former National Park Service Director Robert Stanton gives opening remarks at a ceremony to name Interior Department headquarters after Stewart Udall.

Credit: Tami A. Heilemann (DOI)

August marks the anniversary of the swearing in of the first African-American head of the National Park Service (NPS), Robert Stanton. Modern efforts to re-connect people of color with the outdoors make the milestone especially worthy of reflection.

Stanton was sworn in as the first African-American director of the NPS in 1997, but his path to that lofty perch was not an easy one.

Stanton began his park career in the early 1960s, as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton National Park. He was one of a group of exceptional students from historically black colleges and universities selected for such positions, with an eye toward fulfilling Interior Secretary Stewart Udall’s goal of increasing diversity in the NPS and other bureaus.

Sadly, some students who were hired for these jobs were unable to accept them. To make it work, Stanton had to borrow $250 to buy a park ranger uniform and train ticket to Wyoming—something not everyone could do. “I’m sure there were a lot of youngsters who wanted to do it, but just didn’t have the disposable income at that time to make that investment,” Stanton explained in a 2004 interview.

During his time in Wyoming, Stanton would work hard to become part of the team, experiencing both moments of hurtful racial discrimination and unexpected magnanimity from locals in a nearly all-white part of the country. However, he has said that his experience at the park itself was almost uniformly positive: “I can say without any hesitation that the three African Americans, including myself, working at Grand Teton in ’62 were warmly and truly welcomed to the workforce. It spoke volumes about the quality and the professional integrity of those who were there[.]”

This period served as a heartening sign that race attitudes were slowly changing in America, and kindled an enduring love of the parks as well.

Grand Teton National Park. Credit: Jeff Gunn, flickr.

The path to the top

Grand Teton—the first national park Stanton ever visited—also provided inspiration to pursue NPS work after his schooling. Following graduate studies at Boston University and a brief period as director of public relations for his undergraduate alma mater, Stanton returned to the parks, first with a desk job in the agency’s Washington, DC-based headquarters.

Later, after a stint as superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park in St. Thomas—he was the first African-American superintendent in the history of the agency—Stanton held a variety of increasingly visible positions within the department, including leadership posts in the NPS Southeast Region, which presides over notable landmarks like Great Smoky Mountains National Park (North Carolina) and Everglades National Park (Florida); and the NPS National Capital Region, which manages the National Mall and sites including the Lincoln Memorial and Washington Monument.

About 35 years after he first donned a park ranger uniform, after a short-lived retirement, Stanton was nominated by President Bill Clinton and then-Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt to be the 15th director of the NPS in 1997.

Following Senate hearings—Senators Paul Sarbanes (D-MD) and John Warner (R-VA) testified on his behalf—Stanton became the first African American to hold the position. Days into his tenure, he had the opportunity to speak at the 75th anniversary ceremony for the original dedication of the historic home of abolitionist writer Frederick Douglass’—a long-time role model—in Washington, DC.

Prominent park ranger Shelton Johnson, who has spent about 30 years working in Yosemite and Yellowstone National Parks and famously appeared in Ken Burns’ 2009 documentary about the national parks, has long led efforts to publicize the role African Americans have played in conservation, and get people of color more interested in the outdoors. To him, Stanton’s ascension was a huge moment for American equality.

Shelton Johnson meets President Obama. Credit: National Park Service via Wikimedia Commons.

“In my career as a park ranger, the inauguration of Barack Obama as the first African American president of the United States was only eclipsed by the swearing in of Robert Stanton as the first African American director of the National Park Service,” Johnson told The Wilderness Society in an email interview.

The reason? “Because statistically and historically speaking, it was far more likely that an African American would become president of the United States than director of the National Park Service. What was especially powerful for me with regard to Mr. Stanton was that he rose through the ranks to become the director, which meant that any American of color who joined the ranks of the N.P.S. could potentially rise to the top if they had the ability, talent, work ethic, leadership, and resolve to do so.”

A legacy of diversity

Fittingly, promoting diversity within the park system was a special focus for the trailblazing Stanton, both through the addition of sites significant to African American history and the civil rights movement—including Tuskegee Airmen National Historic Site and Little Rock Central High School National Historic Site—and partnerships with historically black colleges and universities. Stanton’s tenure concluded in 2001, and he later said that working with people of diverse backgrounds was one of his favorite parts of the job.

In 2009, when Stanton was named to a new position within the Department of the Interior, Secretary Ken Salazar noted that Stanton “has dedicated his life to improving the conservation and management of our treasured landscapes and national icons.” Just as important, he has invested heavily in the effort to make public lands more inclusive—places that represent all Americans and welcome them equally.

Reconnecting all Americans to the land

Making sure all people are able to enjoy the outdoors, and have a stake in its stewardship, has been a hot topic of late. Statistics and anecdotal evidence alike suggest that visitors to national parks and other public lands units remain overwhelmingly non-Hispanic whites.

Shelton Johnson’s work educating Americans on minorities’ place in the history of our public lands—exemplified by the Buffalo Soldiers’ protection of national parks out west—and reconnect a community that he says ought to have a close relationship with nature has been at the forefront of that movement for years.

Johnson said that Secretary Udall’s tenure at Interior was when the movement toward cultural diversity on our public lands began in earnest. And while he believes not enough has yet been done to welcome Americans of diverse backgrounds into the parks, he is optimistic about the future...provided that more people learn about the past.

Robert Stanton speaks to a group post-directorship. Credit: Grand Teton National Park (NPS).

“The career of Robert Stanton is the best exemplar that real progress has been made,” Johnson said. “The problem is that many African-Americans are unaware of the contributions of Mr. Stanton, just as they may be unaware of the contributions of African-Americans, and other diverse cultures, to the national park Idea.”

Thankfully, with the groundwork laid by Stanton and others, including Johnson, it is now more likely that African-Americans and other people of color will understand the role they and their ancestors have played in “America’s best idea” and other public lands conservation efforts.

“The improvement that I experienced under his leadership was a greater recognition of the importance of telling all American stories, and welcoming all of our visitors, and that this duty was the responsibility of all N.P.S. employees,” Johnson said. “That feeling generated under his tenure eventually spurred me to fully engage that principle in my ongoing work to tell not only the history of the Buffalo Soldiers, but to celebrate all of the contributions of African Americans, and other culturally diverse communities, to our national parks.”

Indeed, to more completely celebrate the contributions of all Americans to public lands conservation, there may be no better place to start than telling the story of Stanton himself.

Read an in-depth NPS interview with Robert Stanton [PDF]

Watch below: Shelton Johnson on arriving at Yellowstone, from The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.