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Black History 365: Park Rangers Bring Black History to Life
November 22, 2022
We are highlighting examples of Black excellence throughout the year! Feel free to send us suggestions!
Long before the National Parks were established in 1916, Black Americans men and women worked tirelessly to preserve the public lands that many of us today deem sacred. Though directly engaged as combatants in the Plains Wars that displaced Native Americans for the sake of westward expansion, people of African descent, many of whom toiled under the oppressive yoke of slavery, also cherished the sweeping landscapes and natural settings where we now visit for recreation and solace. That enduring legacy of environmental stewardship continues in the present through the interpretation of our history by Black National Park Rangers.
From the very beginning Black people have been part of what the naturalist and historian Wallace Stegner once described as “the best idea America ever had”. Today Black Americans embrace our role as makers of history. “We came to the realization that the park system is a repository of the American experience,” says national park advocate and author Audrey Peterman. “Since people of color were integrally involved in building America, it follows that our history is interwoven within the parks.”
In the 1840’s, Stephan Bishop, an enslaved man, guided and mapped the caverns of what is now Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky. Born the year before emancipation in 1864, Captain Charles Young, led the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-Black regiment of the U.S. Cavalry, to patrol the newly designated parks of Yosemite and Sequoia in 1899. Since the earliest days, Black Americans have made vital contributions to the preservation of our national heritage.
In September the U.S. Military Academy at West Point commemorated the service of Black Americans with a 10-foot bronze statue of Sgt. Sanders H. Matthews Sr., the last known Buffalo Soldier stationed there, who died in 2016. Having enlisted in the army at the age of 18 in 1939 he served his country with distinction in World War II and the Korean War. In civilian life he was a police officer and dedicated much of his career to honoring the service of Black Americans in uniform. By celebrating the accomplishments of those who came before us and sharing their stories we firmly ground ourselves within the annals of our history.
But too often it seems the roles that people of color have played in the story of our nation are forgotten or simply ignored. By sheer neglect of historic facts Black Americans of the modern world are at risk of losing a critical connection to our ancestors who helped to establish the parks and monuments we have come to love.
Despite our legacy of preservation on public land, the National Park Service, like all federal agencies, was subject to the policies of Jim Crow era segregation. The scenic recreation areas under its charge would not be racially integrated until 1945. The first Black Park Rangers were only recruited and trained as interpreters in 1962. Robert Stanton, the first and only Black Director of the National Park Service, was stationed that year in Grand Teton. In part as a perpetual artifact of these restrictions, today the Park Service estimates that Black Americans make up less than 7 percent of National Park visitors, far less than our percentage of the general population (13.1 percent). Because of these disparities and others, the stories of Black Americans have been left untold and for many citizens there is no place for us in America’s best idea.
As interpreters of the past rangers share the narrative history of the parks and monuments where they serve. It is through the power of storytelling that we can shift the focus of distant memory to reveal many compelling tales we may have never heard before. Today there are many dedicated professionals who have devoted their lives to the preservation of Black history. Through their stories we can accurately remember the past and inspire a vision of the future that acknowledges both our tragedies and triumphs in the pursuit of a more perfect union. Black National Park Rangers, in particular, have committed themselves to sharing with passion and conviction the narratives of historical figures and events that have framed our national identity.