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First African-American Park Service Director Reflects On Places We Preserve

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Robert G. Stanton served as the first African-American to lead the National Park Service.
Jonathan Wilson/WAMU
Robert G. Stanton served as the first African-American to lead the National Park Service.

In 1962, Stanton became one of the nation’s first African-American park rangers…nearly 40 years later, after serving numerous positions in the agency, he was called out of retirement to serve as the Director of the National Park Service under then-President Bill Clinton– becoming the very first African-American to hold that position.

He’s currently serving as a senior advisor to the Secretary of the Interior – but he says retiring (again) at the end of the month.

At Lincoln Park on Capitol Hill, in the shadow of the Mary McLeod Bethune Memorial, Stanton discusses how his public service career got started, and how the Park Service, and the country, have changed since then.

How his career got started

“I first worked with the National Park Service while I was still in undergraduate school. I attended a historically black university in Austin, Texas, and I was on the campus at the time that I was recruited for a [position as a] Senior Park Ranger in Grand Teton National Park [in Wyoming]. And I might add that it was only made possible by the courageous leadership of then-Secretary of the Interior, the Honorable Stewart Lee Udall. And this was in 1962, which predated the Civil Rights Act of ’64. So he took the initiative well in advance of the Civil Rights Act.”

An unexpected journey

“No, I was not aiming for these things. I grew up in segregated, ‘Jim Crow’ Texas, in which there were limited opportunities in education, employment, access to public accommodations – what have you. So the outlook on new careers – if you will – were very limited. But I was given the opportunity to be one of the first African-Americans selected as a Park Ranger in some of our great National Parks…that widened my view about career opportunities. But I must also submit that there was a lot of help and encouragement on the way.”

National recognition, personal inspiration

“Proudly, today, there are now 28 areas in the National Park system that specifically commemorate African-Americans, or major events associated with African-Americans – such as Selma To Montgomery Historical Trail, Brown v. Board of Education, Little Rock Central High School, Tuskegee Airmen. All of those have continued to give me great inspiration, because the hand-me-down textbooks that I had as a youngster growing up in segregated Texas did not reflect our rich contributions.”

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