In The Words Of Robert Stanton ~ The First Black American Director of the National Park Service

In The Words Of Robert Stanton ~ The First Black American Director of the National Park Service

A few weeks before his 80th birthday, I had the rare pleasure to speak by phone to the 15th director of the National Park Service Robert Stanton. From his home in Maryland, Mr. Stanton shared with me a personal history of his career as a leading figure in the preservation of public land as well as the enduring legacy of our heritage as a nation. Born in 1940, as Black American Stanton was subjected to the racially focused prohibitions of the Jim Crow era that denied him access to many of the national parks and monuments that he would grow up to manage. And though he and his family were restricted from the recreational spaces where white Americans were free to travel, Stanton was able from an early age to experience the wonders of nature.

Stanton: I grew up in rural segregated Texas, and we came from very meager means, so we did not vacation. I was in the cotton fields or the hay fields during my young adulthood. But I was not a stranger, if you will, to the out of doors, you know, with bare feet running through the woods, fishing in the lakes, gravel pits, taking a little dip in our birthday suits and what have you and watching out for the copperheads and water moccasins. But so, no the out of doors were not a stranger to me.

JTP: It was during his childhood that policies that had restricted Black Americans from visiting national parks were slowly beginning to lift. Under the administration of President Franklin Delano Roosevelt around the end of the Second World War progressive shifts in the nation’s attitude toward Black Americans became a bit more favorable, despite the objections of many state legislators and private citizens.

Stanton: In terms of my exposure to the National Park Service and other land management agencies and putting it in sort of historical context, you recognize the courage on the part of Harold Ickes, Secretary of the Interior, and Roosevelt, when he issued his secretarial order in 1945, saying that there will not be any discrimination in the national parks. My understanding is that when he made the decision that the proprietors of restaurants and overnight accommodations surrounding the gateways to the parks, they raised holy hell. “You mean you’re going to allow them colored folks to come in and eat and sleep where they want to in the park?”

JTP: It could be said that first battle lines of modern Civil Rights Movement were drawn in our national parks. By order of Secretary of the Interior Harold Ickes in 1945, these public recreation areas were among the first sites to be desegregated nation-wide. It was through the leadership and encouragement of social activists within the Roosevelt Administration and then under President Harry S. Truman that Ickes ordered that the National Parks be made open to everyone regardless of race or ethnicity.

Stanton: But the thing I would bring to your attention, which was not widely advertised, is that he had the counsel of two prominent, forceful, unrelenting Black executives who were promoting the integration in full accessibility of not only to Park Service citizen programs, but throughout the breadth of the programs at Interior. The first one was Robert Weaver, who became the first African-American to serve as a Cabinet Secretary at HUD appointed by President Johnson. He was followed by William Trent Jr.. And it is William Trent Jr. who was really a strong advocate that here you have young men returning from World War II and they need to have some way in which they could just sort of relax themselves. Coming from the war, even though we were coming back to places they were not permitted to enter, such as cafes and restaurant, but still they should have an opportunity to enjoy some of the benefits of being an American citizen.

JTP: Civil Rights leaders during the presidency of Franklin Roosevelt through the 1940s became known as the Black Cabinet or the Federal Council of Negro Affairs. The phrase was coined by Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune in 1936 and as group that included Robert Weaver and William Trent Jr., they helped to guide the racial integration of the National Park Service.

Dr. Mary Mcleod Bethune, William Trint Jr. and Elanor Roosevelt

Stanton: Trent was a strong advocate, strong advisor working with Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune and Eleanor Roosevelt and others and Harold Ickes issued that executive order in 1945. So we were still very much segregated. But if you get into a national park, you could get your haircut. You could camp. You could go to the restaurant. But that took a lot of courage. 

JTP: It’s important to understand that the National Park Service, like all branches of the Federal Government, including the U.S. Military, had been racially segregated since it was formally created in 1916. It was only with the policy changes encouraged by the Black Cabinet in the 1940s that Black Americans were allowed to even visit these public recreation areas and it would take another 20 years before people of color were actively recruited and encouraged to become National Park Rangers. Robert Stanton was among the first. In his own words this is his story. 

Robert Stanton with President Bill Clinton

Our music in this episode comes courtesy of Artlist. This edition of the Joy Trip Project was made possible thanks to the support of the National Geographic Society and in cooperation with The National Park Service. You can follow along on this and other journeys through history at

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