Former National Park Service Director — and the latest Murie Award honoree — Robert Stanton underscored his former agency’s important role in preserving the nation’s history of racial conflicts during his award acceptance Tuesday.
As the first Black Park Service director, Stanton oversaw natural wonders in preserves like Yosemite, Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks between 1997-2001. People may wonder, however, why the agency also preserves the marquee parks’ less glamorous siblings, he said to a virtual awards audience. Those include places like the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, the Manzanar internment camp and Little Rock Central High School.
Stanton told his audience why these places are important as he received the Murie Spirit of Conservation Award from the Teton Science Schools. The Science Schools gives the annual award to someone who has demonstrated “an exemplary commitment to the protection of wildlife and wild places.”
The award is named for the legendary Wyoming conservation family that was involved in creation of the Wilderness Act, the establishment of the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge and other initiatives. Stanton received the award at a time of social unrest and as the country reckons with its history of racism.
The national park units Stanton highlighted commemorate incidents when racism touched the country’s history, whether by the massacre of 230 Cheyenne and Arapaho, the internment of 10,000 Americans of Japanese descent or the court-ordered integration of nine Black students into a southern school.
“Why would we want to preserve places of difficulty, places of shame … places of injustice?” Stanton asked a virtual audience. “To remind us we can overcome difficulties,” he answered.
“To learn, inspire and become better citizens,” he said. “That is why we preserve these places.”
Stanton attended a segregated elementary school in the Mosier Valley neighborhood of Fort Worth, Texas, according to an interview with The Trust for Public Land. He was attending a historically black college in Austin, Texas when Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall’s representative visited to promote employment opportunities. Stanton bit.
“This will confirm your selection for appointment as seasonal park ranger…” Udall wrote Stanton on April 4, 1962. Stanton headed to Wyoming and Grand Teton National Park, where he began a lifelong federal career.
The appointment came “at the height of the civil rights movement,” Udall’s son, U.S. Sen. Tom Udall of New Mexico said in a virtual introduction Tuesday.
Stanton borrowed $250 to buy a uniform and train ticket. He had never left Texas, according to the interview. “We were a family of limited means and did not take vacations,” he said in the TPL interview.
Stanton served in Washington, D.C. was superintendent of Virgin Islands National Park and held several top management posts before being appointed Park Service director by President Bill Clinton. He never forgot his roots and heritage and understood the importance of preserving historical story-telling sites.
At Sand Creek, Colorado, nearly 700 U.S. cavalry troops attacked the camps of chiefs Black Kettle, White Antelope and Left Hand, killing, by some accounts, 500 people — most of them women and children. At Manzanar, California, “we interned fellow citizens because we thought their loyalty was to another country – Japan,” Stanton said.
The all-black Monroe school in Topeka, Kansas, now a national historical site, was a birthplace of the fight to desegregate schools — leading to the landmark Brown vs Board of Education lawsuit. In Topeka, Oliver Brown, a Black minister, sought to enroll his fifth-grade daughter in a white school, leading to one of the U.S. Supreme Court’s most significant rulings.
“That story is told at the Little Rock Central High School National Historical Site,” Stanton said. The building where the U.S. Army escorted nine Black students to class still operates as a high school.
The Little Rock Nine traveled a long road that began at the writing of the Constitution. Stanton can’t talk about diversity and justice, he said, without thinking about the preamble to the Constitution and its first word, “we.”
Not all framers of the document counted Stanton’s ancestors or other people of color among the “we,” Stanton said. But framers understood that their document might need revisions, and allowed for amendments, some of which slowly expanded the definition of who “we” would be.
In 1868, for example, the 14th amendment advanced minority rights by providing equal protection under the law. The measure was only a partial guarantee of civil rights, Stanton said.
“There was hope, there were dreams,” Stanton said. But there also was the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that “separate but equal” facilities like train cars were constitutional.
In that case Homer Plessy, who was “seven-eighths caucasian,” bought a ticket on a train leaving New Orleans, sat in a whites-only car and, when asked if he was white, replied “no.” He was arrested for violating local laws, and sued local judge John Ferguson, but ultimately lost in the high court.
“There was absolutely nothing equal under that doctrine,” Stanton said of separate-but-equal. It took the Brown v Board of Education decision, in which the Supreme Court said separate-but-equal “has no place” in education, to partially reverse that doctrine.
The Supreme Court addressed the schoolroom but said nothing about lunch counters or national parks or other public places where Blacks were shunned or prohibited. It would be another 10 years before President Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act and Jim Crow died, at least on paper.
“In that year, I would be able to enter the front door of a small café in Texas where my mother was employed as a short-order cook,” Stanton said. Before that time he had to go through the back door.
Stanton saw significant progress during his time with the Park Service. While serving at his first post, the Grand Teton National Park Buffalo Valley entrance station at Moran in 1962, President Kennedy signed a bill preserving the home of escaped slave and abolitionist Frederick Douglass as a national historic site.
Douglass, who said all progress is “born of earnest struggle,” resonates with Stanton, Stanton said. Douglass’ spirit “burns deeply within me,” he said, and continues to inspire those seeking justice today.
“I applaud the young people who are in the streets,” Stanton said of today’s Black Lives Matter supporters. Recent tumult and the coronavirus pandemic further expose inequities, disparities and unfairness among races in the U.S., he said.
Americans have erred, made misjudgments, stumbled and faltered “on that noble journey [toward] freedom, justice, equity and dignity,” Stanton said. “There are many deficiencies … shortcomings in our journey,” he said. But “we will not wallow in remorse.”
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