History of, and at, the National Park Service


Michael David Cohen, editor of the Correspondence of James K. Polk and Research Associate Professor of History at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, checks in with another post from the floor of the annual meeting of the Organization of American Historians.  For his previous posts click here.  Enjoy–JF


Mammoth Cave. Denali. Great Smokey Mountains. Arcola Mills. The John, Abigail, and John Quincy Adams homes. Martin Luther King, Jr.,’s home. Through my youth and adulthood, I’ve made my way to these and many more of the sites operated by the National Park Service. No doubt, many of my fellow U.S. historians have, too. (And if you’ve never been to one, Robert Stanton wants to have a talk.) Our own experiences in the parks and their importance to the teaching of history to the American people made today’s plenary on “The National Park Service at 100: A Conversation with Robert Stanton” perfect for this year’s OAH conference.

None can speak about the NPS with more authority and experience than Dr. Stanton. Though he swore that he had not been around for the agency’s founding, he did draw on more than half a century of involvement with it. In 1962 he took a job as a seasonal ranger at Grand Teton. Rising through the ranks, he served as NPS’s director, 1997–2001. Though at some point he tried to retire, Stanton remains active in the parks and preservation community, having been appointed by President Obama to the Advisory Council for Historic Preservation in 2014 and currently teaching as a visiting executive professor in the Department of Recreation, Park and Tourism Sciences at Texas A&M.

Accompanying Stanton on the stage were two of our own, famed environmental historian William Cronon and chair Gary Nash. Joan Zenzen, though scheduled to speak, could not attend. (Her absence, as Dr. Nash forewarned us, rendered this an unconstitutional session; the OAH Constitution requires gender diversity on all panels. Microphone issues at the start were, perhaps, subtle punishment for the violation.)

Anxious to leave time for questions from his co-panelists and the audience, Stanton confined his initial remarks chiefly to a review of the NPS’s history. Created by a Congressional act of 1916 (as you probably guessed from the plenary’s title), the agency actually arose after the creation of about thirty federal parks, previously administered by the Interior Department with help from the War Department. Historic sites such as Civil War battlefields and cemeteries, Dr. Cronon noted, were shifted to its jurisdiction. Now the NPS controls about four hundred areas in every state and several territories. Besides its large paid workforce, it relies on nearly two hundred thousand volunteers.

Cronon introduced the issue of race, on which Stanton had much insight. The growth of the national park system, in his view, has been in part an effort to embrace the pronoun “we,” the first word of the U.S. Constitution and a symbol of unity with which Americans always have struggled. Until 1945 some national parks segregated camping facilities. Even thereafter, economic challenges and hoteliers’ legal right to refuse accommodations to African Americans made it impossible for most black families to take the road trip to a national park that became a tradition among middle-class whites. Although blacks were involved in land stewardship very early, only in the 1960s did the NPS begin recruiting African Americans such as Stanton into leadership positions.

The conversation, guided by the speakers and by audience members, headed down more paths about the national parks’ challenges and their roles in historical education than I can summarize here. Cronon stressed the parks’ outsized influence, through their choices about how to portray history and simply what history to portray, on lesson plans in schools. Nash pointed out that historic sites run by the NPS give many visitors to the United States their first lesson in American history.

Stanton presented a thoughtful and hopeful sketch of the national stories told by the parks. Through the addition of more sites (though, alas, rarely more money), the NPS has increasingly told the stories of minorities and of the elements of our history, such as slavery and segregation, that prompt lessons for improvement rather than opportunities for celebration. Some may fear, as Jack Nicholson did in A Few Good Men, that Americans “can’t handle the truth.” But, Stanton believes, we can handle it and must hear it.

Framing that thesis were the quotations with which Stanton began and ended the session. He first quoted Stephen Mather, founding director of the NPS, who asserted that visiting the national parks makes an American a better citizen. Today, it seems to me, if the parks teach historical lessons that few dared to propose in 1916, they are fulfilling Mather’s hope. Stanton closed by quoting Frederick Douglass, whose home joined the national park system in 1962, and who thus joined its family the same year as Stanton. Unity among turbulence and difference is the theme: “We differ as waves, but we are as one as the sea.”

–Michael David Cohen