Our National Parks: A Gift to Some of Us

Our national park system has been described as a gift that we as Americans give to ourselves. The early history of our national parks however is one of gifts denied to African Americans.

President Theodore Roosevelt felt that only white people would truly enjoy the beauty of our national parks. The park system was not welcoming to other than white visitors. This was especially true in states where Jim Crow segregation extended to the park system, even though they were federal properties.

In the early 20th century, eugenics beliefs were a false science that proclaimed whites to be a superior race. Gifford Pinchot, one of President Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors, was the Chair of the National Conservation Commission. The Commission was tasked with inventorying the nation’s natural resources and recommending how to protect them.

The Commission went far afield in its recommendations and dealt with many issues not normally associated with natural resources (e.g., poverty, crime, public health). The tenth recommendation called for making eugenics a national policy including forced sterilization of immigrants, African Americans, and people with disabilities.

When Woodrow Wilson became President his administration called for a segregated federal workforce. When the National Park Service was created by the Wilson administration, it also followed the same segregationist policies of the rest of the federal government. African Americans were not permitted in parks in the South.

President Franklin Roosevelt reversed these policies, but segregation continued to be the practice in the parks in the South. The Congress was dominated by Southern Democrats who fought any change in opening up the national parks.

Just imagine how a nation’s natural beauty can be denied to those who are considered inferior by those in power. What might this do to one’s own self-respect? Nature is known to be a source of inspiration, but those in power managed to make it a source of anger. We now know that our minds are shaped by moments in our lives that are formative. Just imagine how many minds have not had that formative experience that could come from a welcoming experience at a national park.

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“The parks do not belong to one state or to one section. Yosemite, Yellowstone, and the Grand Canyon are national properties in which every citizen has a vested interest; they belong as much to the man of Massachusetts, of Michigan, of Florida as they do the people of California, of Wyoming, and of Arizona.” – Stephen Mather (first-ever director of the National Park Service)

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