Editor’s Note: Each week throughout Black History Month, Buckrail will be highlighting a story that celebrates Black history in a way that is unique to our region. We invite our readers to learn more about Black History Month here.
JACKSON, Wyo. — The National Park Service’s (NPS) first African American superintendent and director began his career right here in Grand Teton National Park.
According to an oral history from NPS, Robert Stanton left his Texas home as a college student in 1962 to begin his NPS career. The Department of the Interior was actively recruiting more Black people under the leadership of a man named Stewart Udall. Stanton was recruited as a student at Huston-Tillotson, a historically Black college. At the time, there had been just one Black park ranger in the entire service.
Stanton needed $250 for a train ticket and a uniform. He took out a loan with help from a white farmer, and was off for Wyoming.
Stanton arrived in Jackson Hole a day early.
“I thought obviously there must be one or two black families here that I could stay with, because I didn’t have money for a hotel room,” Stanton recalls in his oral history. “I walked around and didn’t see any black faces.”
There were none. But a gentlemen named George Lumley gave him a room for the night, trusting Stanton to settle up when he had some money.
Not all his experiences in Jackson were so pleasant. After about a month working at the entrance station in Moran, Stanton and three other rangers, one another Black man, drove down to Jackson for an evening out. The bar they tried to patronize wouldn’t serve them.
“So there were still certain establishments in Wyoming pre-1964 Civil Rights Act that would not serve African Americans,” Stanton recalls.
Still, overall Stanton looks back on his time in the Tetons with gratitude. Those summers had a profound impact on him. It didn’t take long for him to decide to pursue a career with NPS.
“It was not so much the grandeur, the natural and magnificent beauty of Teton, year-round snowcapped mountains, etc.,” he says. “But what was really defined for me was the quality of the professional staff at Grand Teton… I can say without any hesitation that the three African Americans, including myself, working at Grand Teton in ’62 were warmly and truly welcomed to the workforce. It spoke volumes about the quality and the professional integrity of those who were there at Grand Teton in 1962.”
Stanton’s career with NPS blossomed from there. He became the Park Service’s first African American superintendent in 1970 and its first African American director in 1997. Under Stanton’s leadership, NPS took steps to increase staff diversity and recognize and protect cultural and historic sites, particularly as they related to the contributions of historically underrepresented people in the United States. He also worked to strengthen the agency’s public programs in order to increase park accessibility and better serve historically underrepresented people.
Stanton was awarded the Murie Spirit of Conservation Award in 2020.