Race, Recreation, and the National Park Service in the Mid-20th Century

Endorsed by the OAH Committee on National Park Service Collaboration, the Oral History Association, the Western History Association, and the Society for History in the Federal Government

Friday, April 3, 2020, 3:00 PM - 4:30 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: African American; National Park Service


NPS has played a vital role not only in preserving and interpreting the history of the Civil Rights movement, but also in the movement itself. The agency was not always a wiling actor, but it proved responsive to pressure from grass roots organizations to provide more recreational opportunities to populations that were underserved and often discriminated against. . In the 1930s and 1940s, National Parks in Virginia began to desegregate their facilities ahead of local custom. In the 1950s and early 1960s, the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission chaired by Laurance S Rockefeller identified large racial disparities in access to public lands and recreation, prompting NPS to create new National Recreation Areas and Historical Parks in urban areas, as well as to establish the Land and Water Conservation fund. And in the late 1960s and early 1970s, civil disorder accelerated NPS efforts already underway to develop summer youth programs and concert series in the Distict of Columbia and elsewhere. The three papers in this session, based on new research carried out under NPS auspices, illuminate what NPS did and did not do during these critical decades to advance the goals of the Black freedom struggle.

Papers Presented

Advocates for Change: The Department of Interior Solicitor's Office and the Desegregation of the National Parks

This paper will examine how civil rights advocates inside and outside of the Department of Interior (DOI) urged the National Park Service (NPS) to desegregate visitor facilities in the southern national parks during the 1930s and 1940s. Several members of the DOI’s Solicitor’s Office—including Solicitor Nathan Margold and Assistant Solicitor William Henry Hastie Jr.—had worked with the NAACP, and in their new roles at Interior they worked with the department’s Advisors on Negro Affairs to prompt the NParkS to equalize and desegregate services for African American visitors. To bolster their arguments for transforming park policy, these internal advocates for change worked cooperatively with civil rights activists in national and local organizations to underscore the harm associated with segregation and the need for equitable access to recreational facilities.

Presented By
Erin Krutko Devlin, University of Mary Washington

Laurance S. Rockefeller and the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission, 1958–1962

This paper focuses on the links between conservation and civil rights through an examination of the reach and impact of the Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission (ORRRC) and its chairman, Laurance S. Rockefeller. The commission’s landmark report in 1962 identified large racial disparities in access to public lands and recreation across the United States, which prompted the National Park Service to establish new National Recreation Areas and Historical Parks in urban areas in the 1960s and 1970s. The paper will examine the history of the ORRRC, contextualize the commission’s work within the history of the civil rights movement, and evaluate the effectiveness of the ORRRC, both in terms of democratizing public spaces and increasing access to recreational and public lands for African Americans and other historically underserved populations. Based on research in the Rockefeller Archives Center, the paper will also discuss the central role of Rockefeller in the commission’s history, as well as his views on civil rights and public lands.

Presented By
David H. Glassberg, University of Massachusetts AmherstLaura A. Miller, Historical Consultant

Summer in the Parks: NPS Responds to Urban Unrest, 1968–1976

This paper focuses on the history of the popular public program series Summer in the Parks and its lasting impact on recreation in Washington, DC. Though the National Parks Service program was planned prior to the April 1968 assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., it gained stronger impetus from the tragic event and subsequent riots. Summer in the Parks began at the height of the civil rights movement and was designed to decrease civil tension through arts and nature, to “draw young people out of the streets and into the parks,” noted the Washington Post at the time. While the regional program ended in the mid-1970s, it was kept alive as legacy programming in parks and was a factor in the development of the local Punk and GoGo music scene.

Presented By
Noel Lopez, National Park Service

Session Participants

Chair and Commentator: Lu Ann Jones, National Park Service
Lu Ann Jones is a historian in the Park History Program of the National Park Service in Washington, DC. She has worked as a historian in a variety of settings during the past 35 years. Between 1986 and 1991 she directed “An Oral History of Southern Agriculture” at the National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution. She was associate professor at the University of South Florida and East Carolina University between 1996 and 2009. Jones is the author of Mama Learned Us to Work: Farm Women in the New South (UNC Press, 2002); and the co-author of Like a Family: The Making of a Southern Cotton Mill World (UNC Press, 1987 and 2000); The Life and Legacy of Robert Smalls of South Carolina’s Sea Islands (Eastern National, 2012); and “Everyone Helped Their Neighbor’: Memories of Nags Head Woods (The Nature Conservancy, 1987; UNC Press, 2018). In addition to her Park Service work, she continues to conduct research for an ongoing project, “DuPont Comes to Tobacco Road: Rural Industrialization in the Postwar South,” for which she received support from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the Hagley Museum and Library, and the Smithsonian Institution. Jones was elected to the executive board of the Organization of American Historians in 2017.

Presenter: Erin Krutko Devlin, University of Mary Washington
Erin Krutko Devlin joined the faculty at the University of Mary Washington as an Assistant Professor of History and American Studies in 2016 after teaching undergraduate and graduate-level public history at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. She earned her PhD in American Studies at the College of William and Mary. Her work focuses on race, public memory, and social justice, and she offers courses in both History and American Studies. Her book Remember Little Rock was published by the University of Massachusetts Press as part of its Public History in Historical Perspective series in 2017. She is currently working on a historic resource study with the National Park Service focused on segregation and African American visitation in Virginia’s national parks

Presenter: David H. Glassberg, University of Massachusetts Amherst
David Glassberg teaches United States cultural, public, and environmental history at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. A native of Philadelphia, he holds a BA from the University of Chicago and PhD from The Johns Hopkins University. Among his publications are American Historical Pageantry: The Uses of Tradition in the Early Twentieth Century (1990); Sense of History: The Place of the Past in American Life (2001); and “Place, Memory, and Climate Change,” The Public Historian 36 (August 2014): 17–30. He has also collaborated with a number of museums and national parks, including the W.E.B. Du Bois National Historical Site, the Statue of Liberty National Monument, Minnesota Historical Society, Boston Children’s Museum, Pinelands (N.J.) National Reserve, Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, Springfield Armory National Historical Site, and the Cape Cod National Seashore.

Presenter: Noel Lopez, National Park Service
Noel Lopez is a Cultural Anthropologist with the National Park Service (NPS), National Capital Regional Office. Noel grew up and lived throughout DC, Maryland and Virginia. A former Baltimore City public school teacher, Noel holds a BA from University of Maryland, Baltimore County, a MLA from Johns Hopkins University and is a PhD candidate at George Mason University where he is writing his dissertation on the political unity struck between white urban Appalachians and the Black Panthers during the 60s and 70s. Some of his NPS related projects include a study on subsistence/supplemental fishing on the Washington waterways, an investigation on Summer in the Park, and an ethnography of Piscataway National Park. He lives with his wife and three kids in Arlington, VA.

Presenter: Laura A. Miller, Historical Consultant
Laura Miller is a historical consultant based in Hadley, Massachusetts. She holds a Ph.D. in twentieth-century U.S. History and a M.A. in Public History from the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Before starting her own consulting business, Miller was a Historian at the Rockefeller Archive Center in Sleepy Hollow, New York, where her work focused on the history of the Rockefeller Foundation and American philanthropy. She has extensive public history experience, and has worked on projects for the National Park Service, the Ford Foundation, the Organization of American Historians, and several local history organizations in Western Massachusetts. Miller is chair of National Council on Public History's Digital Media Group, and a coeditor of NCPH's History@Work blog (http://ncph.org/history-at-work/).