Black to Nature

Bill Gwaltney wants to see more people like him at Rocky Mountain National Park.

In the winter of 1977, after Gwaltney graduated from the University of Maryland at College Park with a degree in parks and recreation management, he and a friend drove out to Colorado. Gwaltney wanted to see Rocky Mountain National Park and Bent's Old Fort, just east of La Junta. As they were driving out of Denver on Sixth Avenue, Gwaltney saw the emblem on the National Park Service's regional office in Lakewood and told his friend to stop the car. Gwaltney got out, crossed the busy highway and climbed the chain-link fence in front of the office. "Within minutes I was on the phone with the head of Bent's Old Fort," Gwaltney says, chuckling at his youthful spontaneity. "It was the dead of winter, and they weren't hiring until summer, so I went back to Washington and worked at the Lincoln Memorial, then went to Bent's Old Fort in the summer of '78."

In 1980 Gwaltney landed a full-time job there as curator of artifacts. "But I just couldn't help for meddling. I developed a few living-history programs, like an 1846 Christmas, and taught a course at Otero Junior College on the history of the Santa Fe Trail."

He remembers a week-long nineteenth-century military reenactment at Fort Davis, Texas, a National Historic Site where troops protected settlers and mail coaches from Indian aggressors along the San Antonio/El Paso Road. It was one of the first Western outposts where black soldiers were stationed (Lieutenant Henry Flipper, West Point's first black graduate, served there for a year, in 1880). Gwaltney returned to Fort Davis in 1982, this time for three years, as an interpreter and law-enforcement officer. Gwaltney enjoyed his work there, but something was bothering him: He noticed one of the interpreters at Fort Davis never told visitors about the role black soldiers played there. "One night at a party, I asked why he never talked about the black soldiers, and he said he was concerned about what he'd do when confronted with a racist visitor," Gwaltney says. "He feared he would be looked at as being politically correct if he talked about the black soldiers."

Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
photo courtesy of James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Educ
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.

The National Park Service is starting to do a better job of offering more comprehensive history lessons at its sites, Gwaltney says, but "they still don't represent the reconstruction era very well, or the life of Indian people after they were placed on reservations."

In fact, none of the park service's 378 sites represents the country's rebuilding after slaves were freed, and none deals with the reservation life of American Indians. "Without sites that address those pieces of history, we're not covering the entire span of American history," Gwaltney says, quick to add that the park service has little control over that: In order to create another national park, Congress must vote to fund it.

Even at the Booker T. Washington National Monument, the contributions of black people were ignored. When Gwaltney accepted a job as superintendent at the childhood home of the African-American statesman in Roanoke, Virginia, he noticed that the interpreters there were helping visitors make soap, candles and baskets. "I told them that wasn't what we were there to do. The visitors weren't getting educated about Washington's life; they were just doing arts and crafts."

Employees were teaching visitors to make soap, Gwaltney says, because "it was safe. No one was ever going to say, 'What's the political meaning behind that soap?' I auctioned off the materials and brought in a historian from the University of Virginia to convince the staff of what they were there to do. We had a bigger responsibility to the American people."

Gwaltney wrote a history of Booker T. Washington and set up an exhibit detailing his life. He also brought in a six-foot-tall copy of the Constitution and hung it on a wall inside the home, then attached magnetic words. One sentence stated "Void where prohibited"; another summarized the amendments; a third detailed the rights that had been taken away from blacks and later restored. "That was kind of in-your-face history," Gwaltney says. "The good news is, I think it worked."

A year after Gwaltney left the Booker T. Washington home, one of the interpreters who had resisted Gwaltney's ideas sent him a note, thanking him for making it into a real national monument. The National Park Service's chief historian, Dwight Pitcaithley, retells that story to illustrate how parks can be made complete. "Bill saw that there were no books in the Booker T. Washington gift store about W.E.B. DuBois, so he ordered some," Pitcaithley says. "He has brought to the parks more voices than just the John Wayne voice of history; he's brought in the voices of women and minorities, and he's redesigned exhibits to tell the whole story."

After he left the Booker T. Washington National Monument, Gwaltney took a job as superintendent at Fort Laramie National Historic Site in Wyoming. In 1997 he became chief of interpretation at Rocky Mountain National Park, where he plans the park's educational programs; puts together information for brochures, road signs and radio and film broadcasts; oversees urban outreach programs; and educates visitors about park safety rules.

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