Tina Short and Kym Elder: "The Story of People that Look Like Me"

This article was developed from two oral history interviews conducted by Lu Ann Jones. In 2014 she interviewed Tina Short, and six years later she interviewed Kym Elder. The interviews contribute to Telling Our Untold Stories: Civil Rights in the National Park Service Oral History Project and Women’s Voices: Women in the National Park Service Oral History Project, made possible in part by a grant from the National Park Foundation. Recordings will be archived at Harpers Ferry Center.

National Park Service (NPS) employees are the stewards and storytellers of American history—and they are also part of it. In the 1970s Tina Short was among the first African American women to serve as a park ranger in the National Capital Area. Her daughter, Kym Elder, followed in her footsteps and eventually served as superintendent at Ford’s Theatre and program manager at the Civil War Defenses of Washington. Both women found creative and thoughtful ways to make urban parks relevant to their communities and to spotlight African American history.

Tina Short

Two women stand side-by-side, smiling for the photograph
Lu Ann Jones with Tina Short during the oral history interview in 2014.

Image courtesy of Lu Ann Jones

A native of Washington, Tina Short spent her career at Fort Dupont Park, the very place she had attended a day camp and become a National Park Service Junior Ranger. She vividly remembered meeting a mounted ranger.

“I went running up to him,” Short said. “All the kids were running to him, and I wanted to pat the horse. I was so adamant about the fact that that was what I wanted to be when I grow up--I want a horse and a hat.”

When she expressed a desire to become a ranger herself, she also remembered someone telling her: “Sweetheart, they don’t have colored people and they sure don’t have ladies.”

In the 1970s, the National Park Service began diversifying its work force, and Short decided to make good on the childhood dream. She joined the ranks of rangers after completing courses at American University and graduating from the rigorous Ranger Skills training at Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon where she learned to rappel, conduct search and rescue, plan interpretive programs, and complete administrative duties.

On home turf at Fort Dupont, Short designed programs attuned to community needs. “We never told the community what to do,” she observed. “They always told us what to do.”
Five photographs of Tina Short at various locations, points in her career, and uniforms
When Tina Short joined the National Park Service in the 1970s the agency offered uniforms to women that mimicked the uniforms of airline stewardesses. The center photograph is Short with National Capital Region regional director, Jack Fish. Other photos feature Tina Short and Kym Elder at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Courtesy of Tina Short

Short became a well-known figure in the neighborhood, and she built programs that are still popular to this day. She helped direct a summer music series that attracted jazz performers from all over the country and thousands of listeners. She opened community gardens for seniors. She re-created the day camp program for youth—and again responded to community needs. “I used to say that many of my kids came to the park in the summer for the sole purpose of eating. They didn’t have any food at home. There were so many young kids that went there that were considered kind of poverty level.” She counts as one of her greatest successes the achievements of youth who attended the camp.

A career with the National Park Service gave Short the opportunity to take short-term assignments throughout the United States and abroad and temporary duties as a firefighter and a member of search and rescue teams.
“You name it, I’ve done it with the Park Service,” she said. “I’ve had one of the most exciting and vigorous careers anyone would ever have with an agency. I mean I absolutely love the Park Service and not that many people can say that about their jobs. It was just a great place to work. Good people. Good hearted people. Good pay. It was just an absolutely wonderful career.”
A large crowd is gathered in the grass in front of an outdoor stage that says "Fort Dupont Summer Theater"
A summer concert at Fort Dupont in 2008.


Kym Elder

An NPS ranger in uniform, an African American woman, beside on the the animal seats inside a carousel
Kym Elder on the Dentzel Carousel at Glen Echo Park.

Courtesy of Kym Elder

Kym Elder recalls accompanying her mother on the National Mall for the U.S. Bicentennial. “I’ve been in the Park Service since I was probably about seven years old, literally,” she said. “It’s funny to work and be assigned in these same parks that you actually grew up in.” Years later, in the same place where she watched her mother welcome crowds to Fort Dupont Park, she manages the same concert series, even producing the site’s first virtual concert series in 2020.

As a sixth grader, Elder accompanied her mother to the Ranger Skills training at the Grand Canyon. “I have to admit that the students weren’t very kind to me out there,” she recalls. “I think it was just because they had never experienced having a Black kid in their classroom.” She left the Grand Canyon with a new perspective of the country and experience in practicing habits of respect for everyone that her parents had instilled in her.

Elder’s own career with the NPS began in the 1980s at Frederick Douglass National Historic Site. “It was a very easy fit because the Park Service allowed me to work in areas that I could be of benefit to others and to help tell American history and African American history. Ironically over the last thirty-three years, my career has always been around African American history and civil rights. And women’s rights.”
One of the places where she revived interpretation to include African American perspectives was Glen Echo Park, a unit of the George Washington Memorial Parkway where Elder served as site manager in the early 2000s. A century ago, Glen Echo was an amusement park that was connected by trolley line to Washington. In the 1960s, Elder discovered, African American students protested the park’s refusal to desegregate. In her role as site manager, Elder connected with people who could help the park tell those stories, but it was members of her community who alerted her that there was a story to tell in the first place.
Even as Elder has helped expand the stories of African American history that the National Park Service tells, she despairs that the agency’s workforce is not more diverse--even in Washington, a city deeply rooted in African American history and culture. “We say, ‘Oh, yes, we embrace diversity. We support it. We want to make sure it’s happening in the parks,’” Elder observes. “But there’s saying it and not doing.”

During a stint as a National Capital Area special emphasis recruitment officer, Elder visited Historically Black Colleges and Universities, tribal colleges, and other venues to encourage a diverse group of young adults to work for the NPS. She and the Equal Employment Opportunity officer also visited parks and assessed hiring practices.
On some occasions Elder has encountered misguided assumptions that because of her race and gender she would be interested in some topics but not others. “I walk in a room where we’re having a Civil War discussion,” she said, “and they think that maybe I’m in the wrong room. What does this African American woman know about the Civil War? Well, she knows quite a bit about the Civil War. Let’s have a seat and let’s talk about it.”

Or well-intentioned people ask, "What made you get into the Civil War, Kym?"
For Tina Short and Kym Elder African American history is personal. The mother and daughter have expanded the stories the National Park Service tells while serving their home community. Through oral history interviews, the Park History Program is preserving the untold stories of NPS Service employees to inform current and future generations.
Two African American women in NPS uniform stand in front of a double door with two wreaths
Tina Short and Kym Elder at the Frederick Douglass National Historic Site.

Courtesy of Tina Short

Lu Ann Jones is the oral history program coordinator for the National Park Service Park History Program in Washington, DC. Learn more at the NPS Oral History Website.

Civil War Defenses of Washington, Ford's Theatre, Fort Dupont Park, Frederick Douglass National Historic Site, Glen Echo Park

Last updated: September 7, 2023