Tina Short: Listening to the Community

Two women in park ranger uniforms
A family legacy: Ms. Tina Short, left, with her daughter Ms. Kym Elder, right

NPS photo

Washington, D.C. - The National Capital Region (NCR)'s national parks tell a wealth of African American stories. They range from the life of abolitionist Frederick Douglass at his Washington, D.C., home to the archeology of enslaved and free African Americans at Monocacy and Manassas National Battlefields. These histories also include stories of the Civil Rights Movement and protest on public lands and National Historic Landmarks across the nation’s capital.

National Park Service employees are more than the stewards and storytellers of American history - they are part of it. Tina Short was one of the first African American women to serve as a Park Ranger in the NCR. In 2014, as part of its effort to document the service's own untold stories, the national Park History Program conducted an oral history interview with Ms. Short as part of its Centennial Voices Initiative. The story she shared offers lessons for us today as she reflected on finding creative and thoughtful ways to make urban parks relevant to their communities.

A native of Washington, D.C., Ms. Short spent her career at Fort Dupont Park, the very place she had attended as a day camper and became a Junior Ranger. She vividly remembered meeting a mounted ranger.

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

When she expressed a desire to become a park 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 Ms. Short decided to follow her childhood dream. She joined the ranks of rangers after completing courses at American University, obtaining her Bachelor’s Degree. After applying and being accepted to the rigorous 10-week Ranger Skills Training at Albright Training Center at the Grand Canyon, Arizona, she learned to rappel, conduct search and rescue, create interpretive programs, and complete administrative duties.

Upon returning to Washington, D.C., she was offered an assignment as Supervisory Park Ranger at Fort Dupont Park. On her home turf, Ms. Short planned and developed interpretive programs attuned to community needs. “We never told the community what to do,” she observed. “They always had a voice in all we did.”

Short became a well-known figure in the neighborhood, building programs that are still popular to this day. Carrying on the spirit of the 1968-1978 “Summer in the Parks” community engagement program long beyond its official end, she helped direct a summer music series, Fort Dupont Summer Theater, that attracted jazz performers from all over the country and thousands of listeners. She continued community gardens for seniors, which were a joy and open to the seniors throughout the city. Ms. Short 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 knowing they were safe, as the Metropolitan and United States Park Police Officers visited daily. The kids had loads of fun (ice skating, roller skating, swimming, etc. and taking trips to other monuments and memorials), aside from the fact there was always a good free lunch and afternoon snacks. For many of the kids, this was the only entertainment they would get all summer.” Ms. Short counts this as one of her greatest successes, increasing the growth and development of kids from the inner city who attended this camp and after school programs.

There’s an even more personal legacy. Ms. Short's daughter, Kym Elder, followed in her footsteps and eventually became Park Superintendent at Ford's Theatre. She is currently Program Manager for the Civil War Defenses of Washington.

A career with the National Park Service gave Ms. Short the opportunity to take short-term assignments throughout the United States and abroad, as well as temporary duties as a firefighter and a member of search and rescue teams. She served two months with the Army Corps of Engineer's Katrina Disaster Team.

“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 could imagine. Everyone knew, 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, just an absolutely wonderful career.”

Oral history allows veteran National Park Service personnel like Tina Short to pass along their wisdom and experience to future generations of NPS employees. To listen to podcasts from the Centennial Voices project at SoundCloud.