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“We were overwhelmed with excitement when Dr. Lee reached out to park staff last week to share his recollections of working in the park,” said Superintendent Cassius Cash. “His service fifty years ago broke employment barriers that once discouraged people of color from seeking employment in National Parks. He stepped bravely into unknown territory and paved a path for people like me to follow in his footsteps.”
The Superintendent also presented Dr. Lee with a framed photograph of all the park naturalists working in 1967, including two additional African Americans who are now deceased. Dr. Lee shared memories of his park service journey with high school students, public officials, and the media at an event held today at William T. Dwyer High School in Jupiter, FL.
“I am overwhelmed that officials from the park would come to see me in the twilight of my life and recognize me as a trailblazer by being the first African American Park Ranger Naturalist in the Smokies,” said Dr. Joe Lee. “I have a deep, abiding respect for Superintendent Cash for following up on the call I made about my time as a Park Ranger. Now, I have proof for my grandchildren and their children about my time in the Great Smokies.”
The park has recently embarked in an effort to better understand, share, and preserve the rich history of African Americans who lived in and around the southern Appalachian mountain region, both before and after the establishment of the park. Park officials held two community open house events in early August in Maryville, TN and Waynesville, NC to invite the public to share their personal experiences or family stories in an effort to better understand the collective African American experience in southern Appalachia. PhD Student, Adam McNeil, is the lead research assistant for the project and participated in an oral history interview with Dr. Lee which was captured on film by Great Smoky Mountains Association Videographer Valerie Polk.
The National Park Service (NPS) strives to preserve the history of all people across the nation. Through this important project, the park is uncovering untold stories of African Americans who visited, lived, and worked in this region. The research is supported by Great Smoky Mountains Association and Friends of the Smokies. For more information on how you can be involved, please contact Acting Resource Education Chief Susan Sachs at e-mail us.
The NPS commemorated the first landing of enslaved Africans 400 years ago in English-occupied North America at Virginia’s Point Comfort, now part of Fort Monroe National Monument on August 25, 2019. Throughout the next year, parks will host events to recognize and highlight 400 years of African American history and accomplishments. Civic, historical, educational, artistic, religious, and other organizations are invited to coordinate and participate in activities designed to expand the collective understanding and appreciation of African American contributions to the American experience. For more information, visit the NPS website at www.nps.gov/orgs/1892/
Last updated: August 29, 2019