Althea Roberson

March 27, 2021 Posted by: RB - Creative Media Associate - Original Interview Steven J. Burke
In 1986 Althea Roberson became the first Black woman ranger at Yosemite National Park. In 1988 for Black History Month she was interviewed about her experience for the Courier: News Magazine of the National Park Service.
AIthea Roberson and a young ranger
AIthea Roberson and a young ranger, as shown in VOL 33, NO. 2 FEB 1988 issue of Courier, News Magazine of the National Park Service.

NPS Photo

Park Ranger Althea Roberson is a historic figure at the ripe old age of 27.

Her name unexpectedly became etched in the annals of the National Park Service one afternoon in late May 1986. A phone call from Yosemite NP brought news of her selection to fill a seasonal park ranger/interpreter position, the first time in the ninety-six year history of the California park that a black woman had been hired in this capacity.

"I felt kind of funny when I found out I was the first black woman ranger in America's third oldest national park," Roberson said. "I didn't really feel any pressure to prove myself at first but I began to notice that most visitors were uncomfortable approaching me with questions. Visitors always asked the white rangers their questions instead of me. My white ranger friends never noticed this until I pointed it out." Roberson feels she had to work a little harder than her colleagues to gain visitor attention and respect.

Things changed by the end of the summer season, and the vivacious native of Ypsilanti, MI, actually longed for the days when no one paid her much attention. "I couldn't go anywhere without people recognizing me," she exclaimed. "I stuck out too much. The other rangers could change into their civilian clothes and no one bothered them. I really had to stay in line all the time."

Roberson first became affiliated with the NPS in 1983 when she was hired under the cooperative education program at John Muir NHS. another park where she holds the distinction of being the first black woman ranger/interpreter. It was at the home of the famous conservationist that the California State University, Hayward, senior first introduced urban minority children to the NPS.

"Minority kids don't often see blacks working on the front line in our national parks; when they do it's important for us to reach out to them and offer a good experience. I make a special effort when I'm roving the campgrounds at Yosemite to invite black visitors to my evening program. Most blacks think park rangers are gimpy. They think of Yogi Bear and the city park maintenance crews driving around Oakland in trucks all day."

Roberson was 18 when she saw her first park ranger. Carol Nelson, a ranger with the California Department of Parks and Recreation, spoke before a career development class at a junior college Roberson attended. The majority of the students had never been to a state or national park, let alone considered a career as a caretaker or interpreter of a park area. Roberson was no exception.

"She (Roberson) was really nervous about getting her first job," said Nelson, who now serves as superintendent of the state's San Mateo District Park. "I remember calling a friend at the park (Richardson Grove) and telling him to keep an extra eye on her since she hadn't really been out of the city before." Nelson, the first black woman hired to work as a park ranger for the California state parks and one of only two black women rangers in the system today, advocates inner city recruitment programs, directed by role models like herself and Roberson, as a way to resolve the under-representation of minorities in the ranger ranks.

Both women agreed that blacks pursuing careers as park rangers must overcome a non-supportive social environment. "I think it's more difficult for a black seasonal ranger from the inner city to keep going back to her family and neighbors time after time with not much to show for it," Nelson said. "There's a stigma, which might not be as true for a white seasonal going home to family and friends."

Although job satisfaction outweighs monetary gain for Roberson, she is certain that salaries, typically lower than private sector salaries for similar positions, are the main reason why she has yet to see another black woman wearing the NPS patch. "I spoke at a career day program for Oakland area high school students who were mostly black. They laughed when I came on stage in my uniform. I ended up trying to convince them that money wasn't the only thing about a job they should consider.'' Roberson added that her stab at selling the NPS to the city teenagers was undermined by the lawyers, doctors and computer experts also on the panel. "They all stressed money. You gotta make money, they said."

Roberson soon will receive a college degree in recreation and begin scanning NPS pink sheets for permanent job openings. It seems very possible that she will again make history, becoming the first black woman park ranger/interpreter at yet another park.

Steven J. Burke

Last updated: March 29, 2021

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