Virtual talk: “From ‘Invalids need not apply’ to ‘Black Foresters Wanted’: The Forest Service in the Civil Rights Era”

James Lewis's picture
February 25, 2021
Subject Fields: 
African American History / Studies, Environmental History / Studies, Women's & Gender History / Studies, American History / Studies, Political History / Studies

Early 20th-century images of the U.S. Forest Service show the “rough and ready ranger,” the manly cowboy’s cousin who traveled by horse or mule, packed a gun, built ranger stations, strung telephone wire, and cleared the way for public forest access. In the Southwest, he had to “know enough Spanish to conduct reserve business with Mexicans,” but “invalids seeking light outdoor employment need not apply,” noted the Forest Service’s 1906 employee handbook.

But African Americans and other people of color remained largely excluded from agency leadership positions until the late 1960s. Then, in the midst of an era of civil unrest, following passage of the Civil Rights Act, the Forest Service created the Tuskegee Pre-Forestry Program, a seminal effort in moving “Toward a Multicultural Organization” by the 1990s.

In this talk, historian and author Donna Sinclair introduces the overlapping complexities of environmental law, social policy, and race in twentieth-century America. From the Tuskegee story to Gloria Brown’s appointment as the first African American female forest supervisor in 1999, the Forest Service provides unexpected lessons in civil rights action and representation, begging the question: What can the Forest Service teach us about civil rights today?

Donna Sinclair is a history professor at Washington State University–Vancouver and Western Oregon University. With Gloria Brown, she’s co-author of the memoir, Black Woman in Green: Gloria Brown and the Unmarked Trail to Forest Service Leadership (Oregon State University Press, 2020). She has written for the National Park Service, ran the Oregon Historical Society Oral History Program, and has managed major oral history projects throughout the Pacific Northwest. She has presented dozens of community-based and academic oral history workshops. A museum professional, she has curated exhibits for the Clark County Historical Museum. Sinclair’s awards include the K’EtSi-Yeu-Yeu Award from the Nez Perce Tribe in 1999 for documenting the incarceration of the Red Heart band at Fort Vancouver, the Columbia Slough Watershed Council’s Achievement Award in 2002, and the Catherine Prelinger Award for non-traditional women historians in 2013.

Contact Info: 

James Lewis, Forest History Society