Next Avenue Logo

Women Shaping History

Meet the leaders who oversee the National Park Service’s 'idea parks'

By Jackie Perrin

You know about Yellowstone, the Grand Canyon and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks. What about Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park? Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park? Stonewall National Monument? Categorized as "idea parks" by the National Park Service, these sites focus on important ideas and moments in our nation's history rather than scenic vistas.

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman smiling in a group. Next Avenue
Three “Rosies” pose with NPS administrators, including K. Lynn Berry, Superintendent of Rosie the Riveter WW II Home Front National Historic Park.   |  Credit: National Park Service

For the leaders who oversee these "idea" sites, the work — as well as the rewards — can be monumental. Following are the stories of five female National Park Superintendents, past and present, who spent their careers preserving history.

Shirley McKinney
Four Sites in Manhattan

"As park rangers like to say, 'we have green blood flowing through our veins,'" says Shirley McKinney, the superintendent of the National Park Service's Manhattan Sites. "We love our trees, but right now I'm hugging historic homes."

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman. Next Avenue
Shirley Mckinney at a Manhattan parks ceremony. She is Superintendent of National Park Service Manhattan sites. She oversees eight Manhattan area parks and one in Mount Vernon, including African Burial Ground National Monument, Hamilton Grange National Memorial, Stonewall National Monument and Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace.  |  Credit: National Park Service

Since 2007, McKinney has overseen the Park Service's diverse collection of nine significant locations in New York City and one in Mt. Vernon, New York. Notable examples include the African Burial Ground National Monument — a revered pilgrimage site for Black family reunions — and Stonewall National Monument, a testament to the ongoing struggle for LGBT rights.

Interest in Hamilton Grange National Memorial — Alexander Hamilton's Manhattan home — has soared since the Broadway debut of "Hamilton," the hit musical that tells the story of that particular Founding Father. The show has renewed interest in Hamilton's life and legacy, drawing visitors to his former residence.

Similarly, the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace, the childhood home of the 26th President, appeals to history buffs and road-trippers alike, offering a glimpse into the early life of one of America's most influential leaders.

"We call our visitors who visit the Theodore Roosevelt Birthplace 'Ted-ettes,'" McKinney says. "They love Theodore Roosevelt and they want to know everything about him." Roosevelt devotees may tour the townhouse where he was born, and then go to his house in Oyster Bay on nearby Long Island, where he resided when he was President.

"We love our trees, but right now I'm hugging historic homes."

McKinney has accompanied Archbishop Desmond Tutu of South Africa on an emotional visit to the African Burial Ground. She also welcomed Barack Obama, the first African American president, and Kamala Harris, the first female and first African American vice president, on their official visits to Federal Hall and Stonewall Monument.

"It's been a great career," says McKinney, who began her 44-year National Park Service career as a stenographer, and has since served in places as diverse as the Indiana Dunes National Park and the Mount Rushmore National Memorial. "I have always recommended that someone pursue it."

Deanna Mitchell
Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman. Next Avenue
Deanna Mitchell is Superintendent of Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek, Maryland.   |  Credit: National Park Service

The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Church Creek, Maryland, teaches visitors about Tubman and the series of secret routes and safe houses known as the Underground Railroad. On her own, Tubman had escaped enslavement in Maryland but repeatedly returned to the South to help more than 70 other enslaved people reach freedom via the Underground Railroad.

"When people come here, we emphasize her rich legacy and how she worked along the Underground Railroad and with other conductors in helping folks to see freedom in the North," says Deanna Mitchell, Park Superintendent.

"There's another side to Harriet Tubman — she was a naturalist," Mitchell adds. "She understood these landscapes. She learned how to rely on the sky. She knew the tributaries, and she knew these marshes like the back of her hand."

Mitchell, who has 20 years of service with the National Park system and 38 years with the federal government, completed a two-year legislative fellowship to prepare future leaders within the National Park Service. Before that, she served as site manager of Tuskegee Airman National Historic Site in Alabama.

K. Lynn Berry
Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park

Not many National Park Superintendents get to introduce visitors to living heroes. K. Lynn Berry, who has overseen Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park since 2022, recognizes this privilege.

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman. Next Avenue
General Superintendent K. Lynn Berry oversees four Contra Costa County Parks in the East Bay, in California. The sites are: Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park, John Muir National Historic Site, Eugene O'Neill National Historic Site, Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial.  |  Credit: National Park Service

On some Fridays, park visitors can meet women who worked in defense factories during World War II — and were celebrated in a famous poster depicting a fictional "Rosie the Riveter."

"Fridays are a popular day to come to the park's visitor and education center because the Rosies are there," says Berry, "and it truly is amazing to hear stories from history firsthand, from the people who lived it.

"And it's not just Rosies," she adds. "We are also so fortunate to have members of the Japanese American community from the Richmond area who tell the story of the Japanese American incarceration during the war and the ways their families, business and community were impacted."

Park sights that tell the home front story are spread throughout the city of Richmond, near San Francisco. The sights include Japanese American nurseries, a visitor center, shipyards, a field hospital, child development centers and housing built for the tens of thousands of workers who came to the Bay Area to build ships for the war effort.

"It truly is amazing to hear stories from history firsthand, from the people who lived it."

Because the Rosies are volunteers and in their late 90s or older, it's not possible to guarantee their attendance. When they aren't available, park docents are present to discuss them and their significant contributions, says Berry, who has 14 years of National Park service.

Lawmakers in Washington in April awarded Congressional Gold Medals to all of the women, collectively as "Rosie the Riveter," who joined the workforce during World War II, Berry says.

"Nearly 30 Rosies traveled to the award ceremony at the Capitol where they were presented the medal by the Speaker of the House and other members of Congress," she adds. "It was a great privilege to be there with them and I could not believe I had the good fortune to represent the National Park Service and to share a little bit about the work we do to carry on the legacy of the Rosies at our park."


Ahna Wilson
Women's Rights National Historical Park
The Harriet Tubman National Historical Park

Since January 2021, Ahna Wilson, a 15-year National Parks Service veteran, has overseen two National Park Service sites in the Finger Lakes region of New York State,  Women's Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls and a new Harriet Tubman National Historical Park, which is scheduled to open to visitors in June in nearby Auburn.

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman. Next Avenue
Superintendent Ahna Wilson addresses the crowd in Declaration Park during Convention Days, an annual event at Women’s Rights National Historical Park in Seneca Falls, New York.  |  Credit: National Park Service

The Women's Rights Park is composed of several buildings spread across the village of Seneca Falls, including a visitors' center, the restored Wesleyan Chapel that hosted the 1848 Women's Rights Convention and the home of Elizabeth Cady Stanton, a leading figure in the women's rights movement in the 19th century.

Each July, the park hosts Convention Days, a three-day event honoring the arduous struggle for women's suffrage and highlights Seneca Falls' pivotal role in history as the site of the first women's rights convention.

The newest and second national park honoring Tubman will tell her story after she settled in Auburn in 1859 and where she made her home until she died in 1913. Visitors can tour the Thompson Memorial A.M.E. Zion Church where she worshipped and where her funeral was held. Across the street is her final resting place, Fort Hill Cemetery. Nearby visitors can find the Harriet Tubman Home, a partner site managed by the nonprofit A.M.E. Zion Church.

Wilson, a 15-year National Parks Service veteran, says it was a privilege to build a team and open a new national park. "The stories we get to share at Harriet Tubman and the deep connections we're forging with the community . . . It's been an incredibly rewarding experience."

The Woman Behind Parks Honoring Women

A National Park Service ranger who is a woman. Next Avenue
Judy Hart is Founding Superintendent of Women’s Right’s National Park in Seneca Falls, New York. She was also the Chief Ranger for Legislation for the North Atlantic Region of the National Park Service and first superintendent of Rosie the Riveter World War II National Historical Park. Photo date: 1982  |  Credit: National Park Service

In the 1970s, while working as a legislative affairs specialist for the National Park System, Judy Hart had an opportunity to suggest new national parks for the Northeast region. "At the time, there were 312 national parks, and only three were dedicated to women," she says.

Hart's supervisor loved the idea of adding parks exploring women's many vital contributions to the country, and before long Hart found herself deep in park planning. Her task: to find a site and structures that were up to the park services standards of historical significance. Her background in law and parks policies allowed her to negotiate many logistics, and a knack for diplomacy helped to unite factions and open doors.

"I was blessed with the perfect elevator statement: Did you know that women couldn't vote in this country until 1920?" she says. This statement was a key part of her communication strategy, helping to raise awareness and garner support for the park's establishment.

"I was blessed with the perfect elevator statement: Did you know that women couldn't vote in this country until 1920?"

Before long, she found herself in Seneca Falls, tasked with opening a park devoted to the birthplace of women's rights in the U.S. Her experience led her to write "A National Park for Women's Rights," a book in which she acknowledges the pivotal role many men — and women — played in the park's establishment.

Next up, says Hart, may be a book on her final national park assignment, as the founding superintendent of the Rosie the Riveter WWII Homefront National Historical Park. The park opened in October 2000.

Meeting real-life Rosies was a "soul-filling" experience, says Hart, who is now retired. "They were typically 80 to 85 — the feistiest, liveliest bunch of women I ever met. We'd talk for a while, and I'd end with, 'What did it mean to you?'

"Universally, they would say, 'I learned I could do anything.' "

Jackie Perrin
Jackie Perrin A consumer-focused journalist with 20 years of experience, Jackie Perrin has covered home, health, leisure, food, travel, and business topics for publications ranging from TripAdvisor to Gannett News Service. Read More
Next Avenue LogoMeeting the needs and unleashing the potential of older Americans through media
©2024 Next AvenuePrivacy PolicyTerms of Use
A nonprofit journalism website produced by:
TPT Logo