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First Black Forest Supervisor Writes Memoir

Portland woman tells story of her historic journey

By Beverly Corbell

Gloria Brown, the first African American woman to attain the rank of Forest Supervisor at the U.S. Forest Service, has written a book about her experiences, ‘Black Woman in Green,” recently published by Oregon State University Press. PHOTO (LEFT) BY BEVERLY CORBELL/THE PORTLAND OBSERVER


When Gloria Brown was just 30 years old and the mother of three small children, her husband was killed by a drunk driver. Her future looked bleak, but through perseverance, hard work and smarts, she ascended and became the first African American woman to be named a Forest Supervisor with the U.S. Forest Service.


Brown, a Portland area resident, has written a book along with history professor Donna Sinclair, about her experiences in the Forest Service titled “”Black Woman in Green,” recently published by Oregon State University Press.


Brown recently sat down with the Portland Observer to talk about her journey. She said she was working for the Forest Service as a clerical worker in Washington, D.C. when her husband was killed and she knew she had to work hard to make ends meet. People of color didn’t have great opportunities for advancement in D.C., so she asked for a transfer so she could move up and make more money to support her children. She was hoping to go to Atlanta, but instead was sent to Missoula, Mont. where she ran into blatant racism.


She had been in Montana for several years when her daughter, Nicki, who was in high school, was attacked and called the N-word by a white girl, the captain of the basketball team. Her daughter fought back and both girls were suspended, but Brown soon learned that the white girl was continuing to go to basketball practice. When she asked the assistant principal why, she was told that the school “didn’t have these problems” until her children came into the school system.


Outraged, she contacted her supervisor, who called the school superintendent and in a short time, the principal called her and said they let the white girl continue to participate because she had an abusive father and they were afraid he would hurt her if he found out she had been in a fight. Incredulous, Brown asked if anyone thought about her daughter.


“They said no,” she said. “It was an honest answer. But I said that is not acceptable and feels like racism against my daughter.”


But it was while in Montana that Brown learned to make camp in the woods, ride a horse and learn all about the wilderness experience that she came to love, as she relates in the book.


Although she had made friends in Missoula, and the reason for her leaving was featured in the July 1987 issue of the Missoulian newspaper titled “Shades of Racism,” Brown knew she had to leave.


“I felt sad about leaving,” she wrote in the book. “I had been naïve about Montana, but I’d also learned that if I set my mind to it, I could do just about anything. I had ridden a horse, set up camp, cooked outdoors, learned to fight fire, made new friends in an all-white community, helped other women and begun to focus on civil rights. When I arrived, the beauty of the Big Sky country had enveloped me like a blanket. Now I felt cold.”


But all those experiences also gave her courage to face the future, and Brown was determined to forge ahead. After the incident at her daughter’s high school, Brown ended up sending her daughter back East to live with her parents to finish her senior year, and she was given a transfer to the regional office in Portland to work for the Willamette National Forest.


But Brown still wanted more. She wanted to become a Forest Service line officer, so she could make the decisions that were then only being made by white men, she said. So she found out about an opening in public affairs and applied for it, saying if selected, she would help them get their overdue Forest Plan published quickly. And once she did that, she said, she wanted a sabbatical to go to OSU to get training to become a forest ranger, the only track to becoming a line officer. It worked, and she became a forest ranger and was able to work out in the woods.


Brown went on to other assignments in the Northwest, including Mount St. Helens, and eventually reached the lofty position of being hired as Forest Supervisor of the 630,000-acre Siuslaw National Forest. It was both a shock and an unbelievable challenge, as she wrote.


“My position as forest supervisor was new territory not only for me, but also for the Forest Service,” she wrote. “We were betting on each other, and the stakes were high. I had watched and participated in the continued unfolding of Mount St. Helens’ ecological network, the flora and fauna that brought back an ecosystem. Just as wildlife, birds and sprouts of green reemerged on the once-barren landscape, I realized that I, too, had blossomed toward my new assignment. I knew that my dream job would present huge and unexpected challenges.”


Brown’s book is chockfull of anecdotes about the inner workings of the Forest Service and the many situations she has overcome, from the internal racism in her own family because of her dark skin, being raped at age 12, becoming a widow at a young age and experiences as varied as working to protect the California condor, promote women’s rights and standing up to white men who would keep her down.


She sums up her life in the Forest Service and her experience with racism in the book’s epilogue:


“My philosophy was that if you want to be successful as a black person in a white world, you were the one who had to make it work. That could mean educating white people or simply turning the other cheek. The reality is that many African Americans don’t make it past a single summer in the Forest Service, in part because the onus is always on them. But others do. I’d had to put aside my own feelings and push my way upward. My need to provide a decent life for my children and my own ambition had more power than the words of a few racists.”

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