The symbolism was not lost on those gathered Thursday night to fete the National Park Service's new superintendent for the district stretching from Greenbelt to the steps of the U.S. Capitol.
Gayle Hazelwood, a 43-year-old park ranger from Accokeek, will become the first black woman to head the division, which includes the homes of such African American pioneers as Frederick Douglass, Carter G. Woodson and Mary McLeod Bethune. Her domain also includes the Sewall-Belmont House, the Capitol Hill landmark that was a staging ground for the women's suffrage movement.
Gayle Hazelwood says job is a heavy responsibility.
"It is a heavy burden to be entrusted with our national treasures," Hazelwood said, "but it is also a joy."
As superintendent of the Park Service's National Capital-East Division, Hazelwood will supervise 7,928 acres at 14 sites, including parks in Fort Washington, Fort Dupont, Oxon Hill, Greenbelt and Anacostia. The division stops at the Capitol building and does not include the Mall.
Hazelwood said one of her goals is to link people through the federal parks and sites in the District and Maryland. "Many people love the parks in their community, but they don't realize that one is tied to the other," she said.
Although hikers enjoy Greenbelt Park -- in a community planned by President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt -- most know little about McLeod Bethune, a civil rights advocate who was a close adviser to the president and first lady. Bethune, who founded the National Council of Negro Women, lived in the District. Her home on Vermont Avenue NW, which doubled as headquarters for her organization, is open to the public.
Likewise, the Anacostia home of Douglass, the 19th-century abolitionist, is open for tours.
The Shaw rowhouse where Woodson researched the lives and history of African Americans was designated a national historic site last year. The Park Service is in negotiations to purchase and refurbish the home.
Hazelwood has some experience with historic places: Her last job was managing the Martin Luther King Jr. National Historic Site in Atlanta. She also served as superintendent of the New Orleans Jazz National Historic Park.
Audrey Calhoun, superintendent of the George Washington Memorial Parkway, said that when she came to the Park Service in 1974, few African Americans held key positions.
Today, black rangers are in charge of such places as Greenbelt Park, Oxon Run and Fort Washington Park.
Marty Langelan, president of the historic National Women's Party and curator of the Sewall-Belmont house and museum, said Hazelwood's promotion shows that women and minorities have made substantial progress.
"Until the suffragettes got the right to vote, this was not a democracy," Langelan said. "Only wealthy white men had the right to vote, not women, not people of color. In 1920, women won the right to vote, and that's why we celebrate -- we have come a long way."