‘No deposit, no return’ philosophy helped Parker reach career goal

By Kate Kellogg
News and Information Services

In the mid-1960s, the Parker family became one of the few African American families in Little Rock, Ark., to send most of its 11 children to college. “How can you afford to pay their tuitions and lose their help in the fields?” neighbors asked the Parkers, who were rice farmers.

Her mother would answer, “If you think education is expensive, try ignorance,” remembers Mamie Parker, now chief of the Division of Habitat Conservation for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, Division of Enhancement.

“My mother knew that letters behind a name—such as B.S., M.S. and Ph.D.—are the keys to getting out of poverty. Whether the degrees come from U-M, Michigan State, Wayne State or by mail, we need them,” Parker told her audience of faculty and students in the School of Natural Resources and Environment. “We must recycle the opportunities that Martin Luther King marched for.”

In her presentation, “From Inequality and Indifference to Justice and Reconciliation,” Parker traced the sometimes rocky road of a natural resources career that she began as a test-tube washer for the Fish Disease Control Laboratory of the Fish and Wildlife Service. She later became the first African American female chief of a major division of that agency.

Although she holds degrees from several universities, Parker credits her most important teachings to her mother, who taught Parker the art of angling for catfish and dogfish. Parker’s mother also taught the art of survival as an African American woman at a time when integration was barely more than a concept in the South.

Two decades ago, pop bottles sold in Arkansas bore instructions that applied to the survival of a Black woman in the 1960s. “According to my mother, ‘No deposit, no return’ meant I would have to put more into my efforts than most other people to get the returns I wanted,” Parker says.

Parker did put forth the maximum effort to educate herself, starting in the third grade when she enrolled in an all-white school under Arkansas’s Freedom of Choice Law. She later pursued her interest in biology at the University of Arkansas, where she was recruited for a job in the U. S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The position was in LaCrosse, Wis.—“Siberia, to me,” Parker recalls.

Parker’s mother worried about her daughter’s decision to take the job so far from home in a field—natural resources—that held few role models for Blacks or women. “She had envisioned me working as a biology teacher or a nurse,” Parker says.

She succeeded in the position even though her supervisor had to loan her $500 for a rental deposit on her apartment. “Ever since, I’ve set aside about $500 for each student who works under me,” she says.

Parker’s mundane duties—washing test tubes—posed another initial problem. “I told my supervisor I could have stayed in Arkansas to wash dishes and that I wanted more responsibility,” she says. Her boss complied with the request. Recently assigned to a job in Portland, Ore., Parker found that the former supervisor now is working for her. “He agreed that he had made the right decision in giving me more challenging work to do.”

Along with wildlife conservation, Parker’s greatest concerns are the disproportionate impact of environmental hazards on minorities and the “whiteness” of the Green Movement—the lack of diversity in environmental professions.


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