Park Ranger Asks: Where Are the Black Visitors?

Peter Fimrite, San Francisco Chronicle, August 9, 2009

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Johnson [Shelton Johnson], one of a scarce few African American park rangers in the United States, said a black American celebrity publicly frolicking in the woods would do more to help people of color embrace their heritage than all the money in Hollywood.

Johnson, a musician, storyteller and interpretive specialist at Yosemite National Park, is determined to inspire young inner-city African Americans to experience what he says transformed his life. Less than 1 percent of the visitors to Yosemite are African American, a number he’s eager to improve.

“It’s bigger than just African Americans not visiting national parks. It’s a disassociation from the natural world,” said Johnson, who has worked in Yosemite for the past 15 of his 22 years in the Park Service. “I think it is, in part, a memory of the horrible things that were done to us in rural America.”

The rejection of the natural world by the black community, he said, is a scar left over from slavery.

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Early years

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It was there [Yosemite National Park], in 2001, that ranger Johnson made the discovery that changed his understanding of the black experience. Deep in the archives he found a faded 1899 photograph of five U.S. Army cavalry troopers on horseback patrolling a pine forest deep in the Yosemite backcountry. The soldiers were African American.

He learned that, for three years, Army troops from the Presidio known as buffalo soldiers had patrolled Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. He became engrossed in their story, reading the soldiers’ archived letters.

Johnson has since taken on the persona of one of the soldiers and tells the story of the buffalo soldier and his own Native American heritage to youth groups and tourists through that character. The musical presentations bring to life the forgotten history of the black American soldiers who essentially became America’s first national park rangers.

Spot in documentary

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“Race is the core of this history, the heart of this history,” he said. “It shows that the national parks are as much a cultural resource as a natural resource.”

But Johnson cannot seem to break through to the African American community, and, he said, the “African American intelligentsia” does not seem willing to step up.

“We are now part of our own problem,” he said. “It bothers me immensely because one of the great losses to African culture from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth.”

As it is, he said, so few black Americans visit the parks that he and his colleagues refer to encounters with them as “sightings.”

‘Finally, black people’

He said he sees more Africans at the parks. Once, he said, he ran across a group of Kalahari bushmen who were trapped by flooding at Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona.

“I’m thinking, ‘finally, black people,’ ” Johnson said.

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“For me, the buffalo soldier history is a way of reconnecting African Americans to the land that shaped our consciousness,” Johnson said. “You don’t have to go back to Africa to reconnect with nature, to understand its value and to know that it is an essential part of our shared history. It is right here.”

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