Posted on November 1, 2010

National Parks Have Room for All Races

Shelton Johnson, CNN, October 29, 2010

As the only African American permanent ranger in Yosemite National Park in California, I often lament that I’m more likely to meet visitors from Japan or France than I am to see an African-American family from nearby Sacramento or Oakland. So I couldn’t be more appreciative of my recent opportunity to lead Oprah Winfrey through this national treasure for a two-part television special that airs Friday and Monday.

Some readers may be stunned to learn that this well-traveled celebrity had never before visited a national park. Most people of color won’t be.

When I was growing up in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1960s, no one in my family ever visited a national park, nor to my knowledge did anyone in my community. My school friends never talked about summer vacations to Yellowstone or the Grand Canyon. The Smokey Mountains and Mesa Verde never came up in class discussions.


Back in Detroit, my grandfather had an old tackle box in our basement and stories about fishing on Mackinac Island. Together we’d watch National Geographic specials and “Wild Kingdom,” and I was drawn to landscapes that bore so little resemblance to the scenes outside our front door. Half African and half Cherokee, my grandfather understood and encouraged the attraction.

When I became a Yosemite park ranger in December of 1993, I didn’t know that I was in a preserve that had once been protected by Buffalo Soldiers, African-American men serving with the Ninth Cavalry. Eventually, I saw that history as a bridge between my culture and the National Park idea.

I began to dress as a Buffalo Soldier and to tell this historical story to people who visited the park. Unfortunately, few of those people were African-American. {snip}