For Shelton Johnson, positive social change happens one essential story at a time.
The 33-year veteran of the National Park Service and Yosemite’s newest cultural outreach ranger was just promoted to Community Engagement Specialist. Tasked with increasing relevancy, diversity and inclusion in the park, Johnson describes his role as helping to forge and deepen “lasting connections between all communities of color and our national parks.” He notes how that connection begins with rewiring ideas of belonging. “It’s generating a sense of ownership and stewardship within populations that don’t necessarily feel that national parks are there for them,” he says. “But parks are part of their birthright not just as citizens of this country but also as human beings.”
In his new role, Johnson will continue to share forgotten African Americans’ stories, specifically about the segregated Army regiments known colloquially as the Buffalo Soldiers—400 to 500 men—in the Sierra Nevada in 1899, 1903 and 1904. These veterans of the Spanish–American War and Philippine–American War protected Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. Describing an image of Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir side by side at Glacier Point with a backdrop of Yosemite Falls in May 1903, Johnson says, “There’s likely an African American soldier standing just outside the frame.”
Tireless efforts sharing these stories have earned Johnson his share of notoriety—from coverage of his work in large news outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian—to a starring role in Ken Burns’ National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a documentary series that continues to be televised via public broadcasting. In addition to his work as a park ranger, Johnson, 61, is an award-winning poet, author and has dreams of seeing his historical novel Gloryland turned into a Hollywood movie.
We met in downtown Mariposa, CA, to discuss his community contributions over homemade breakfast sandwiches. Johnson shared the work that got him invited to the White House, where he shook hands with President Obama for the first time in 2009 after a screening of selected segments from the Burns film. They met again at the top of Yosemite’s Vernal Fall when the first family visited the park in 2016. That trip marked the first time a U.S. president had been to Yosemite since the 1960s.
After appearing on The Oprah Winfrey Show in a travel special, he wrote her a letter asking why African Americans aren’t visiting national parks that belong to everyone. Oprah responded with a surprise visit. “She’d never gone camping,” Johnson recalls, “never went to a national park before.”
Oprah wasn’t alone. In 1987, when Johnson started his tenure with the park service, weeks would pass before he’d see another African American. He’s been sharing the Buffalo Soldier story since 1998, and in part due to his efforts over decades, things are changing. Now he sees one or two African American visitors enjoying Yosemite Valley every few days.
Still, there’s much work to be done. A scant 1 percent of Yosemite’s visitors are African American, Johnson cites. “Consequently it feels segregated because there’s a legacy of segregation in our country,” Johnson says, leaning in. “When people ask me why African Americans don’t visit national parks, you have to remember something. We come out of a history of exclusion, rather than inclusion, segregation rather than integration.”
Johnson continues looking through history’s long lens—from the rise of the Ku Klux Klan during the Reconstruction era, to the outright physical and psychological violence toward African Americans chronicled in Sundown Towns, up to and through the civil rights movement, when cross-country road trips were still considered dangerous—to point out today’s realties.
“There’s always been a negative perception within the African American community of ‘be careful where you’re going,’ as well as the challenges with securing lodging, eating at restaurants,” Johnson says. “For African Americans on the road, going to a national park was more of a fantasy than an actual vacation historically speaking, and even, for some, today.”
Name: Shelton Johnson
Title: Park Ranger, Community Engagement Specialist
Location: Yosemite National Park
Men’s Journal: Why is the story of Buffalo Soldiers important today?
SHELTON JOHNSON: The demographics are shifting. It’s been projected that by 2050 or possibly sooner, the United States be a minority-majority culture and that European Americans will be, in fact, a numerical minority. Since the advertisements and the publicity about national parks, in general, have always been inflected toward Euro Americans, traditionally up until the civil rights movement, at least, African Americans may have been accepted, but definitely did not necessarily feel welcomed in our national parks. African Americans were citizens in a country where racial discrimination, disenfranchisement, and racial segregation were legal throughout the land. So if we’re not reaching out to them about the parks, and they eventually become the majority, then they can vote out these national parks. Why would someone pay money to go somewhere that they’ve never received an invitation? That’s why the Buffalo Soldier story, and the stories of all Americans, are so important; it connects African Americans culturally and historically to the parks.
How did you come up with the character Elizy Boman?
My character is a combination of my father and grandfather. My dad is African and Seminole, born and raised in South Carolina; my grandfather and grandmother on my mother’s side are African and Cherokee, born in Indian Territory, Oklahoma. That’s why my character is a Black Indian, so that the reader can hear and feel how my character literally personifies the Indian Wars in his own mind and body. I then created my character by changing the spelling of a Buffalo Soldier that worked in Sequoia and moved him to Yosemite and gave him a promotion to sergeant.
What role did Buffalo Soldiers serve?
As an African American who was a soldier 100 years ago, it was his job to arrest timber thieves, prevent poaching wildlife, extinguishing forest fires, and creating a sense of law and order in a lawless land. By any other name that job description is a wilderness or a backcountry ranger.
A hidden history is a tool for social change, for social justice, for racial justice. Every story can shift someone’s consciousness about their roots, or the lack-there-of, in a wilderness setting.
Not only did we camp and hike, but we were also among the first to do it! We were holding stewardship roles before Theodore Roosevelt met with John Muir in 1903. At that time Yosemite National Park, a world heritage site, was under the protection of African American soldiers. That’s why the story is essential.
— See our full series of Neighborhood Heroes, profiling the good Samaritans doing thankless work next door. We raise our glasses to all the local heroes on the front lines—whether it’s the hospital workers and grocery stockers providing essential services in this unique moment of dual health and economic crises, to community organizers leading our broader cultural reckoning and search for social justice. #weoweyoudrink
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