NPCA’s new video, The Way Home, travels with members of a church group from Los Angeles to Yosemite National Park to reconnect with the land and learn about the history of the Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers were enlisted African-American cavalrymen in the U.S. Army in the 1860s who served, among other roles, as the nation’s first park rangers.
At the heart of the video is an interpretation of the Buffalo Soldier experience by Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson. Shelton has been working for decades to promote diversity in the national parks, and he has been telling this particular story since 1998. What follows are excerpts from a recent interview with Shelton, where he described these experiences to me in his own words.
My first job in a national park was as a dishwasher at the Old Faithful Inn [in 1985]—and I should add that I was an excellent dishwasher! There weren’t a lot of other African-American employees, even working with the concession in Yellowstone. It always struck me that there were people from all over the world who were working as employees in the park. I remember thinking at the time, how is it that a woman from Italy has not only heard about working in national parks, she’s here doing it, and I didn’t know anyone who had worked in a national park, growing up in Detroit? Early on it struck me that there was a disconnect between the whole idea of national parks and the African-American community.
Whenever you talk about the Buffalo Soldiers, you can’t tell that story without talking about race. You can’t tell that story without talking about slavery. You can’t tell that story without talking about genocide. I’m not only telling those stories and covering those difficult topics, I’m telling it to an audience that is mostly European-American. You can imagine a black guy standing up in front of a room, talking to a majority white audience about race. [He laughs.] That doesn’t sound like somebody’s idea of a good time in a national park. I can’t offend the listeners, but at the same time, I’m telling a story that makes people uncomfortable. The big challenge for me was to learn how to be comfortable with my discomfort and to be non-accusatory in the issues that I was bringing up with regard to race and class.
African Americans are the group that is least likely to have a wilderness experience. They don’t necessarily feel a cultural connection to the land. What this Buffalo Soldier story does is it provides that bridge back to the earth—back to America. And in a positive way, instead of the negative associations that are tied to both slavery and that period of post-emancipation which led to Jim Crow and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.
People focus on the physical brutality of [slavery], but they tend to not focus on what that would do to your perception of the land, if the land is a place where you’re forced to work, you get no financial reward for working the land, you’re lucky if you can make it through the day without getting beaten. So how does someone who’s forced to work the land look at the land, under those circumstances? It’s not any wonder when you really delve into the history that you would have these negative associations.
People who have grown up camping and reading John Muir, they have this completely different perception of the land. What I’m going up against is this entrenched cultural aversion. I knew it was going to be a challenge. I had absolutely no idea it was going to be as challenging as it turned out to be.
Almost all of the soldiers who served here [at Yosemite] were either the sons or grandsons of enslaved people. Here they are going from this legacy of slavery to this experience of stewardship and protection. That’s an incredible story. That’s why I feel the Buffalo Soldier story is the most important story for African Americans in the entire breadth of the National Park System.
And yet, that history is forgotten. As long as there are African Americans out there who have the mindset that, “Oh, we don’t have anything to do with the national parks. That’s not a black thing,” then my job isn’t done. The absence of information is just as profound as the presence of information. That’s why there’s so much to overcome. We have decades and decades of this mindset that has been internalized within the African-American community that “we have nothing to do with national parks.”
It’s easy to assume that it’s poor people of color who don’t have a park experience, but it’s across the board. It doesn’t matter if you’re male or female, rich or poor, highly educated or not as highly educated. If you’re of African descent, you’re much less likely to have a national park experience.
Sometimes I make it look too easy when I’m out there performing, because actually, there’s a part of me that’s scared to death. Every single time I put the uniform on, I’m hoping it’ll work. I liken it to dancing in a minefield. While I’m doing it, I know that I’m one step away from absolute disaster.
The thing I’ve found is that when people hear a truth that runs contrary to what they’ve been led to believe, the natural response is to close up, and they stop listening. And when I first started doing my Buffalo Soldier program, there was no humor in it at all. I had a guy who told me early on, “Thanks, ranger. I think I need to go to a bar.” [He laughs.] It was just too hard-hitting. And then I realized at some point that there would have been humor in that story, because there had to have been. You can’t go through a rough time without finding something funny in it to lift your spirit up.
It’s not that I want to hurt [members of the audience], but I want them to understand that this is a story of people who have been hurt. I want them to feel it emotionally, and I want people to connect emotionally with what I’m doing. I don’t see what I do as a performance. I see it more as channeling, and what I want people to walk away with is this sense that they’ve been in the presence of a real person.
Watch the video:
To learn more about Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite, visit http://www.nps.gov/yose/historyculture/buffalo-soldiers.htm.
About the author
Jennifer Errick Managing Editor of Online Communications
Jennifer co-produces NPCA's podcast, The Secret Lives of Parks, and writes, edits and moderates online content.