Growing in up in Seattle, WA, I lived within an hours drive of some of the most beautiful and scenic outdoor recreational areas in the country and yet I never visited any. It's sad, really, what we and our children our missing out on and as an adult I realize how much being in the outdoors has enhanced my life.
Park Ranger Shelton Johnson agrees. (Is it sad that I reading this wondering if he was married? He would make a good catch!)
SUNDAY PROFILE: Shelton Johnson
Park ranger asks: Where are all the black visitors?
Nothing would make Shelton Johnson happier than the sight of Snoop Dogg singing by a campfire or Oprah hiking to the top of Yosemite Falls.
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.
"All Snoop Dogg has to do is go camping in Yosemite and it would change the world," said Johnson, 51. "If Oprah Winfrey went on a road trip to the national parks, it would do more than I have done in my whole career."
Born in Detroit, Johnson's mother was half Cherokee Indian. His father, James O. Johnson Jr., was part Seminole. A career military man, the senior Johnson enlisted to get out of the Jim Crow South.
Johnson described himself as a painfully shy youth who read a lot. He trained as a classical clarinetist during high school and later joined the Peace Corps in Liberia, where he contracted malaria.
He eventually got a job working concessions in Yellowstone National Park, where he was hired as a park ranger in 1987. He transferred to Yosemite seven years later.
It was there, 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.
In 2002 he won the Park Service's Western region award for outstanding achievement in interpreting the park. Sierra Club Books is publishing "Gloryland," his fictional memoir of a buffalo soldier. He is featured in the upcoming six-part Ken Burns documentary, "The National Parks: America's Best Idea," scheduled to air on PBS next month.
"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."
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.
While he was in Liberia, he said, he noticed that every person, every child, knew the names of the birds, animals and trees. He claims the bond with nature that always existed in Africa was taken away by American slave traders, who deliberately separated tribes, mixed cultures and instilled in their subjects fear and superstition about the wilderness.
"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."