ENP 19.5 Yosemite: Ranger Shelton Johnson on The Buffalo Soldiers and Diversity in the National Parks
10/31/2019Historic NPS photo
Ranger Shelton Johnson posing as Elizy Boman, a Buffalo Soldier who served in Yosemite National Park in 1903 and 1904. Photo Credit: NPSThere are countless stories within the boundaries of Yosemite National Park. Some are intimate tales told by a lone black and white photograph. Others are vast narratives that span decades and encompass a broad range of social issues that have yet to be fully unpacked hundreds of years on. In this episode of our Yosemite series, Bryan had the opportunity to speak with Sergeant Elizy Bowman of the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, aka Buffalo Soldiers, and Shelton Johnson, the interpretive park ranger who has brought Sargeant Bowman’s life story to park visitors and beyond.
The Buffalo Soldiers, America’s First Park RangersToday’s modern park rangers can trace a direct line back to the Buffalo Soldiers of the late 1800s. These African American regiments, many of whom saw duty in American-Indian Wars of the mid-1850s, were dispatched to remove Native American tribes from the West well before legislation was enacted in 1890 to establish protected parklands. Their former duties made them uniquely qualified to roam the newly-formed Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks in search of settlers who, up until then, had enjoyed those same lands as hunting and foraging grounds uncontested and unconcerned with running afoul of the law.
Historic NPS photo
Remembering The Buffalo Soldiers Contributions, Democratization of the National Parks“You know, one thing to keep in mind is that a lot of things happen in this world by people who, in their own mind, are doing something that’s right. But other people look at it in a completely different way.” With that quote, Sergeant Bowman is brought to life. As voiced by Ranger Shelton Johnson, his words have a prescient quality to them. He could just as easily be talking about today’s climate strife and land usage issues, not to mention the ongoing challenges facing people of color. Ranger Johnson is aware of that power. As one of the voices featured in Ken Burns’ documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, his life’s work has been to educate people about the Buffalo Soldiers legacy and democratize the National Parks. “That’s part of that complexity of this democratic institution that we call the United States. But also the extension of that is the national park idea itself. ‘For the benefit and enjoyment of the people’ that’s what’s inscribed over the Roosevelt Arch leading into the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park. But in my research, and in my study of this story, I always ask myself who are the people? and how do we define the people?”
Ranger Shelton Johnson. Photo Credit: NPS
Enlisting Oprah Winfrey’s Help to Bring Diversity to the National ParksHow does the park system ensure that the families and hikers and explorers inside their entrances truly reflect the population outside. It’s a multi-layered question that Ranger Johnson examines with deft skill, referring to our history of racially-focused government policies, hundreds of years worth of social anxieties, and blatant pop culture reinforcement. He believes that teasing out the answers - or, at least having genuine conversations around them - will entice more people of color to visit the national parks, to recognize themselves in park history and become more active in the park system’s future. “Even though it’s America’s best idea, even though Yosemite and Sequoia were protected by African Americans 100 years ago, that there were African Americans who essentially were working as Rangers before the National Park Service even existed…,” says Ranger Johnson. “Internally, culturally, many African Americans think that that’s something that white folks do but we don’t do it.” That is why for 6 years, Ranger Shelton Johnson wrote to Oprah Winfrey, the most prominent and influential African American woman, inviting her to camp in Yosemite National Park to highlight and overcome African American alienation from nature. She accepted his invitation in 2010.
Nature is a Spiritual Home for All PeopleIn conversation with these two me, Ranger Shelton and Sergeant Bowman, it is heartening to note that what the gulf of time separates, the wilderness has the power to connect. One can imagine the Yosemite landscape that Ranger Johnson enjoys today would look familiar to Sergeant Bowman - minus the paved scenic roads - and vice versa. When asked about the park, both men speak with reverence for its ability to connect all of us to something larger than what is human. “I put it this way,” says Ranger Johnson, “If you want to talk to a higher power, in most of the places in the world it’s a long-distance call. But if you’re in a national park, it’s a local call.”
Photo by Shelton Johnson
Ready to make your own Yosemite memories? Plan your park adventure by listening to previous episodes in this series. Our trip report in episode 19.1 will help you navigate crowds and prepare for seasonal challenges. A park naturalist schools us in the Yosemite’s fascinating flora and fauna on episode 19.2. Singing historian Tom Bopp recounts the famous John Muir/Theodore Roosevelt camping trip of 1903 in episode 19.3. And our conversation with photographer Ansel Adams’ son Michael, grandson Matthew, and Alan Ross, internationally renowned photographer and Ansel’s last darkroom assistant in episode 19.4.
Ranger Shelton Johnson at Earth Day event, Yosemite National Park, 2017. Photo Credit: NPS
Discussed in this episode:
- 3:54 - Shelton Johnson introduces us to Sergeant Elizy Bowman of the 9th Cavalry Regiment of the United States Army, aka Buffalo Soldiers
- 4:47 - The perils and pitfalls of patrolling this crazy new idea: Yosemite’s earliest days Enabling legislation of October 1, 1890
- 7:40 - The legacy of Colonel Charles Young
- 8:20 - Making choices: A Buffalo Soldiers uneasy duty to remove Native Plains tribes from their ancestral lands American-Indian Wars, Lakota, Dakota, Sioux, Cheyenne, Kiowa, Seminole, Cherokee
- 11:11 - A paradise for soldiers in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks
- 13:40 - Sergeant Bowman reflects on what it means to be an African American, a solider, and a human
- 16:17 - A Buffalo Soldier’s experience in The Philippine-American War
- 16:45 - Shelton Johnson urges us to tune in to the deceptive comforts of silence through a Buffalo Solider’s ears John Muir
- 18:15 - Flight of the Nez Perce, Yellowstone National Park, 1877
- 19:35 - "For the benefit and enjoyment of the people": The ongoing task to democratize the National Parks for all people Thomas Jefferson, The Declaration of Independence, Benjamin Franklin
- 22:15 - An intimate connection between art, history, literature, and the natural world Mona Lisa, Paul Gauguin, Joseph Conrad, the myth of Hercules
- 24:14 - A deeper discussion about race, inclusion, and our National Parks H.G. Wells, Napoleon Bonaparte, William Faulkner, Peace Corps
- 29:59 - Enlisting Oprah’s help to bring diversity to the National Parks Reconstruction, Jim Crow, the Ku Klux Klan, 13th Amendment, 14th Amendment, 15th Amendment
- 33:51 - See the USA In Your Chevrolet: The realities of travel for people of color Green Book, John F. Kennedy, Stewart Udall, sundown towns
- 40:49 - Reaching authentic and philosophical mountaintops Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr., Frederick Douglass, John Muir, Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez, Alice Walker, Maya Angelou
- 42:44 - From Uganda to Rocky Mountain National Park, Madagascar to Mariposa Grove Neil Armstrong, Carl Sagan
- 45:26 - Out amongst the mundate: Shelton Johnson shares a transcendent Yosemite moment in an unexpected setting Ansel Adams