27 Dec A Trail Blazer Unhidden
A few weeks ago, I received a detailed message from my friend and colleague Shelton Johnson. As an interpretive ranger at Yosemite National Park, he expressed to me his concern for the continued preservation of the stories he shares about the U.S. citizens of African descent who protected and patrolled these public lands more than a century ago, the famed Buffalo Soldiers.
“I’ll be retiring in a few years, and I’m currently the only permanent African American National Park Ranger in the Sierra Nevada which includes both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. What will happen to the Buffalo Soldier wilderness stewardship story once I’m gone?” He asked. “How can we transform visitor center desks to a collaborative space where people of color on both sides of that stage can have conversations about these environments that belong to us all?”
In modern times very American citizen has an obligation to play an active role as stewards of our national parks and monuments. Stories of our not-so-distant past include the contributions of many people, particularly Black Americans, who are often forgotten. Through our love of outdoor recreation, we can work together to defend our natural resources for future generations to enjoy. But Shelton is concerned that too few people of color are taking on the vocational challenge to become federal employees charged with the interpretation of our environmental heritage as national park rangers.
“For years now, the focus has been more on brown people and recreation rather than brown people and vocation. I have personally welcomed many brown and black families to Yellowstone and Yosemite, and those moments were profound. Even the most sincere words fail at conveying that sense of welcome you feel when the person opening the door to a new world not only looks like family, but is family.”
In many ways I share his concern. I sincerely appreciate his perspective that aims to encourage communities of color to inspire one another to protect the national parks through the stories that we pass down from one generation to the next. I have long admired Shelton’s work at Yosemite to tell visitors about the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th U.S. Cavalry that served as our some of our nation’s first park rangers. But what can we do to make sure that not only are his efforts encouraged to continue when he begins his well-deserved retirement after more than 35 years of service, but also the many other rangers at national parks and monument sites around the country that share equally compelling and inspiring stories of Black American history?
Shelton’s question was on my mind when I made a recent visit to Joshua Tree National Park. We made a stop there during the weeks-long journey of the U.S. Capitol Christmas Tree from the Six Rivers National Forest near the town of Eureka, California all the way to Washington D.C. As one of those sites like Yosemite that is better known for its natural beauty and geological formations, we too often forget about its rich cultural history. Once I got there, no one could seem to tell me much about the Black history of this particular site. When I settled into my hotel room later that evening I did just a bit of research to discover a few stories that might have otherwise gone unhidden.
Before the era of colonization and westward expansion the region now known as Joshua Tree was first the native homeland of the Serrano, Cahuilla, Chemehuevi, and Mojave tribes. It didn’t take more than a single Google search to find the work of journalist Delilah L. Beasley (1867-1934) who documented Black Americans’ contribution to California in the 19th and early 20th centuries. In her book “The Negro Trail Blazers of California”, published in 1919 she wrote, “The fertile soil yielded crops with which homesteaders (black and white) could sustain themselves. The children made their own games and toys and played among the wonderland of Joshua trees.”
The heritage of this national park site did indeed include non-native people of color who in the decades following the Civil War and emancipation were part of the establishment of cities and towns on the western frontier. A trailer in her own right Beasley worked to share the stories of those who were already being obscured in the pages of history. An accomplished journalist she aimed to write a different narrative of the past that included the lives of those whose accomplishments might have been hidden from future generations. I don’t recall seeing her book in the Joshua Tree visitor center gift shop. I hope that it is indeed on shelves there and I just didn’t it. But the fact remains. The experiences of Black Americans are part of the history at this and other national parks across the country and they need to be told.
It should be said that the National Park Service and other organizations are doing a great deal to tell a more comprehensive story of American history at more 420 interpretive sites around the country. (The People of Color Transformed U.S. National Parks ~ National Geographic 2020)But as rangers from Biscayne in Florida to Denali in Alaska take on this noble task many of them are likely asking themselves the same question that Shelton posed to me. “What can we do that hasn’t been done before to make all communities of color feel that we appreciate that they have arrived in their National Park?” he asked. “This is much more complicated, much more nuanced than just getting people to visit. It’s more about conveying a genuine sense that each one of those arrivals is a homecoming and allowing everyone, absolutely everyone to feel that their presence is profoundly appreciated. How can the N.P.S. be better stewards of lands/spaces that are shared by people that are rapidly becoming more culturally and ethnically diverse?”
As a writer I suppose that most challenges can be overcome through the narrative of a good story. I believe now more than ever that the answer to Shelton’s question is to do what he has always done. The stories he tells illustrate the role that Black American figures have played throughout our history. With conscientious research and first-person interviews of living witnesses or those who knew them, we can establish a more comprehensive storyline that is inclusive of all people. It is critical that when visitors arrive at our national parks, they must hear accounts and read signage that detail our shared memory of the past. When they do, each person can recognize this heritage as part of their own cultural identity. It is when a person can see themselves clearly in the reflection of place through story that they will know that they truly belong.
Throughout 2022 I will be looking for stories of Black American history related to our national parks. The more obscure the better! Don’t hesitate to drop your suggestions or questions in the comments below. Perhaps your story can be included in my new book project called Unhidden.