13 Feb The Unhidden Minute
On a recent visit to Yellowstone National Park, I had the chance to see with my own eyes for the first time the inscription carved over the Roosevelt Arch. Previously I had only seen pictures. I have the rare privilege to be among the many writers and scholars who serve as topic experts on National Geographic Expeditions to remote areas around the world. This landmark in particular was a gap in my pedigree that I was very happy to fill. It’s in these moments when I am happy to take a minute or two to reveal a bit of National Park history that had been previously hidden. It’s remarkable what can be discovered in these unhidden minutes.
It was a cold winter’s day in January. The temperature was well below freezing. But the chill in the air did little to quell the warmth of my enthusiasm as I stood before this historic monument. In the town of Gardiner, Montana, this ambitious structure that stands 52-feet tall was built and dedicated in 1903. President Theodore Roosevelt himself laid down the cornerstone. In bold letters at the top is a definitive statement that declares the purpose of this vast landscape. It reads, “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People”.
That’s a line taken from the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act of 1872, which created the legislation that defined the intention of land designated and established as a National Park. At the dawn of the modern conservation movement, this was actually the second tract of land set aside for people to enjoy. A few years early, on June 30, 1864, federal land in California, now known as Yosemite, was set aside “upon the express conditions that the premises shall be held for public use, resort and recreation.”
As we celebrate Black American history through the month of February, I am encouraged by these noble words that established the National Park Service. The language from the Yosemite Valley Grant Act was signed by President Abraham Lincoln at the height the American Civil War. This legislation seemed to codify into law the physical places in our country where everyone might exercise their inalienable rights to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”
But I am still dismayed by the inequitable manner in which these principles have been historically applied to people of color. Sadly, as these designations of public land required the removal by force of native people, who have occupied these environs for millennia, the creation of National Parks bore the same broken promises of the United States Constitution. Our founding documents, predicated on the idea in the Preamble that “all men are created equal”, still condoned the institution of slavery, denied the suffrage of women and considered the First Nations people of North America, nothing more than “merciless Indian Savages.”
A deeper understanding, however, of the circumstances of how our public lands were first brought into existence, can help us to reconcile these glaring contractions. It was during the Era of Reconstruction that the National Park idea had begun taking shape. Inspired by the Transcendentalist authors of the mid 19th century, that included Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Walt Whitman, there was a growing movement of enlightened individuals who recognized the importance of having a direct relationship with the natural world. They realized the intrinsic value of nature as an expression of personal freedom. By the 1840s the Transcendentalists were engaged in social experiments to test the power of nature to liberate the human soul. In the lead up to the Civil War in the 1850s they ascribed to an increasingly urgent critique of American slavery. Many authors of the transcendentalist movement, those who advocated for the preservation of wilderness, were also abolitionists.
It is this contradiction of slavery and freedom that lay at the philosophical center of the Civil War. When the Confederate States of America were defeated in 1865, almost 180,000 Black men in U.S. Army uniforms had taken up the cause of liberty and the preservation of the Union. With the passage of the 13th, 14th and 15thamendments to the Constitution, which respectively ended slavery, guaranteed birthright citizenship and granted the right to vote, Black Americans immediately began to exercise their political power. More than 2 million of the formerly enslaved cast ballots in elections that swept Black candidates into office from state legislatures to the U.S. House of Representatives and the Senate. By 1871 at least 5 Black members of the 42ndU.S. Congress were eligible to participate in the passage of the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act, which formally established our first National Park in the following year.
Over the next three decades Black Americans would be actively engaged in the protection and preservation of public land. Unfortunately, that includes the displacement of Native People in acts of colonization and westward expansion. Black members of the U.S. Cavalry were given the name Buffalo Soldiers by the tribes they had combatted during the Plains Wars in recognition of their fighting spirit. But with this honorific comes a legacy of shame for the theft of land to which all non-Native Americans must be held to account.
These same Buffalo Soldiers, however, were tasked with patrolling the National Parks of Montana and California. In 1897, members of the 25th Infantry, an all-Black unit based in Missoula, Montana, traveled through Yellowstone as part of a peace-time military experiment to see if the bicycle could be used as a replacement for the horse. The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, a group of 20 volunteers, peddled a distance of more than 1,900 miles across open prairie and unpaved roads to the city of St. Louis, Missouri.
Beginning in 1899 Buffalo Soldier units were dispatched to Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant (now Kings Canyon) National Parks. Formally established in 1890, these parks had been left unprotected from the ravages of forest fires, logging, poaching, illegal grazing and littering. In 1903, the same year that Roosevelt dedicated his arch at Yellowstone, Captain Charles Young, the third Black American to graduate from the military academy at West Point, led the Buffalo Soldiers in distinguished service to the land. Over the course of two consecutive summer deployments, Young and his men built roads, created hiking trails, established campgrounds and organized the first arboretum in a national park. Under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army, the Buffalo Soldiers performed many of the same duties that modern National Park Rangers do today.
Despite these earliest contributions to the protection of public land, however, Black Americans would not be allowed to participate in their growth and development through much of the 20th century. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Organic Act in 1916 the newly designated agency was racially segregated. As the first Southerner to be elected president since Reconstruction, he and his cabinet implemented policies of Jim Crow segregation across all departments of the federal government. That included the National Park Service. The Buffalo Soldiers who served at Yosemite and Yellowstone, including many who also fought overseas in World War I, could not return to the National Parks as rangers in civilian life.
The National Park Service would remain segregated until 1945 at the end of World War II. But the first Black park rangers wouldn’t be actively recruited until 1962. That year, not far from Yellowstone at Grand Teton National Park, Robert Stanton took up his first duty station. In 1970, he was appointed to be the superintendent of the Frederick Douglass National History Site in Washington D.C. He was the first Black American to serve in that capacity in 67 years since Charles Young was the superintendent at Sequoia. After a long and illustrious career, Stanton would go on to become the first Black National Park Director appointed by President Bill Clinton in 1997.
The very notion of unfettered access to public land as a right of national citizenship boldly defies the contradictions imposed by federal law and even local custom. Throughout my life, I have had a deep and abiding love for our National Parks. As a child I had the privilege to experience the wonders of nature at play on our public lands. Having had many opportunities to backpack, ski, rock climb and car camp at sites from Yosemite to Grand Teton, I was endowed from a young age with a profound appreciation for the beauty and grandeur of these truly remarkable places. I know that this passion is shared by many folks, both citizens and visitors, across the United States of America and around the world regardless of race or ethnicity. It is my greatest hope that everyone can be invited and encouraged to visit, explore and embrace our National Parks so that future generations will protect and preserve not only our precious natural resource, but our enduring national heritage.
Throughout the month of February, I am proud a share a few of the many wonderful stories of Black American History as interpreted by the National Park Service. In series of short videos called the Unhidden Minute viewers can find a variety of different narratives that can shed light on a complicated past that is too often shrouded in darkness. In hopes of providing online content to both inspire and inform please take a minute each day this month to enjoy the discovery of this Unhidden Black American History.