Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson was walking among outcrops of grey metal filing cabinets and cascading rows of books in the Yosemite Research Library when he caught sight of a black-and-white photograph.
He stopped and leaned in closely. It was from 1899. He peered at the five Black men sitting up straight on horseback wearing Army uniforms. They were lined up along a trail in Yosemite, their matching hats bearing a striking resemblance to his own ranger hat. Frozen in time, they stared back at him.
“A lot of stories make it sound like I was Indiana Jones knocking down a sarcophagus to discover this photo, but it was hanging on the wall,” Johnson says, laughing out loud. “Research librarians like people to think deeply about the past, and a historic image that goes against the grain of Hollywood’s version of the American West can make a provocative statement.”
Still, Shelton was stunned. While Althea Roberson, the first African American female ranger in Yosemite, had told him Black soldiers were among the first protectors of the park, he was struck by how he felt seeing their faces. Yosemite’s well-known, early stories of the park often centered around conservationist John Muir and his work that led to the creation of Yosemite National Park in 1890. But standing before Johnson were people that looked like him, protecting the park.
It turned out the five men were part of the 24th Infantry. Known as Buffalo Soldiers, they and Black troops in the 9th Cavalry carried out mounted patrol duties in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks, 150 miles away, in 1899, 1903 and 1904. Many were from the South and enlisted as a way to escape the narrow job opportunities confined to sharecropping and the like. Records indicate that many fought in the Philipine-American War.
“The Buffalo Soldiers were citizens of the country because of the 14th Amendment,” Johnson says. “They had the right to vote because of the 15th Amendment. But as “Colored” men living in the South, they knew those rights only existed on paper. The end of slavery, as a result of the 13th Amendment, created just another phase of systemic oppression and struggle. Consequently, they were not just fighting for themselves. They were fighting for their people.”
Inspired by the Buffalo Soldiers, Johnson decided it was time for their contributions to be known by more than a few in the park. But in order to tell their stories, he had work to do. He dug into a number of archives. He studied old Yosemite stereographs depicting the troops to get the right look for the outfit he would wear. He enrolled in Yosemite horse patrol school to feel what it was like to patrol Yosemite’s backcountry on horseback.
Before long, his ranger walks that educated visitors about the Buffalo Soldiers turned into a one-person play held at the Yosemite Theater in the Yosemite Valley. He’s been doing the play since 2010.
“Shelton is a treasure, and he brought to life this chapter that was largely forgotten and linked it to Yosemite,” says Frank Dean, president and CEO of Yosemite Conservancy, the non-profit fundraising arm of the park. “He is a gifted and talented performer and park historian.”
Dean says Johnson’s powerful performances have left him teary-eyed. And having that kind of impact is exactly why the charismatic Johnson says he does his one-act play.
“I am still learning new things about the history,” says Johnson, who wrote a novel, Gloryland, that follows Elijah Yancy, son of slaves, including his time as a Buffalo Soldier in Yosemite. “I am always thinking of new ways to keep the story alive.”
That has included coverage on National Public Radio, in The New York Times and on ABC World News. But his real break came when he appeared in Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea in which he described his work as a ranger in Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks. His role as interviewee and series advisor garnered him an invitation to the White House for a private screening with President Obama.
He also wrote a letter to Oprah Winfrey, urging her to visit Yosemite National Park. She never responded and instead surprised him by showing up for her first camping trip ever with her friend Gayle King. And while Johnson’s initial reaction was excitement, he quickly lost the wind in his sails when he learned he was asked to do his performance on horseback at her campsite rather than in the theater.
“There were somewhere between 50-70 campers wandering around her campsite, and I am pretty sure no one was looking at me because Oprah was right there,” he recalls, laughing and recalling the shock he felt when he found out she was in the park. “I am pretty convinced it was the worst Buffalo Soldiers performance I’ve ever given.”
But he had invited Winfrey to come to Yosemite because he saw so few Black Americans in the parks, and he hoped her star power would encourage them to hit the road and explore them. The overwhelming majority of park visitors are white with about 7% of visitors identifying as Black. African Americans represent 13% of the U.S. population, rolling up to a U.S. population that is about 40% minority, according to U.S. Census numbers. Often, Johnson meets families who have traveled from Japan and France, but it’s far rarer to see Black families from Chicago, Los Angeles or New York.
If you ask Johnson why he thinks Black visitation to parks like Yosemite is so low, he’ll pause and ask with a laugh, “How much time do you have?” He and some of the greatest minds focused on Blacks in the outdoors today will tell you the answers are scattered along the dark, overgrown path to today that began in 1619. That was the year the first ship of African slaves landed in the United States.
For 400 years, the thorny perception that Black people are threats to white people’s safety, whether on a hiking trail or a city sidewalk, has never been eradicated.
“There’s a thread in a web that connects slavery all the way to Christian Cooper,” said author James Mills while moderating a panel Johnson served on called “Anti-Racism in Our National Parks” in August 2020. He was referring to the Black birder and New York City Audubon Society board member who video-recorded dog owner Amy Cooper in Central Park as she called police, claiming a Black man was threatening her in 2020.
For Johnson, that thread does not stretch too far back in the distant past. His mother’s parents were Black Indians from the Oklahoma Territory.
“When I looked into my grandfather’s eyes, I was looking into the eyes of someone who, when he was a child, looked into the eyes of people who had been enslaved, who had walked the Trail of Tears,” Johnson says. “I’m 62. I can still hear my grandfather’s voice. I can still hear his cadence that was slightly Southern. It’s not ancient history.”
And while the country and the racial climate is not the same one his grandfather or the Buffalo Soldiers inhabited, there’s still so much work to be done. The gaining momentum of the Black Lives Matter Movement in 2020 pushed present-day racism to the forefront of the nation’s collective conscience.
Telling the stories of the Buffalo Soldiers is one of the ways Johnson feels he can educate visitors about the diverse people who helped make the park what it is today. To help uncover more of the park’s African American history, the Yosemite Conservancy, which donated $14 million to the park in 2020, is funding a grant in 2021 to research and tell stories about the African Americans who have lived, worked and spent time in the park during the past 150 years.
“George Monroe was a Black stagecoach driver who worked in the south end of the park in the late 1880s and brought three U.S. presidents into the park,” Dean says. “He was such a magnetic character, and there are so many stories like his that could be relevant to new audiences.”
Meanwhile, Johnson is itching to get back on the stage after Yosemite Theater shut down in 2020 because of the pandemic.
“It’s important for people of color to know that this is part of their heritage and even though it seems far away, it is part of what it means to be an American,” he says. “But we also need to ask, “Who was here before us?”
There’s no national park in the United States that’s older than 150 years, Johnson points out, “but the land that serves as the foundation of our democracy is still the homeland of the first people.”
To donate to the Yosemite Conservancy’s African American research project or any of its other initiatives, which range from wildlife management, youth education and habitat restoration to historic and cultural preservation, go to Yosemite.org.