When Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson speaks about parks, people listen. Featured in Ken Burns’ 2009 PBS documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea,” Johnson’s eloquent descriptions of his experience as a ranger in Yosemite and Yellowstone was inspirational to many viewers, including President Barack Obama. After the film’s debut, Obama invited Johnson to the White House to discuss national park issues. In 2010, Oprah Winfrey also came calling after Johnson, a longtime advocate of getting more African-Americans to visit national parks, wrote to her. Winfrey took Johnson up on the offer to visit Yosemite and not only devoted two episodes to inspiring more African-Americans to visit national parks, but she also camped for the first time in her life (in a well-equiped RV).
While Johnson has enjoyed the media buzz that his Ken Burns and Oprah appearances received, he remains focused on his one true passion: Getting more people, especially youth of color, to experience national parks. And his favorite tool is historical entertainment. He reenacts the history of Yosemite’s Buffalo Soldiers in an ever-evolving performance. The segregated African-American regiments of the U.S. Army’s 24th infantry were assigned to patrol and protect Yosemite in the late 1890s and early 1900s. Until Johnson took up the cause, very little public information existed about Buffalo Soldiers and their connection to Yosemite National Park’s earliest history. Johnson has developed a website and written a book about Buffalo Soldiers, and he performs a popular living-history program in the park called, “Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, 1904.” Yosemite Journal editor Annette McGivney visited with Johnson last summer.
When you were a kid, did you dream of one day being a park ranger?
I grew up in a working-class neighborhood in Detroit. I never thought about national parks or that I wanted to visit a park, but somewhere inside of me there was an awe for the mountains. In college, I studied literature and was in a graduate poetry program at the University of Michigan. I was looking for a quiet place to write and ended up as a seasonal worker in Yellowstone in the summer of 1987. Once I stepped off the bus in Montana, I was hooked. I have been working for the parks ever since, and at Yosemite for the past 18 years.
What first drew you to the Buffalo Soldiers?
l was working as an interpretive ranger in Yosemite in the mid-1990s, and I just stumbled upon an archive photo of five black soldiers on patrol in the park. They were with the African-American regiment (called the Buffalo Soldiers) of the 24th U.S. Army Infantry in 1899. These guys were charged with protecting the park from poachers and squatters. I started researching it and realized this was a story of national significance that had been forgotten. This is something that African-Americans should be proud of and can serve as a grounding experience today to connect them to national parks. Visitation of African-Americans to national parks has been increasing, but it is still only one percent of the total. I try to reach out to inner-city kids as well as Yosemite park visitors with this message.
How did you create your performance?
It has evolved over the years. It started out as a ranger walk, and now is a one-act play. First, I had to get the right uniform from the Spanish-American War. Then, I enrolled in the Yosemite Mounted Horse Patrol School in 1996 to better understand what the Buffalo Soldiers experienced. I developed a composite character, Elizy Bowman, who was a Buffalo Soldier. I tell his story of being a slave and a sharecropper from South Carolina who served with the 9th Calvary in Yosemite. He is also of Native American descent. My mother is half Cherokee, so this is partly autobiographical.
Do you practice before going on?
Never. When I change into the uniform, I immediately slip into character. My play is improvised and a little different every time. I interact with the audience, and it can be emotional; they become part of the story.
See Johnson perform at Yosemite Theater in Yosemite Valley every Sunday, May through Oct. at 7 p.m. His website is shadowsoldier.wilderness.net; purchase his historic novel, Gloryland, from Sierra Club Books (sierraclub.org).