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Yosemite's 'Buffalo Soldiers' Inspire Ranger Shelton Johnson, African Americans

One hundred years ago this summer, a group of U.S. Army cavalry soldiers left the Presidio in San Francisco, and made the hot dusty trek across the San Joaquin Valley to both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks. Veterans of the Spanish American War, were charged with protecting the new national parks from poachers, timber thieves, and with building park infrastructure. They were in essence America's first park rangers. 

But the members of the 9th and 10th cavalry weren't ordinary troops. They were African Americans, members of four segregated regiments known as "Buffalo Soldiers." For years, their role in the parks' early history was largely forgotten. But thanks to the work of Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, their stories are now being told, and  are the focus of a new national campaign that extends all the way to Congress and the White House.

Every Sunday night at the Yosemite Theater, Johnson dons the woolen uniform of one of those Buffalo Soldiers and takes park visitors back in time. He portrays Sergeant Elizy Bowman, a fictionalized character in Yosemite's 9th Cavalry.

Johnson, who is the park's only African American ranger, has dedicated his career to telling the stories of those early African Americans who played a critical role during the early days of the parks.

It's a living history role that's earned him national awards and attention, including features on Oprah Winfrey's talk show, and in the Ken Burns documentary "The National Parks: America's Best Idea." He's also the author a novel based on his stage show called "Gloryland," and he will soon be the subject of a film. 

"Essentially, the Buffalo Soldiers story is all about freedom. And national parks are all about freedom. And when you're in a national park, freedom in tangible." - Ranger Shelton Johnson

  A few days ago, after the fans and autograph seekers had left the theater, I sat down with Johnson to talk about his work, and about the legacy of the Buffalo soldiers. 

"There's nothing more powerful than hearing the story of people who look like you, who sound like you. And so for African Americans, hearing that some of the first national park rangers were these Buffalo Soldiers, that's an incredibly powerful story. Because it contradicts the mindset that many people have, including African Americans, that national parks aren't a 'black thing,' it's not something black people do," says Johnson. 

According to Johnson, African Americans make up only about one percent of Yosemite's total attendance. He hopes stories like this one help to change that.

"If they would have visited the part one hundred years ago, they would have found people just like them in a stewardship role, in a protective role, of this place that's celebrated throughout the world," says Johnson.

The Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks between 1891 and 1913. They built what is considered the first museum in a national park, built the first usable road to the Giant Forest in Sequoia and the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney. But somehow, their story had faded away.

Then one day a little over a decade ago, Johnson was working in the Yosemite Research Library and came across an old photo of black soldiers on horseback in Yosemite, from around the turn of the last century. He knew then this life was about to change. 

"It was electric, it was excitement to find that I had the responsibility to communicate this history. Most interpreters rarely have the opportunity to literally tell a story that hasn't really been told before. It's an interpreter's dream, storyteller's dream, to find a significant story, a nationally significant story, a globally significant story," says Johnson.

"And when people ask me 'how was that globally significant,' I say well,  if you're a scholar of the diaspora, the spread of African peoples throughout the world, you would recognize that these Buffalo Soldiers, they were in the vanguard of race relations in the latter half of the 19th century. As Booker T. Washington, I think, referred to them, he basically said they were standard bearers of the race. If you were a Buffalo Soldier in 1900, you were the epitome, you were it. People modeled themselves after you, they envied you. Because there were so few jobs that had any measure of respect to them. They were mostly servile, they were mostly out there in the field and you were a laborer or some kind. So to wear the uniform of the United States government, and to be in a situation where you might sacrifice your own life for your country, that had not really extended its hand to you, that's a very powerful thing," says Johnson.

So who were the Buffalo soldiers? Johnson says they not only shared similar backgrounds, but also similar attitudes and views on race and society. 

"These men were the sons and grandsons of sharecroppers, and prior to that enslaved people. They were brought up to look at white folks in a completely different way. And their relationship with them was much more obviously subservient. But the folks who became soldiers, as I say in my play, were never the servile or subservient type. They were men that literally would have been killed had they stayed in the south. So they joined the military for the safe keeping of being in the Army, surrounded by men who had a similar sort of mindset, a similar sense of self, that they were important, and deserved better."

He says their story is even more remarkable, given the times in which they lived. 

"When they were here, imagine a time when an African American is being lynched on a daily basis in the south, and that these men had been brought up in that social milieu, brought up in that cultural climate, that cultural environment, and yet they had to tell people who were European American what they could or could not do," says Johnson.

"And how do you do that without offending someone when you're within a world that does not see you in any sort of authoritative role? But they had to do it, that was the job. So it was a combination of being a warrior and at the same time of being someone who understand the value of diplomacy. They were diplomats. They had to have this edge to them, but they also had to have this flexibility to themselves as well. Because they were walking on a tightrope, literally."

Johnson's stage play and novel have helped make him something of a national parks celebrity. After appearing before millions of viewers on Oprah three years ago, Johnson is now working on a film project of his own. But he says it's the story, not fame that he's after. 

"The thing that I have found about the nature of history is that it can be very fragile. So, I'm due to retire in seven years. And if I stop giving my program, the history is no longer told in the place where it took place. Which means the story will disappear. Now yes, it's in exhibits, its in the Ken Burns film, Oprah talked about it and that's all great. But I have to do everything in my power to assure that the history lives beyond me," says Johnson.

Fortunately, Johnson is not alone, and his efforts to share the story beyond Yosemite  are paying off. Earlier this year, President Obama created the Colonel Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio. It honors the commander of one of the Yosemite regiments, who served as the first black park superintendent, and the highest ranking African American in the military. There's also a bill in Congress that would study the creation of a new national trail to honor the soldiers, by tracing the route that they took through the Central Valley to the parks. 

"What we're talking about it recognition for people who were heretofore invisible. And its always a powerful thing to more from invisibility to visibility," says Johnson. 

And this July 4th weekend, when Americans celebrate freedom and independence, ranger Johnson says that all Americans can find inspiration in both this story, and in the wonders of the national parks. 

"Essentially, the Buffalo Soldiers story is all about freedom. And national parks are all about freedom. And when you're in a national park, freedom in tangible. Freedom is something that is atmospheric. Freedom is something that the light is filtering through. Freedom is something that's in three dimensions. It's sight, sound,  hearing, it's tactile, it's olfactory.  All of those things are around you when you're in a national park.  So freedom becomes something that you can put around you, like a good suit of clothes," says Johnson. 

You can see Shelton Johnson perform as Sergeant Elizy Bowman every Sunday night at the Yosemite Theatre at 7:00 p.m. His book "Gloryland" is published by Sierra Club Books. His film is expected to air on public television stations later this year.  

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of Valley Public Radio. During his tenure, he's helped lead the station through major programming changes and the COVID-19 pandemic, while maintaining the station's financial health. From 2010-2018 he served as the station's Director of Program Content. In that role, he also served as the host of Valley Edition, and helped launch and grow the station's award-winning local news department. He is a Fresno native and a graduate of California State University, Fresno.
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