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Coloring In the History of Yosemite

An African American ranger hopes more blacks will visit the park, where, he found, Buffalo Soldiers patrolled a century ago.

February 15, 2003|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK — The granite peaks, turbulent waterfalls and pristine backcountry here always brought veteran ranger Shelton Johnson joy and profound peace. Still, a sense of isolation accompanied him like a brother.

Johnson is one of just two black rangers on Yosemite's largely white staff of 100. And since African Americans participate in outdoor recreation less than any other group, he greets black visitors only rarely. As a black man in a wilderness career, Johnson often felt alone. Until one day four years ago.

Seated in Yosemite's sweet-smelling research library, Johnson happened upon a grainy photograph. Staring at him from across a century of silence were five black soldiers on horseback, somewhere in Yosemite.

What Johnson discovered that afternoon were his progenitors, segregated black Army troops who patrolled California's national parks around the turn of the last century -- fighting fires and policing rogue sheepherders, poachers and timber harvesters.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday February 20, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 51 words Type of Material: Correction
African American ranger -- An article Saturday in Section A about an African American ranger in Yosemite National Park misspelled the first name of a Bay Area business consultant who encourages blacks to visit the park. The correct spelling of his name is Melvin Shaw, not Melvyn.

"When you stumble across an image that gives you roots, suddenly it's Alex Haley time," said Johnson, a 44-year-old interpretive ranger. "It changed the whole way I looked at myself and at the park.... I knew I had found the beginning of the rest of my career as a park ranger."

Gazing at the dark and solemn faces, Johnson resolved to unearth their neglected story. Through its telling, he could give black visitors a sense of pride in the park.

"I knew right then that I could use the history as a doorway to bring African Americans into wilderness parks," said Johnson, who likens the discovery to a linguist tripping over the Rosetta Stone.

Today, Johnson no longer walks by himself. With him is his alter ego -- a spirited soldier whom Johnson created from a blend of fact, fiction and his own family history. Through Sgt. Elizy Boman, whose name comes straight from the historical record, Johnson speaks for the so-called Buffalo Soldiers.

U.S. Army soldiers patrolled Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks from 1890 until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. In three of those years -- 1899, 1903 and 1904 -- the job was done by the 9th Cavalry and 24th Infantry, segregated black regiments dispatched on horseback from San Francisco's Presidio.

Commanding Presence

When Johnson burst into a classroom at the Central Valley's Atwater High School on a recent morning clutching faded leather saddlebags and an Indian flute, he was all Boman. Yellow chevrons flashed from the sleeves of his blue wool tunic. Crossed sabers graced his campaign hat. And in a powerful singsong voice, the commanding 6-foot-3 soldier told his tale.

Usually what we hear is: 'Nigger, why are you stopping me? I've got things to do.' I say, 'Sir, you're looking at the color of my skin, aren't you? Well, you've got to look at the color of my stripes. Do you see the color of my Colt revolver that I'm authorized to use?'

For four years now, park visitors have heard Boman recount a uniformed black man's tribulations in early Yosemite. They have seen his eyes tear as he describes the peaceful grandeur of the High Sierra. And they have heard him play his mournful flute, a gift, Boman explains, from an older Buffalo Soldier who fought in the Indian wars.

In the past year, Johnson has spread the story even farther, to audiences as distant as Cleveland. One group of black Bay Area professionals was so taken with a recent park performance that members are pushing for federal recognition of the black soldiers' role at Yosemite -- perhaps with a museum or National Historic Trail status for the route they rode from the Presidio.

National Park Service supervisors hope to replicate Johnson's efforts, giving more African Americans a sense of connection to Yosemite. Last month, they began searching for black recruits who can be trained to fan out and deliver the Buffalo Soldier story in their own distinct voices.

Johnson's Elizy is the compelling face of a broader National Park Service effort to emphasize minority experiences at sites across the country. The park service is hosting an Atlanta exhibit on lynching, and is rehabbing the Japanese American internment camp of Manzanar. It has reinterpreted Civil War sites that long neglected the perspective of slaves, and is acquiring sites critical to the Underground Railroad that shuttled them to freedom.

But the Buffalo Soldiers' tale differs in crucial respects: It illuminates the role of African Americans in the nation's wilderness parks, not just its civil rights sites. And it is notable for the nature of the men's contribution. They were neither enslaved nor imprisoned. Rather, they were guardians of the country's first protected open spaces, doing the same job as white counterparts before and after them. It is that sense of ownership that park officials hope to cultivate.

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