Of the challenges U.S. Park Ranger Shelton Johnson has faced in his 22 years with the National Park Service, proving his Detroit roots would rank among the more difficult. “People make assumptions,” he says from California’s Yosemite National Park. “When people see me and they hear me, [they] don’t think, ‘Oh, he’s an inner-city guy.’ ”
Johnson — a Cass Tech grad who grew up near Six Mile and Livernois and appears in Ken Burns’ new documentary mini-series The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (PBS, Sept. 27) — never planned on a career in the wilderness. The son of a military man, he spent his early childhood in Europe and considered working as a diplomat.
But everything changed when he was a master’s student searching for a place to write a book, and a roommate suggested a job at Yellowstone National Park. I got a letter that said, ‘We’d like to hire you [as a] dishwasher.’ And I thought, dishwasher? I’m in graduate school at the University of Michigan. And my roommate said, ‘It’s not the job, it’s the location. It’s where you’re going to be.’
You initially saw the job as “a lark.” How quickly did your thinking change?
Getting off the bus in Gardiner, Mont., and seeing the Roosevelt Arch — ‘For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People’ — that’s my first memory of being in Yellowstone. It was just a transfiguration of everything. As Ken Burns put it, my molecules got shifted around. It was just an overwhelming environment: seeing animals in their native habitat walking around, flying around unfettered. And I realized that this was actually the Earth. … This is where people came from. I felt a stronger connection in Yellowstone than I had in Africa.
Equally profound, it seems, was the issue of race.
I was the only African-American employee in Yellowstone National Park. It just struck me that I could run into people from every country on earth. … But I would hardly ever run into an African-American. I remember this young woman. We were visiting one of the geyser basins and she was astonished at what she was seeing and feeling and then also astonished by the lack of cultural diversity. She was saying, ‘Where are all the black people? Why aren’t there black people here?’ Her voice has been in my head for over 20 years.
How did you work to change the picture?
When I got to Yosemite [as a park ranger] and rediscovered the Buffalo Soldier history, then I realized I literally had the key to tackling the issue of the lack of cultural diversity in the national parks. Because I felt that for African-Americans to hear that African-American [soldiers] were once stewards of both Yosemite and Sequoia national parks — that would be a very powerful thing. … That’s basically been my emotional and professional focus for the last 11 or 12 years, just getting that Buffalo Soldier story out there.
But you believe this is about more than rediscovering history.
What’s important about the parks for African-Americans is it’s a means of reconnecting to that which was taken from us. … Our experience and our history did not begin with slavery. Slavery was a chapter. Slavery was something that we went through. But prior to enslavement, we were indigenous or among many indigenous cultures in West Africa. And those indigenous cultures had an incredible intimacy and connection to the natural world. … Most African-Americans do not have the financial wherewithal to hop on a plane and go to Kenya or Tanzania, but they might be able to get to a national park. … In some sense, it’s just as meaningful, maybe not culturally, but it’s just as meaningful as [Africa], because … it’s all the same planet.
Why do relatively few African-Americans visit the national parks?
It comes down to this: When an African-American family that has the means to visit a national park, when the mom and dad [think], ‘We could go to Las Vegas, Los Angeles, or Yellowstone.’ They’re looking at their kids thinking, ‘If we take them to Yellowstone, is someone [in Wyoming] going to say something mean to my child? Is someone going to use the N-word in front of my daughter?’ As soon as they have that thought, Yellowstone gets dropped [and] they end up going to Las Vegas — where the same thing could happen.
Has anything ever happened to you?
I’ve camped all over the western United States and nothing has ever happened to me. A couple of weird things have happened, but it had nothing to do with me being black. It was just weird people.
So what’s your message to those parents?
I would say that visiting a national park, going to these remote wilderness areas is a risk, granted. But it’s a risk well worth taking. And it’s a risk that in a very positive way can change your life for the better.
What do you tell the kid growing up in your old neighborhood?
If you can get to one of those parks, it’s just a mind-altering experience to see America in a completely different light. I’ve seen it in the faces of kids who are inner-city kids who have visited Yosemite. It just changes their life. They have no idea that something so beautiful actually existed.