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Dispatch from Yosemite: Honoring national parks’ black heritage

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James Mills | Jun 12, 2014 03:05 PM

In the fading light of a late spring evening, gospel singer Sista Monica Parker sat humming on a bench at the Yellow Pines Campground in Yosemite National Park. There she waited patiently for others to gather. Quiet at first, her melodic voice gained strength as she swayed to the rhythm of a hymn perhaps not heard in the Valley for more than a century. The sound slowly swelled into a powerful chorus that echoed off the granite walls of El Capitan and Half Dome. Even the birds fell silent.

“I woke up this morning with my mind stayed on freedom,” Monica sang. “Hallelu…Hallelu…Hallelujah!”

When they heard her voice, people making camp or talking stopped what they were doing and made their way to where she sat singing and clapping her hands. In the great tradition of the Negro spiritual, everyone sang together in community and fellowship, raising their voices to the heights of the tall trees all around them. It was the perfect way to begin a weekend celebration of African-American heritage in our national parks.

Yosemite was just one of the NPS sites throughout the country that witnessed an influx of minority visitors on June 7th and 8th, as part of the second annual African-American National Parks Event. The group at Yosemite had journeyed from San Francisco earlier that day. On  Saturday, June 7th, almost 200 black men, women and children had gathered at the Presidio. It was from this military headquarters that in 1899, 1903 and 1904 more than 400 African-American members of the United States Army made the long journey on horseback to patrol and defend the newly designated national parks at Yosemite and Sequoia. These “Buffalo Soldiers” were among the first park rangers.

Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Johnson (left) greets African-American visitors. Photograph by James Mills.

To commemorate these early efforts to protect public lands for future generations, a large group of outdoor enthusiasts boarded buses, automobiles and motorcycles to follow the same route the Buffalo Soldiers traveled to Yosemite, now visited by millions of people every year from around the world.

This pilgrimage of park supporters was repeated across the nation. Groups of black citizens both large and small descended upon at least 26 NPS sites, from the Pearl Harbor Memorial in Hawaii to the Chattahoochee National Forest in Georgia. Over the weekend more than a thousand individuals flooded the Facebook page of the event, which was organized by Teresa Baker of the community outreach group Outdoor Afro, with images of African-Americans engaged in outdoor activities. They expressed gratitude to Baker for putting together this galvanizing opportunity to bring communities together. But with humility, she said, “Don’t thank me. Thank the Buffalo Soldiers. If it weren’t for them none of us would be here.”

The Buffalo Soldier story reached prominence with the 2009 release of the Ken Burns documentary The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. African-Americans historically have seldom been among those who visit or actively work to protect the national parks, but many have used this compelling tale of courage and sacrifice to inspire a new generation of environmental stewards and activists. With a legacy of service dating back to the days before the NPS was established, African-Americans have a proud heritage on public land, if only they knew to claim it.

In an effort to more formally recognize the role that black people have played in the preservation of public lands, a bill before the U.S. Congress proposes designating the Buffalo Soldiers’ route from the Presidio to Yosemite as a national historic trail. Senate Bill 225 sponsored by California Senator Dianne Feinstein, is at the heart of creating a common sense of propriety among all U.S. citizens, particularly people of color, toward their public lands.

Some of the African-Americans gathered in Yosemite were experiencing the grand beauty of this historic preserve for the very first time. There at the Yellow Pine Campground they were greeted by black park ranger Shelton Johnson. A 21-year veteran of the Park Service, he marveled at the sound of gospel singing, so long absent in the Valley.

“I wish I could tell you how thrilled I was when the buses pulled up and how happy I am to see you now in front of me,” Johnson said. “This is a dream come true to see so many of our people in one place.”

And with such a warm welcome, everyone settled comfortably into their place at Yosemite. Having followed the same trail first ridden by the Buffalo Soldiers one hundred years ago, these African-American park advocates, here and across the nation, more firmly secured their hold on a birthright each of them is inspired to protect (see our recent feature on minorities and national parks, “Parks for All?”).

“When you leave here today make sure that spirit of activism also leaves with you,” Alan Spears, director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association, told the gathering. “Because if all we do is come and celebrate and we don’t work and advocate on behalf of these places that are so important, they are going away.”

James Edward Mills is a freelance journalist and author of the forthcoming book The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors.

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