Career Spotlight: Park Ranger Shelton Johnson on Why Spending Time Outdoors Is About Civil Rights ​

Shelton Johnson fought fires, lectures on Yosemite’s wildlife, performed in a one-man show about the buffalo soldiers and insists that African Americans reconnecting with the wilderness are participating in the last act of the civil rights movement. 

Shelton Johnson
Shelton Johnson Theo Wargo/Getty Images

“You shouldn’t have to convince people to go to paradise,” 55-year-old Shelton Johnson says in the short documentary The Way Home: Returning to the National Parks. “But if I could go to paradise without dying, and see all that is there, sign me up,” he continued. “And Yosemite for many people is such a place.”

Shelton, of all people, would know. He has spent 30 years of his life working in the Yosemite and Yellowstone national parks—28 of them as a park ranger. Park rangers are essentially the park’s police officers—they’re the guys in the wide-brim hats and green or khaki security uniforms. But what I didn’t know is that many park rangers serve the park in several different capacities beyond law enforcement.

“Rangers are also safeguarding the park,” Shelton explained to me. “So, many park rangers are also firefighters; some park rangers are skilled at search and rescue; some park rangers are skilled with technical rescues on mountain peaks; or, like here in Yosemite Valley, with some of the highest cliffs in the world, they are skilled mountain climbers or rock climbers.”

When Shelton worked at Yellowstone, he was a firefighter and worked the biggest firefighting effort in U.S. history. Today Shelton is an “interpretive ranger,” a fancy term for the rangers who tell the “park’s various stories.” He’s well-versed in the park’s geological, plant life, wildlife and cultural histories. So one day he’s talking to visitors about a particular kind of rock or what kind of birdlife inhabits the mountains. On another, he’s giving a spirited lecture about the region’s bears.

But one of the stories that Shelton is most interested in sharing is the role that African Americans have played in protecting our national parks, and how that history should encourage African Americans to return to their roots by engaging with Mother Earth once again.

Shelton is talking about the buffalo soldiers. Bob Marley’s dreadlock rastas. They were a group of African-American soldiers in the U.S. Army who fought in several of the American Indian wars in the latter part of the 19th century. According to Shelton, they got their nickname from American Indians who said that their hair was just like the matted cushion between the horns of a buffalo. One of the buffalo soldiers’ duties was to protect the Yosemite and Sequoia national parks.

“They were protecting the national park,” Shelton explained, “and so what that basically means is that African Americans were the official caretakers of some of the most beautiful landscapes in the United States before the National Park Service was even created.”

“They were rangers before the ‘park ranger’ term was even coined,” he said, going on to lament how that significance is lost among black Americans today. “We haven’t internalized that contribution and that heritage.”

There’s that connection between African Americans and the country’s national parks, but a far more compelling approach toward getting black people to reacclimate themselves to the outdoors is perhaps the one that stretches back a few more centuries to slavery. Listening to Shelton articulate how black Americans were systematically distanced from their relationship with the earth, the soil, trees and wildlife is compelling and spans black American history.

During slavery, the wilderness symbolized freedom because that was where slaves took refuge when they wanted to escape the brutalities of the plantation. One reason Johnson believes that black slaves were fond of the outdoors is that it was uncharted territory that put everyone on an equal footing with regard to who was brave enough to enter into its midst.

And then slavery was abolished and black people—for the most part—gradually became enfranchised and were able to own property and build towns. But that progress attracted scorn from whites, in part because black Americans were now economic competitors. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan emerged and were threatened by a burgeoning black middle class. At that point, the home was the black man’s safe haven, and the woods represented terror.

“They’re taking black people out of their homes, dragging them into the woods and lynching them,” Shelton explained, and so “the woods took on this negative connotation post-Reconstruction.”

And the way that African Americans interface with the outdoors persists to this day. Lots of black folks are outdoor sportsmen, hikers or gardeners, but there’s still the (sometimes true) stereotype that we’re averse to camping. For most Americans, any modern-day reluctance to camp out is probably not that complicated. On the surface, it likely has more to do with the inconveniences of not being able to take a shower or enjoy indoor amenities like heat and air conditioning. And then there are survival concerns, like not knowing how to start a fire or not knowing how to swim—a biggie among black Americans.

But I wonder if it goes just a step further when it comes to African Americans and America’s standard of beauty. I think African Americans can be more sensitive, at times, about our appearance because—let’s be honest—it’s hard to perform certain beauty routines in the woods.