Ranger works to attract African Americans to US parks

Park ranger and "Gloryland" author Shelton Johnson has worked with the likes of Ken Burns and Oprah Winfrey to generate interest in U.S. national parks. He will speak at UMSL April 13 as part of the 2012 St. Louis Humanities Festival.

Novelist and park ranger Shelton Johnson has long been troubled by the fact that less than one percent of the visitors to Yosemite National Park in California are African Americans. One of only a few African American rangers employed by the National Park Service, the Detroit native says his life was transformed when he first visited a national park. Now Johnson works hard to inspire other inner-city African Americans to experience the U.S. national parks.

Johnson will discuss his work in national parks and read from his novel “Gloryland” at the University of Missouri–St. Louis as part of the 2012 St. Louis Humanities Festival. The event, “Gloryland: Literature and Interpretive History as Tools for Social Change,” will be from 10-11:30 a.m. April 13 in the Century Rooms on the third floor of the Millennium Student Center. The discussion is free and open to the public.

Johnson has worked for the National Park Service for nearly 25 years, mostly at Yosemite. He also worked in Great Basin National Park in Nevada, Yellowstone National Park in the upper Mountain States and parks in and around Washington, D.C. And he’s served with the Peace Corps in Liberia.

Johnson has been featured in the documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” by Ken Burns. He also wrote Oprah Winfrey to express his concerns with the low number of African American park visitors. He showed her around Yosemite after she surprised him in 2010 with a visit as part of “The Oprah Winfrey Show.”

As a writer, Johnson has won several awards including a Hopwood Award in poetry. His novel “Gloryland,” published in 2009 by Sierra Club Books, is the fictional memoir of a buffalo soldier – a black U.S. cavalryman and the son of slaves, who finds true freedom when he is posted to patrol the newly created Yosemite National Park in 1903.

Johnson’s inspiration for the book came from a photograph he discovered in 2001 deep in the Yosemite archives. The 1899 photograph featured U.S. Army cavalry troopers – all African American – in Yosemite backcountry. Through more research, Johnson learned they were buffalo soldiers. These troops from Presidio of San Francisco were tasked with patrolling Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in California at the turn of the 20th century, essentially making them the first park rangers.

Johnson has since taken on the persona of a buffalo solider as part of a living-history dramatization of the forgotten story of these men. He has given his interpretive performance to hundreds of Yosemite guests and at venues throughout the United States.

Copies of “Gloryland” will be available for signing. Parking is available in Lot C, south of the Millennium Student Center.

The Center for the Humanities at UMSL, Missouri Arts Commission and Regional Arts Commission are sponsors for the program. Call 314-516-5698 for more information.

UMSL, the Missouri Humanities Council, Washington University in St. Louis, Webster University in Webster Groves, Mo., and Cinema St. Louis will present the St. Louis Humanities Festival. Click here for a full schedule of events.


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