I’m Michael Kleber-Diggs, a writer and arts educator who thrives in outdoor spaces. In celebration of Black History Month, I’m partnering with Public Lands to showcase four Black park rangers. By sharing their stories, we hope to relate the rich history of African-American influence in the National Park Service that lives on today, while examining how the Black community is changing its relationship with public lands. See the first installment in our series here.
This is our profile of Shelton Johnson, a long-time park ranger and advocate for diversity in national parks. During our conversation (edited for clarity and length below), Johnson spoke fluently and fast about national parks, the natural world, and the importance of our connection to outdoor spaces, about American history, Black history and how its complicated legacy impacts national park utilization today.
Yosemite National Park is the ideal location to consider how the past informs the present. No national park has a more celebrated connection to Black history than Yosemite. Before national parks were even created, the Army was responsible for safeguarding federal lands set aside for protection. And the Buffalo Soldiers (originally members of its 10th Cavalry Regiment) stationed at what is now Yosemite National Park are credited with being America’s first park rangers. (Read more about their history and connection to Yosemite here.)
Johnson has worked in the park for almost 35 years, and honors the contributions made by Buffalo Soldiers in his role as a Community Engagement Specialist. His mission is to welcome communities of color who may feel disconnected from outdoor spaces like national parks. Helping people of color restore their relationship with nature is his life’s work—and an extension of Johnson’s appreciation for nature as sacred space that he first experienced when he was young.
MICHAEL KLEBER-DIGGS: Thanks for meeting with me. To start, can you tell me about Yosemite? I've been to Yellowstone and Denali, the Grand Canyon, the Badlands, the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, and so many national parks, but I have not yet been to Yosemite.
SHELTON JOHNSON: Well, I would say you're saving the best for last. Which I thought I would never say as a former Yellowstone National Park ranger. There’s no other place that I’ve ever visited, either here in the lower 48, up in Alaska, or where I served in the Peace Corps in West Africa, in Liberia—there, I was in the middle of the tropical rainforest, which was exquisitely beautiful. But I have never seen any other place in the world that has the transcendent beauty of Yosemite.
It sounds like you have the same sense of awe today that you had when you first arrived there.
I would say that, over time, it has deepened. In Yosemite, the ordinary slowly over time becomes extraordinary. And what is extraordinary is also amplified and deepened until you’re there and people are wondering, why is that dude crying?
As I hear you speak about it, I find myself thinking, maybe this is the summer we go to Yosemite.
Well, let me put it this way: I can't think of any group, any population in the United States, that is more deserving and more needful of having an experience of immersion in that spirit, that atmosphere of beauty, that is Yosemite. And the group that I’m thinking of is African Americans.
Look at our history [as African Americans] and our estrangement from the land itself. We don't talk about the fact that we come from Indigenous people, indigenous to the west coast of Africa, due to the slave trade. Our people had an intimate relationship with the natural world, a sacred relationship. We didn’t commodify nature. Nature was something that we knew was bigger than us. Many of us have lost that connection.