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Shelton Johnson with park visitors

Shelton Johnson

"And I can't not think of the other kids, just like me – in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia – today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here?"

Shelton Johnson with his parents at their family home, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1960's Add to Scrapbook

Shelton Johnson with his parents at their family home, Detroit, Michigan, circa 1960's

Shelton Johnson dreamed of mountains as a boy, living in inner city Detroit. He had never been to a mountain range in the United States and his only experiences with nature and wildlife came through television and movie screens.

Enrolled in an MFA program at the University of Michigan, Shelton applied to be a seasonal worker at Yellowstone, thinking the park would provide a quiet place to work on his writing. "I got off a bus in Gardiner, Montana," Shelton remembers, "right outside the north entrance....And as I was stepping down onto the ground, there was a bison – a 2,000-pound animal – walking by. There was no one else around and the bison was just strolling by! I looked up at the driver and I said, 'Does this happen all the time?' And he looked at me and said, 'All the time.' And I said to myself, 'I have arrived.'"

Shelton Johnson on interpretive nature walk surrounded by park visitors, Yosemite National Park Add to Scrapbook

Shelton Johnson on interpretive nature walk surrounded by park visitors, Yosemite National Park

Shelton Johnson dressed as a Buffalo Soldier, Yosemite National Park Add to Scrapbook

Shelton Johnson dressed as a Buffalo Soldier, Yosemite National Park

Shelton has been working in national parks ever since, spending time in Yellowstone, Great Basin, and as an interpreter at Fort Dupont Park in the Anacostia section of Washington, DC. There, he met students like himself and his friends who had grown up in Detroit – tough inner-city black kids whose understanding of nature was about as distant as Mars. "That's when I first made the resolution that I had to figure out how to connect these kids with nature, to get them to have a nature experience."

Shelton found his key for connecting with audiences after being transferred to Yosemite. Deep in the archives of the park, he stumbled across a faded photo of buffalo soldiers who had patrolled Yosemite at the turn of the 20th century. Since 1998, Shelton has told the story of the Buffalo Soldiers in the national parks – in print, on camera, and in person. He has traveled to public schools and spoken with kids throughout America. He has tracked down descendents of the soldiers, authored an award-winning website, and been lauded by civic groups and governments for his work. During evening programs and daytime ranger walks in Yosemite, he tells the story through the dramatic portrayal of a character he's developed: Sergeant Elizy Boman.

All the while, Shelton has remained true to the reason he started this work. "I can't forget that little black kid in Detroit," he says. "And I can't not think of the other kids, just like me – in Detroit, Oakland, Watts, Anacostia – today. How do I get them here? How do I let them know about the buffalo soldier history, to let them know that we, too, have a place here? How do I make that bridge, and make it shorter and stronger? Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them."

Next bio: Marjory Stoneman Douglas

Old Faithful, Yellowstone National Park

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Untold Stories

Discover the "hidden" stories of the national parks that explore the role of minorities in the creation and protection of the parks.

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