These people of color transformed U.S. national parks

From Yosemite to Biscayne Bay, these hidden figures helped save natural wonders and historic places.

Photograph by Shutterstock
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Soon after Yosemite National Park was established in 1890, members of the Buffalo Soldiers—all-Black regiments stationed in the West—were deployed there to perform duties including fighting fires and deterring poachers and timber thieves.

Photograph by Shutterstock

When I began exploring the outdoors, I had no idea that Black people had played a vital role in the creation of Yosemite, one of my favorite national parks. I had never heard the story of the park’s connection with Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers, and when I finally did, at age 42, it came to me as a complete surprise.

In the 10 years since, I’ve learned the stories of Stephen Bishop and Mammoth Caves, Lancelot Jones and Biscayne Bay, and many other people of color who have influenced national parks. Their narratives have long been obscured or ignored by history.

One 2018 report indicates that Black Americans make up less than 2 percent of national park visitors; other studies estimate a higher percentage. Either way, as the National Park Service aims to increase visitation rates among Black Americans, the discovery of these narratives can go a long way toward affirming our place within the heritage and legacy of public land preservation.

Interpreting and engaging

The National Park Service interprets a wide range of Black American history through 62 national parks and hundreds of sites dedicated to the celebration of our national heritage. “To inspire lasting connections, people need to see their history and culture represented in our nation’s national parks and monuments,” says National Park Service chief historian Turkiya Lowe, the first woman and the first Black American to hold that position.

“They also need to see the various ways that historical events have legacies and relevance to their current lives.”

“When I came into the Park Service, there was minimal recognition of what Blacks have done,” says Robert G. Stanton, who was recruited in 1962 to become one of the first Black seasonal rangers at Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park.  In 1970 he became the first Black superintendent of a national park unit since Charles Young was stationed at Sequoia National Park in 1903.

Later in his career, Stanton was charged with overseeing the monuments and historic sites east of the National Mall in Washington, D.C. His portfolio included the historic home of his personal hero, the abolitionist Frederick Douglass. In 1988, he was appointed the first Black director of the National Park Service; he retired as NPS director in 2001. “We still have a long way to go to capture the richness of our struggle and our contributions,” he says.

“Additional stories will bring greater depth to the existing stories,” Lowe says. “However, it is not the need for more stories within our national parks and programs, but continued outreach and engagement with these communities of color that stories already exist.”  

Buffalo Soldiers and beyond

“A hundred years ago there were more Africans or people of African descent in an official capacity in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks than there are today,” says Shelton Johnson, one of the few Black park rangers currently stationed in Yosemite.  “Charles Young was the first African-American superintendent of Sequoia National Park. But that’s not been repeated.”

Captain Charles Young was the third Black American to graduate from the military academy at West Point. As the commander of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments of the United States Army stationed at the Presidio in San Francisco, he and his men were dispatched to protect the newly designated national parks at Yosemite and Sequoia. For three summers between 1903 and 1906, more than 400 members of the all-Black unit known collectively as the Buffalo Soldiers patrolled these areas, performing many of the same duties of today’s national park rangers.

Then there’s Stephen Bishop, a former slave credited with discovering and exploring many caverns at Mammoth Caves in central Kentucky. Even before the Civil War he led tourists on excursions though this natural labyrinth where he created the first maps and named many of its most recognizable features.

In 1933 a young naturalist of Hispanic descent named George Meléndez Wright was appointed the first chief of the National Park Service Wildlife Division. In hopes of restoring the parks to their natural state, Wright promoted the creation of policies that prohibited the feeding of bears and the killing of predators to encourage ecological balance. Before his death in a car accident in 1936, Wright conducted a four-year, self-financed study of animal diversity in the national parks, from Yosemite to the Everglades.

As an interpretive ranger at Lassen Volcanic National Park, in California, Selena LeMarr shared her Astugewi customs dressed in the clothing and beadwork of her ancestors. Beginning in 1952 she gave demonstrations of traditional basket weaving and food preparation for park visitors. Native peoples have a traumatic history of displacement by national park sites. LeMarr was among the earliest interpreters who made it her job to keep native customs and traditions alive.

Having inherited property on Biscayne Bay in the Florida Keys from his father, a former slave, the entrepreneurial Lancelot Jones launched a popular fishing guide and charter service for the many affluent visitors to the popular destination. But when developers attempted to buy up the surrounding land with the intention of creating an exclusive resort community, Jones worked to ensure that the environment remain as it was. His resistance helped to rally support for the creation of a national monument in 1968. Biscayne was eventually designated a national park in 1980.

Other national park stories reach further back in history. Esteban de Dorantes, an enslaved man known as Estavenico, was a vital part of the 16th-century Coronado Expedition that explored the Colorado Plateau and what is now Coronado National Monument, in Arizona. At Castillo de San Marcos National Monument, exhibits illustrate the role of Black people in the founding of St. Augustine, Florida, almost 450 years ago. In the late 19th century, Maggie Lena Walker was the first African-American woman to found a bank, and her home in Richmond, Virginia, is now a national historic site.

For all Americans

In 2011 President Barack Obama designated Fort Monroe, Virginia, as the first national monument of his administration. The first Africans arrived in the British colonies of North America on this site as captive slaves in 1619. In this spot 242 years later—during the U.S. Civil War—three fugitive slaves fleeing the Confederate States turned themselves over to the Union Army on May 23, 1861. Thousands of runaways would take refuge here at what would become known as Freedom’s Fortress.

In addition to this monument and several natural heritage preserves, Obama designated 26 sites throughout his two terms of office, more than any president in U.S. history. Among these locations, the NPS now acknowledges the accomplishments of Harriet Tubman and the Underground Railroad, the Pullman porters, the Freedom Riders, and Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers.

 “These sites honor the pioneering heroes, spectacular landscapes and rich history that have shaped our extraordinary country,” President Obama said on March 25, 2013. “By designating these national monuments today, they will continue to inspire and be enjoyed by generations of Americans to come.”

Obama went a step further when he issued a memorandum to NPS and other public land agencies in January 2017. Called “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters,” this document encourages parks stewards to advocate for a more inclusive and complete story of America, lobbies for including diverse voices in the decision-making process for new public lands and waters, and recommends increasing the number of outreach programs dedicated to providing better access for diverse communities.

The presidential memorandum states, “As a powerful sign of our democratic ideals, these lands belong to all Americans—rich and poor, urban and rural, young and old, from all backgrounds, genders, cultures, religious viewpoints, and walks of life.” With this sentiment, Obama gets to the heart of the enduring question, Why preserve wild lands? Because they belong to all of us.

James Edwards Mills is the author of The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors. He was named a Yosemite National Park Centennial Ambassador in 2016. Follow him on Twitter and Instagram.