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The Carletonian

Inspired by the power of history, Johnson recovers a lost past

<r and park ranger Shelton Johnson opened his convocation speech last Friday by emphasizing the importance of history, storytelling and reconnecting minorities – especially African Americans – to nature. His presentation was called, “Gloryland: Using History and Literature as Tools for Social Change.”

Johnson presented the story of the Buffalo Soldiers – individuals who served in army regiments of African Americans formed just after the American Civil War. There were about five hundred of these brave individuals, he said, but history forgot about them. At the time, the military played an important role, standing as “school, family,and safety” for the African Americans in the Deep South, and many never dreamed of leaving it.

Johnson found the story after combing through the archives at Yosemite National Park and happening upon a photograph of a few African American soldiers serving as park rangers “before the term ‘park ranger’ was even coined.” This started his journey of delving further into the lost story of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Johnson laments the modern day disconnect between many African Americans and their ancestral heritage.

“African Americans are the least likely to have a natural encounter,” he said, particularly those growing up in inner cities. “Not many African Americans have been told that they are welcome to Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon.”

He believes this contributes to a culturally inherited negative association with the outdoors. This association “cuts across age, class and education” and affects African Americans in general, he said.

Believing in the value of history, Johnson argued for the importance of storytelling, saying, “I spent eighteen years of my life exploring the history of the Buffalo soldiers and learning to use media to better transmit my passion for their story.”

Johnson noted that the place for preserving a particular history does not have to be limited to national parks.

“Rather, it’s about the earth,” he said. “What the African American generations did before us suddenly has no resonance or connection with their current day descendants.”

To a standing ovation from the Chapel audience, Johnson’s final statement was about the importance of storytelling: “There will be occasions when you find a story – or better, when it finds you – and many others will tell you that it should not be told. Don’t let those stories before you be forgotten.”

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