YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- The granite peaks, turbulent waterfalls and pristine back country here always brought veteran ranger Shelton Johnson joy and profound peace. Still, a sense of isolation accompanied him like a brother.
Johnson is one of just two black rangers on Yosemite's largely white staff of 100. And because blacks participate in outdoor recreation less than any other group, he greets black visitors only rarely. As a black man in a wilderness career, Johnson often felt alone. Until one day four years ago.
Seated in Yosemite's sweet-smelling research library, Johnson happened across a grainy photograph. Staring at him from the picture across a century of silence were five black soldiers on horseback, somewhere in Yosemite. What Johnson discovered that afternoon were his progenitors, segregated black Army troops who patrolled California's national parks around the turn of the last century -- fighting fires and policing rogue sheepherders, poachers and timber harvesters.
"When you stumble across an image that gives you roots, suddenly it's Alex Haley time," said Johnson, a 44-year-old interpretive ranger. "It changed the whole way I looked at myself and at the park I knew I had found the beginning of the rest of my career as a park ranger."
Gazing at the dark and solemn faces, Johnson resolved to unearth their neglected story. Through its telling, he could give black visitors a sense of pride in the park.
"I knew right then that I could use the history as a doorway to bring African Americans into wilderness parks," said Johnson, who likens the discovery to a linguist tripping over the Rosetta Stone.
Today, Johnson no longer walks by himself. With him is his alter-ego -- a spirited soldier Johnson created from a blend of fact, fiction and his own family history. Through Sgt. Elizy Boman, whose name comes straight from the historical record, Johnson speaks for the so-called "Buffalo Soldiers."
U.S. Army soldiers patrolled Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks from 1890 until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916. In three of those years -- 1899, 1903 and 1904 -- the job was done by the 9th Cavalry and 24th Infantry, segregated black regiments dispatched on horseback from San Francisco's Presidio. When Johnson burst into a classroom at the Central Valley's Atwater High School on a recent morning clutching faded leather saddlebags and an Indian flute, he was all Boman. Yellow chevrons flashed from the sleeves of his blue wool tunic. Crossed sabers graced his campaign hat. And in a powerful singsong voice, the commanding 6-foot-3 soldier told his tale.
Usually what we hear is: "Nigger, why are you stopping me? I've got things to do." I say, 'Sir, you're looking at the color of my skin, aren't you? Well, you've got to look at the color of my stripes. Do you see the color of my Colt revolver that I'm authorized to use?"
For four years, park visitors have heard Boman recount a uniformed black man's tribulations in early Yosemite. They have seen his eyes tear as he relates the peaceful grandeur of the High Sierra. And they have heard him play his mournful flute, a gift, Boman explains, from an older Buffalo Soldier who fought in the nation's Indian Wars.
In the past year, Johnson has spread the story even farther, to audiences as distant as Cleveland. One group of black San Francisco Bay Area professionals was so taken with a recent park performance that members are pushing for federal recognition of the black soldiers' role at Yosemite -- perhaps with a museum or National Historic Trail status for the route they rode to the park from the Presidio.
National Park Service supervisors hope to replicate Johnson's efforts, giving more blacks a sense of connection to Yosemite. Last month, they began searching for black recruits who can be trained to fan out and deliver the Buffalo Soldier story in their own distinct voices.
Johnson hopes his work will help fill in the many blanks in the black soldiers' story. In neighboring Sequoia National Park, under the guidance of black Capt. Charles Young, the men played a key role in building the road to Giant Forest. In Yosemite, they helped create an arboretum and botanical garden near the Wawona Hotel. They hacked vegetation to open impassable high-country trails and patrolled miles of back country. But much of their work in Yosemite -- particularly their personal experiences -- remain a mystery.
On a Web site about the 400 or so black soldiers -- shadowsoldier.wilderness.net -- Johnson pleads for help from the public to complete the story. "See if a name sounds familiar," the site says. "Perhaps he was your great-grandfather and your grandmother remembers his stories about those days and nights in Yosemite."
If the story works its magic, Johnson hopes to unite hundreds of descendants of the soldiers for the largest black gathering Yosemite has ever seen.
"That's our park," said Johnson, who notes there was a greater black presence in Yosemite in 1903 than 2003.
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A musician and poet, Johnson earned his bachelor's degree in English literature from the University of Michigan. He was working on a master's degree in creative writing in 1985 when a roommate suggested a summer job at Yellowstone National Park. Johnson ended up washing dishes at the Old Faithful Inn. He had bristled under what he saw as academia's Eurocentric emphasis, believing his heritage was undervalued. The wilderness delivered him his release. He never returned to school.
"Mountains don't have a point of view," said Johnson, who carries his lean frame with a soldier's ramrod posture.
He soon became a ranger, and his career took him from Yellowstone to Nevada's Great Basin National Park and, a decade ago, on to Yosemite, where he made his discovery.
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Johnson is no trained historian. Yet, with a $4,000 Park Service grant, he dug through records in Yosemite, Sequoia, Kings Canyon and San Francisco's Presidio, where the men had been barracked. He found patrol reports that documented the soldiers' often uneventful days in the park's meadows and forests. From the National Archives in Washington, D.C., he unearthed the muster rolls.
And from the rolls' hand-written cursive, Johnson plucked the name of Elizy Boman, a 9th Cavalry private. For starters, Johnson made him a sergeant: "I figured he deserved a promotion after 100 years of invisibility," he joked.
What is known of the men is spare. But Johnson has surmised that the black soldiers wielded an uneasy authority. The men carried the burden of race, enforcing laws against mostly-white residents of foothill communities and wealthy Bay Area visitors who used the park as a playground.
There is plenty of evidence from other locales to support the view that the black soldiers were regularly insulted and even attacked, said historian Schubert. Poring over microfilm copies of the Mariposa Gazette, Johnson found two 1903 mentions of a bar shooting in nearby Raymond. Harsh words were exchanged with bar owner William Duncan. After Ben Bane, one of the "colored troops," threatened to "carve Duncan's heart out," Duncan shot him. Charges were later dropped for lack of witnesses.
To flesh out Elizy's stubborn yet playful persona, Johnson turned instead to his own father. The elder Johnson enlisted in the Army in 1948 in Spartanburg, S.C., to escape the suffocating Jim Crow South. He battled racism in a segregated military, then joined the Air Force to become the first black in his unit.
The motives of men like the real Boman -- a full 50 years prior -- were strikingly similar, as soldiers fled post-Reconstruction lynchings and a sharecropper's destiny for a pension and the more manageable risks of military life. For his part, Johnson's experiences have been overwhelmingly positive in his 17 years with the National Park Service. But he hasn't forgotten the visitor at Yellowstone's West Gate who used a racial epithet or the tour group at Great Basin's cavernous Lehman Caves that claimed to belong to the Ku Klux Klan.
Johnson dreams of wide recognition for the historical role blacks played in protecting the national wilderness, perhaps from U.S. Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, who has championed the Buffalo Soldiers and referred to himself as their "spiritual descendant."
"They helped protect these great national parks, and no one ever said thank you," Johnson said. "This is my way of saying thank you."
Park Ranger's Roots: What's in the Name?
YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK -- The Buffalo Soldiers earned their moniker in the Indian Wars, purportedly because their hair resembled the wool of the bison's neck. But most histories on those post-Civil War Army regiments -- the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry -- focus on their combat in the Spanish-American War, first in Cuba, then the Philippines.
In more recent times, they gained some measure of acclaim through a Bob Marley song in the 1980s, and their image now adorns T-shirts, neckties, postage stamps, and even a German-made jigsaw puzzle. But histories of the soldiers, and of Yosemite, give slight mention of their work in the national parks.
"It's important because it's black participation in a mainstream story. It's not a black story, it's an American story," said Frank Schubert, a military historian for the Joint Chiefs of Staff who has spent so many decades researching the soldiers that he calls himself "Captain Buffalo."