I have to say that I was very disappointed when Oprah and her gal pal Gail visited Yosemite National Park in Northern California a few years back, and she said she couldn’t see why any Black people would spend their money to go and sleep outside on the ground. Their visit was at the personal request of African-American park ranger Shelton Johnson, a historian at Yosemite who has also worked in other national parks.
His goal was to expose everyone to the beauty and rich history of these natural wonders, but more specifically, to attract African-Americans and other people of color who are sorely underrepresented visitors to the parks.
Although Oprah travels in a much different way than the rest of us, I believe she missed the whole point—that our national parks are amazing treasures that offer a great deal for everyone, regardless of their ethnic background.
My mother, sisters and I camped a great deal when we were growing up and visited many entities of the National Park System. I have continued to do so into my adult years, having visited Yosemite, Mt. Rainier, Point Reyes National Seashore, Yellowstone and Virgin Islands National Park, among others.
What those experiences brought and continue to bless me with—whether I was camping or visiting for the day—was not just the static when, where, how and why these landscapes came into being, but also the history of the many pioneers, historians, preservationists and others who have dedicated their time, talent and treasure to safeguard these national treasures for generations to follow. But moreover, for me, these visits offer very intangible yet palpable spiritual and emotional benefits that can only be found out in these most precious of God’s creation.
Several years ago, I interviewed African-American authors Audrey and Frank Peterman, who embarked upon a life-altering, 12,000-mile, 40-state trip around the country to visit national parks from coast to coast. Upon finding that they were the only people of color they saw, they came home, inspired to dedicate their lives to making national parks and public lands attractive and welcoming to people of color—specifically African-Americans and Latinos. They have written “Hidden in Plain View: A Black Couple Reveals Secrets of Our National Parks, Public Land and Environment,” “Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care” and “Our True Nature: Finding a Zest for Life in the National Park System,” in which they share their experiences with the beauty and wonder of the national parks and explain why the parks are so important and play a pivotal role in our African-American heritage.
No matter where you live in the country, you will find simply awe-inspiring national parks, each offering its own distinctive topography, weather, wildlife, visitor opportunities and more.
One of the most diverse national parks in America, Acadia National Park in Bar Harbor, Maine, is home to 320 species of birds and 50 species of mammals and sits on the boundary of two of North America’s major botanical zones. www.nps.gov/acad/index.htm
Theodore Roosevelt National Park is where our former president transformed from a naïve, scrawny teenager to an enlightened, beefy, mentally and physically strong man—in large part because of his experiences in this once harsh landscape in Medora (the South Unit) and Watford City (the North Unit), N.D. www.nps.gov/thro/index.htm
In Copper Center, Ala., you will find America’s largest national park, Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve, encompassing13.2 million acres and the 18,008-feet-high Mount St. Elias, one of the tallest peaks in North America. www.nps.gov/wrst/index.htm
Located in Homestead, Fla., Everglades National Park is the largest subtropical wilderness in the country; its wildlife encompass a wide array of endangered and rare species, including the Florida panther, the American crocodile and the manatee. www.nps.gov/ever/index.htm
Joshua Tree National Park in Twentynine Palms, Calif., is highlighted by a landscape in which the western half marks the southern tip of the Mojave Desert, and the eastern half marks one of the westernmost tips of the Sonoran Desert, both possessing distinct desert ecosystems. www.nps.gov/jotr/index.htm
Situated at the southern tip of the Northern Boreal Forest in International Falls, Minn., Voyageurs National Park, regarded as “The Heart of the Continent,” is highlighted by a distinctive landscape formed by mountains, earthquakes and volcanic activity, and is where a series of interconnected waterways flow west then eventually north as part of the Hudson Bay arctic watershed. www.nps.gov/voya/index.htm
“National Parks: America’s Best Idea”
Documentary filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan got it right when they created National Parks: America’s Best Idea, a six-part series on PBS (which also featured Ranger Johnson), which they say is “a story of people—people from every conceivable background: rich and poor; famous and unknown; soldiers and scientists; natives and newcomers; idealists, artists and entrepreneurs; people who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved and, in doing so, reminded their fellow citizens of the full meaning of democracy.”
Just by looking at the numbers alone, one can see just how vast and amazing this system is: 13 national parks; some 7,529,549 visitors last year alone; 1,462 National Register of Historic Places listings; 24 National Historic Landmarks; 17 National Natural Landmarks; and 275,330 hours donated by volunteers.
African-Americans history in the National Park System runs deep, extending far beyond the magnificent landscapes of the national parks themselves. There are numerous exciting and historic entities which also make up part of the National Park System. Here are few to check out as you travel both in your own backyard and further afield:
Selma to Montgomery National Historic Trail (www.nps.gov/semo/index.htm)
George Washington Birthplace National Monument (www.nps.gov/gewa/bowden&history.htm)
Fort Donelson National Battlefield (www.nps.gov/fodo/indepth/af-am.htm)
New Orleans Jazz National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/neor)
Brown v. Board of Education National Historic Site (www.nps.gov/brvb/home.htm)
Guadalupe Mountains National Park (www.nps.gov/gumo/gumo/history.html)
Port Chicago Naval Magazine National Memorial (www.nps.gov/poch/index.htm)
San Francisco Maritime Park (www.nps.gov/safr/local/afamer.html)
Dayton Aviation Heritage National Historic Park (www.nps.gov/daav/)
Lysa Allman-Baldwin writes for numerous online and print publications, including as the cultural travel writer for www.examiner.com and as a senior travel writer for www.soulofamerica.com, an Afrocentric travel website. Lysa can be reached at email@example.com.
African-American authors Audrey and Frank Peterman
African-American history and locations of interest within the National Park System
“Hidden Gems of the National Park System,” a special 32-page section published in the May/June edition of Country magazine highlighting its top 10 most breathtaking, off-the-beaten-path parks across the country
National Park guidebooks to Acadia, Joshua Tree, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon by award-winning travel writer, photographer and publisher James Kaiser