Ranger Shelton Johnson, who portrays a Buffalo Soldier in Yosemite National Park and appears in several episodes of the new Ken Burn’s documentary “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea”, got to meet President Obama during a screening of the documentary which airs this weekend.
NPS Digest: “They’d included the clip from the film where I tell about the winter encounter with bison in Yellowstone (national park) and the president started to tell me about an experience he had with bison in Yellowstone. It was on the trip with his grandparents that he’s talked about before. I couldn’t believe it.
“I’m standing there listening but there’s this loop playing in my head, ‘Oh my God, I’m shaking hands with the President of the United States of America. Oh my God, I’m shaking hands with the President of the United States of America’ and that loop keeps playing and playing and I’m seeing the President’s mouth moving and I know words must be coming out but this loop keeps playing and I’m trying to figure what it is he’s talking about and I’m, well I’m just stupefied.”
Johnson, an interpretive ranger at Yosemite National Park, was among fewer than 50 people – filmmakers Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan included – to attend the screening in advance of Sunday’s premier of the six-part, 12-hour documentary that airs on PBS stations across the country.
The past months, and especially the past few weeks have been a whirlwind for Johnson. Last week’s itinerary included Detroit, the White House, Austin, Texas, and New York City where he remains for media interviews through Thursday before heading home to California.
In Detroit Johnson saw his mother and brother during a visit to his high school alma mater, Cass Technical High School. “It was wonderful to be there,” Johnson said, “my mother was thrilled.”
Johnson also made an appearance on Detroit’s PBS affiliate with Duncan to screen clips of the film. The time in Detroit also afforded him an opportunity to meet with the Cass High principal to encourage the college-preparatory school to develop a relationship with Isle Royal National Park so that students can spend time working in the park.
In addition to fielding questions about the film and national parks, Johnson is the obvious answer to what he says is the sometimes startling realization that there are black park rangers. “Not only are there black park rangers but I tell people there are black chief rangers, deputy directors of the National Park Service, black park superintendents and natural resource managers.”
Johnson said media whose audience is people of color have shown little interest in the national parks film. There have been black people at the screening events he’s been a part of and Johnson said he hopes word of mouth and people getting on social network sites will drive interest in watching the film and visiting national parks.
“When the film comes out and people see this they’ll ask themselves, ‘Are there other black rangers?’ and this film will be an opportunity to create a dialogue,” Johnson said. “If we are going to reach people of color and if national parks are going to be part of their culture then it starts with children. We need to get children into the national parks so they will pass that along to their children. That’s how I “got” national parks. My parents took me and I’m passing it on to my son.”