Shelton Johnson

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photo of Shelton Johnson
Shelton Johnson in the uniform of a Buffalo Soldier
President Barack Obama and Shelton Johnson
President Barack Obama and Shelton Johnson discussing the Ken Burns documentary on the National Parks

Shelton Johnson (b. 1958 in Detroit, Michigan) is a ranger with the National Park Service, assigned to Yosemite National Park as of 2015. As of that year, he had worked in Yosemite for 22 years of his 28-year career. He began his career in Yellowstone National Park in 1987.[1] He appeared in the Ken Burns documentary film The National Parks: America's Best Idea broadcast on PBS starting September 27, 2009, and was called the "unexpected star" of the mini-series.[2] Johnson attended a preview of the film at the White House that day, where he discussed the documentary with President Barack Obama.[3]


Johnson is of African American and Native American ancestry; he was born in Detroit in 1958.[4] While living in Germany where his father was stationed in the Army, Shelton, at five years of age, went on a family vacation to the Berchtesgaden area in Germany's Bavarian Alps, that later became the Berchtesgaden National Park. He describes this visit as influential to develop his awe for mountains and the sky.[4] His family also went to the Black Forest.[5]

Johnson graduated from Cass Technical High School in 1976. He then graduated from the University of Michigan in 1981 with a B.A. degree in English literature.[4][5] He next served with the Peace Corps as an English teacher in Liberia.[5] He later returned to the University of Michigan to do graduate study in poetry before going to work for the National Park Service.[5]


Johnson is an advocate for bringing minorities, particularly African-Americans to the National Parks and connect them to the natural world.[5] He claims that "one of the great losses to African culture from slavery was the loss of kinship with the earth".[1] He dedicated his work to this issue when he found the history of Buffalo Soldiers, the African-American regiments of the segregated U.S. Army. Johnson is now known for his research and publications on the assignments of the 24th infantry and the 9th cavalry to the protection of the new National Parks in California's Sierra Nevada. He created a website called Shadow Soldiers around a fictive letter to the Buffalo Soldiers at the parks.[4][6] and wrote and maintains the section on the Buffalo Soldiers on Yosemite National Park's official website[7] He wrote and performs a living history performance called Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, 1904, which is presented as an interpretive program at the park and at locations around the country.[4] In 2009 he received the National Freeman Tilden Award as the best interpreting ranger in the National Park Service for his work with Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan on their national park film.[5][8]

In 2010 he invited Oprah Winfrey as an icon for the African-American community to visit the parks, to spread "the word that the national parks really are America's best idea, and that this beauty belongs to every American, including African-Americans".[4][9] In October 2010 she spent two days and a night camping in Yosemite National Park and dedicated two of her shows to the National Parks.[4][10] In 2010, Johnson was the recipient of Clemson University's William C. Everhart Award "for sustained achievements in interpretation that have illuminated, created insights to, and fostered an appreciation of our cultural and historical heritage."[11]

He is the author of the historical novel Gloryland, published by Sierra Club Books in 2009.[2][4] The book is a fictional memoir of a Black Indian from South Carolina who becomes a Buffalo Soldier assigned to patrol Yosemite in 1903.[2][12]



  • 1981 Major Hopwood Award in Poetry, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor, MI.
  • 2002 Pacific West Region Freeman Tilden Award, National Parks Conservation Association.
  • 2009 Pacific West Region Freeman Tilden Award, National Parks Conservation Association.
  • 2009 National Freeman Tilden Award, National Parks Conservation Association.
  • 2010 William C. Everhart Award, Clemson University.
  • 2011 George B. Hartzog, Jr. Award, Coalition of National Park Service Retirees.
  • 2011 Environmental Leadership Award, Ecology Law Quarterly, University of California, Berkeley.
  • 2012 Robin W. Winks Award, National Parks Conservation Association.
  • 2013 Stewart L. Udall Award, Western National Parks Association.
  • 2013 Legacy Leadership Award, The African American Experience Fund of the National Park Foundation.
  • 2015 Superior Service Award, U.S. Department of the Interior.


  1. ^ a b Fimrite, Peter (August 9, 2009). "Park ranger asks: Where are the black visitors?". San Francisco: San Francisco Chronicle. Retrieved 17 December 2009. 
  2. ^ a b c Owen, Rob (September 29, 2009). "Yosemite ranger unexpected star of Burns' national parks series". Pittsburgh: Post-Gazette. Retrieved 6 January 2011. 
  3. ^ "NPS Digest: Park Ranger Meets President Obama". National Park Service. Retrieved 17 December 2009. 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h Mireya Navarro, "National Parks Reach Out to Blacks Who Aren’t Visiting," New York Times, November 2, 2010, p. A17, columns 1-5. (Caption to Lead Photograph: "Shelton Johnson, a ranger at Yosemite, enlisted Oprah Winfrey in an effort to increase interest in national parks among blacks.") Found at The New York Times website. Retrieved January 6, 2011.
  5. ^ a b c d e f "Profiles of Minority Professional: Shelton Johnson". Ann Arbor, MI: Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development. 2006. Retrieved 17 December 2009. 
  6. ^ Shadowsoldiers
  7. ^ National Park Service: Yosemite National Park − Buffalo Soldiers
  8. ^ National Park Service: Ranger Shelton Johnson Receives National Freeman Tilden Award
  9. ^ Diversity in our national parks, November 5, 2010
  10. ^ Oprah and Gayle Go to Yosemite, October 29, 2010
  11. ^ Clemson University: Shelton Johnson presented the William C. Everhart Award, Press release, October 6, 2010
  12. ^ Johnson, Shelton (September–October 2009). "Gloryland: From a park ranger's new novel about historic Yosemite's buffalo soldiers". Sierra Magazine (San Francisco: Sierra Club).