African American Nation Builders in Our National Park System

As an American citizen of African ancestry, I found my identity in the National Park System. I can hardly describe the feelings of pride and the sense of liberation from the burden of history that said my forebears were only good for chattel slavery, and their descendants are a liability to our country.

With the luxury of 171 units of the System from Alaska to the US Virgin Islands imprinted on my soul, I feel delighted all the time. I get a rush when I picture myself back at Mount Denali, Old Faithful, Half Dome or the Grand Canyon, and the pleasure is amplified knowing that my ancestors were in many of these places ahead of me. From Klondike Gold Rush National Historical Park in Alaska to Valley Forge outside Philadelphia to Fort Jefferson at the confluence of the Florida Straits, the System protects my forebears' incredible legacy at the very places where they made history.

I often give thanks to President Abraham Lincoln who made the first deposit in our country's nature trust fund. In the middle of the Civil War in 1864, he felt the pressing need to sign the Act setting aside the incomparable Mariposa Grove of sequoia trees and the gleaming Yosemite Valley in trust for the American people, "inalienable for all time." Successive Presidents and Congress have kept adding to the treasury until today we have close to 90 million acres in the National Park System, a generous dowry for our growing population.

Our protected lands are those perceived to be of the highest and best value based upon natural beauty, historical significance and cultural importance. As the natural sites stir our souls with their beauty and provide us with archaeological records dating back millions of years, the historic and cultural sites provide us with a similarly factual historic record of our efforts at nation building. Those records show the pivotal role that every race and ethnic group in America played in the founding, exploration, defense and building of our country.

The record of Black contributions in the System is as shocking for where it happened as for the fact that it's not better known. For example, my husband Frank and I were ambling through the Klondike Gold Rush National Historic Park in Skagway on a ranger-led tour, when the ranger made casual reference to the Buffalo Soldiers' barracks along the route. Frank and I stopped as if we'd been hit by lightning - the "Buffalo Soldiers" were here?

Turns out that when gold was discovered in the Klondike region, African American soldiers commonly referred to as "Buffalo Soldiers" were deployed from the Presidio of San Francisco in 1899 to maintain law and order in the region being flooded by prospectors. Their interactions with aggressive men determined to make their fortune at any cost - many of whom might consider the black soldiers 'inferior' - is the real stuff from which "westerns" should be made.

At Valley Forge National Historical Park outside Philadelphia, I was moved to tears as I looked over the bucolic fields that once housed the desperate men of General George Washington's Continental Army. I wondered which of those hillocks may have been stained with the bloody footprints of my ancestors as General Washington holed up there in the dreadful winter of 1777-78. Without a supply chain, the soldiers struggled for food, clothing and lacked even shoes. When I learned that the army included Black, Hispanic and Native American men, and that women suffered as much supporting them as cooks and seamstresses, I felt my place in this country firmly established because my ancestors invested as much as anyone to liberate it.

Walking among 2,000-year old sequoias in Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, I felt their powerful energy and gave thanks that these last remaining giants were protected by the Buffalo Soldiers from the effects of logging and ranching at the turn of the 20th century. What a loss their demise would have been! (A naturalist once told us that on occasions when lightning takes off the top of a sequoia tree, water comes shooting out with the force of fire hose.) I've laid in the barracks of Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Davis National Historic Site in Texas from which they waged war against Native Americans to protect settlers in the western migration.

Closer to home in Florida, the saw grass marshes of Everglades National Park with their complement of biting, stinging things remind me that they were no match for my ancestors questing to reclaim their human dignity. Fleeing through the Everglades on the Underground Railroad, they took their freedom in the Bahamas, Haiti and Cuba. At Biscayne National Park on the Atlantic, I have the pleasure of knowing that Sir Lancelot Jones and his family were instrumental in staving off development pressures in the 1970s, and their efforts ultimately bequeathed to us the largest marine park in the System.

Our National Park System is a treasure beyond compare and its establishment represents one of the most noble acts of our ancestors, though we cannot overlook that it displaced Native peoples. As our conservation lands expanded requiring an agency specifically to manage the protected areas, the National Park Service was created to maintain the system in perpetuity "for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. . ."

Because I'm thoroughly steeped in the facts of our history learned in our National Park System where it happened, I stand with President Lincoln every day in his exhortation at Gettysburg National Military Park to work together so that this nation, and " government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth..."

In our present fractious climate, it is vital that all Americans know where we've come from and how we got here if we are to move on together. The National Park System is the logical place to learn our legacy as nation builder and determine to carry it forward.