Sunday morning coffee

It was a great day at the Roosevelt Birthplace yesterday. Charlie DeLeo was indeed on hand and gave an entertaining and enlightening talk about his 3+ decades maintaining the Statue of Liberty. His was a unique experience, and due to changes in procedures one that will not be come along in quite the same way ever again. Here are a few pics. In the one photo he is reaching into his hat pulling out the names of the raffle winners of his biography. As you can see, everyone was eager to have their copy signed. Keep in mind that Mr. DeLeo often speaks at schools and other venues. Everyone present yesterday can attest to how special his story is.






Sunday morning coffee

IMG_1035Yesterday someone received his National Park Service Volunteer Pass for going over 250 hours of service. I could have gotten the pass a long time ago had I been paying attention to the benefits that accrue with these milestones. When I began volunteering at the Roosevelt Birthplace last October I told myself I would vigilantly track these types of things. It is not about the money saved per se, but enjoying the fruits of one’s labor. I intend to put it to good use over the summer when I visit a few places.


One of the most enjoyable endeavors at the TRB this year was the opportunity to work on writing content for the installation in the lower gallery. The rangers did a great job putting the whole thing together, and it was a privilege to play a role. The two cases you see here were mine. Here are a few close ups.



Governors Island on the 4th of July was a wind and rain swept landscape. The weather kept people away but those who were there were in good spirits and enjoying the holiday atmosphere. The weather could have been better, but the island does have a fun feel in such circumstances.

For the second time this summer I met people at the Roosevelt Birthplace who were on Governors Island the day before. Usually such folks are out-of-towners who have an interest in historic sites. One of the most interesting things about Park Service sites in New York City is meeting such folks. This was especially true at Ellis Island where such a large percentage of the visitors are not New Yorkers.

The summer is on here in New York.

Imperiled Promise

FDR_Museum_and_LibraryThis morning I received the final details of the upcoming WW1 Centennial Commission trade show. About sixty individuals and organizations rsvp’ed. I am looking forward to the presentations and hearing what people have planned for the next 4-5 years. I know I myself intend to do a fair amount with the Great War Centennial between now and the 100th anniversary of the Versailles Conference.

It is hard to believe the New York History conference in Cooperstown was a full year ago. Alas I could not attend the 2014  NYSHA conference at Marist College in Poughkeepsie, as either a speaker or attendee. Tomorrow, however, I will be tuning in to a webinar coming from the nearby Henry A.Wallace Visitor Center at the FDR Presidential Library and Museum in Hyde Park. The panelists will be discussing Imperiled Promise: The State of History in the National Park Service, the 2011 report from the Organization of American Historians analyzing the state of public history within the NPS. I have read the report and its while it lauds some NPS successes it also highlights where there might be improvement.

Tomorrow’s panel begins at 9:00 am and will focus on history at NPS sites within New York State. This is going to be an informative and lively event.

(image/Alex Israel)










Will there be a Mission ’16?

Antietam National Military Park's Mission 66 visitor center
Antietam National Battlefield’s Mission 66 visitor center

There were larger issues at stake during the government shutdown, but one of the most distressing things about the episode was the treatment of the Park Service and its personnel. The finger-pointing and grandstanding were painful to watch, and I don’t think it is melodramatic to say they may leave permanent scars on the agency and on the parks themselves. There have been spectacular successes during the Sesquicentennial. I was in Washington DC in July 2011 and remember watching the nearby Manassas coverage on television; the Hayfoot and I were in Gettysburg in person in the days leading up to the Gettysburg 150th and can attest to the level of preparedness on display. The electricity in the air was palpable and you understood that you were seeing history in the making. Despite these triumphs, the Service has struggled with budget cuts and other issues in recent years.

The NPS centennial is now just three short years away and given the current climate one cannot help wondering if and how the current tension might affect that anniversary. In the 1950s President Eisenhower enacted Mission 66, a decade-long initiative to improve the parks. America’s national parks had received internal improvements in the 1930s during the New Deal, especially under the auspices of the Civilian Conservation Corps. By the 1950s, however, sites were under considerable strain as an increasingly prosperous and mobile population  toured the USA in their Chevrolets. More visitors means the need for more better roads & trails, more sewage & sanitation facilities, increased food & lodging, and all the rest. Hence, Mission 66. Given current realities, a Mission ’16 is probably not in the cards. Still, one hopes something with lasting benefit comes out of it.  It is an issue worth watching and the next several months will tell us a lot about how it plays out.


Mount Rushmore isn’t going anywhere. Stay home.


As the shutdown has dragged on I have refrained from writing too much about how the stalemate has affected the National Parks. Thankfully, others have been covering the story. Kevin Levin has done an especially good job on his important Civil War Memory blog. Suffice it to say that I am distressed over how some people have been gaming the NPS these past ten days or so. It is even worse when those doing the gaming, and blaming, are the very ones responsible for the closings. I can understand why a general citizen might be confused about why he/she cannot walk the grounds of a national park or monument; a public official should know better. Now, a growing number of people are taking it upon themselves to play hide and seek with park personnel. For anyone contemplating this, I would encourage them to refrain from doing so. First of all, there is no capriciousness involved; the closings are required by federal law. Next, you yourself might mean no harm when crashing the gates of Gettysburg, the Grand Canyon, or wherever. Others who visit are less conscientious. Vandalism and relic hunting are a serious problems at NPS sites even when parks are fully staffed. Your presence, however seemingly innocent, only subtracts from the already stretched skeleton crews keeping an eye on things during the shutdown. You are only making their job more difficult. Mount Rushmore is not going anywhere. For the time being, stay home.

In related news, over the past few days some states have begun negotiating with the Department of the Interior to open sites under the proviso that the states will fund the operating costs and be reimbursed later. Some parks in Utah are opening this weekend. New York is contemplating the same thing for the Statue of Liberty. As at Gettysburg and elsewhere, the New York City tourist economy has taken a big hit in the shutdown. This is news we can use. I do hope they can work it out.

(image/National Park Service)

Questions for Ranger Shelton Johnson


Over the weekend I had a discussion with someone concerning the Times article about African American attendance at National Parks. This, in turn, led to the topic of Ranger Shelton Johnson and the work he has done at Yosemite. So, here again is the interview I did with Ranger Johnson this past March.

Shelton Johnson’s Gloryland is one of the most meaningful books I have read in recent years. The novel tells the story of Elijah Yancy, a Buffalo Soldier serving in the U.S. Army at the turn of the twentieth century. The book is many things: a meditation on the importance of family and place, a reminder of the role that nature plays, or should play, in all of our lives, a treatise on the ironies and injustices of race in America, a thoughtful work of literature. If you have not read Gloryland, I recommend adding it to your reading list. Regular readers of this site may remember Ranger Johnson from the poignant short film The Way Home. He was also prominent in Ken Burns’s The National Parks: America’s Best Idea. Ranger Johnson has had a long and successful career with the NPS and currently serves at Yosemite National Park. Recently, he took time from his busy schedule to answer some question about his debut novel, his thoughts on Interpretation, and more.

The Strawfoot: The protagonist of your novel, Gloryland, is Sergeant Elijah Yancy. Tell us something about him. Where was he born and what was his family history?

Ranger Johnson: Elijah is the son of sharecroppers.  His mother and father were enslaved before emancipation.  He was born in Spartanburg, SC and raised there until he left forever as a young man.

His grandmother was Seminole. Relations between African and Native Americans may surprise some readers. Is this something readers comment on?

The fact that he had 2 grandmothers who were Seminole and Cherokee would not surprise African American readers.  There was a census done around 1900 that determined that roughly 1 out of every 3 African Americans had an Indian branch to their family tree.  Certain Indian cultures took in runaway slaves such as the Seminole, but also the Cherokee and the Choctaw. Consequently, many African Americans are also part Indian as a result of this history.  It’s just that you never hear about it in popular culture such as novels and movies, but Black people have known about this heritage for years.  My maternal grandparents are Black Cherokees from Oklahoma.

Elijah was born on Emancipation Day, January 1, 1863, and had an older brother killed at Fort Wagner during the Civil War. What were the experiences of African American soldiers in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries? Fighting Indians, Cubans, Filipinos, and other people of color must have have, to say the least, brought about mixed feelings in these men. Is this something they discussed privately amongst themselves, or shared in letters to friends and loved ones back home?

This fact and the soldiers feelings about this “activity” was shared in their correspondence.  There’s a book that collects some of these reminiscences entitled, “Smoked Yankees and the Struggle for Empire” by Willard Gatewood.  In these letters you can hear how the buffalo soldiers felt about their struggle with the Filipino Insurrectos, men that were fighting for their own freedom from the Spanish, and then the U.S.  They were definitely aware of the irony! Some of these soldiers just concentrated on doing their duty.  Period. But others were conflicted, most notably David Fagan who deserted from the American forces and joined with the Filipino people and their struggle for independence.  Some of the Buffalo Soldiers stayed on in the Philippines after the war, married, and became part of the culture.  There was even a call for African Americans to move to the Philippines because life there was so much better than life at the time in any part of the South…

You have spoken to many descendants of Buffalo Soldiers over the years. Yancy himself is telling his story thirty years after his military service ended. Were the stories these men had to tell passed on from one generation to the next, or is it something that has only come to light in recent decades?

I haven’t spoken to many descendants, but I have spoken to a few.  These stories/contributions were passed on from family member to family member, generation to generation.  They weren’t in the history books but they were shared in the homes of hundreds of families…

What was it like working as a Buffalo Soldier in Yosemite National Park in 1903? Why were they there and what duties did they perform?

It was hard work, but a soldier was used to hard work!  It was also a “dream” job so to speak.  One officer referred to service in Yosemite as “the Cavalryman’s Paradise!”  Their duties weren’t that different from today’s Wilderness Ranger, i.e. long patrols, enforcement of park rules and regulations, basically providing a presence of authority, that the park was being taken care of…

Shelton_JohnsonYou grew up in Detroit, but also spent time in Europe and elsewhere because your father was in the Army. What was it like living in these places?

I was very young at the time so my memories are vivid but limited!  I went to Kindergarten in Germany and first grade in England, but those memories became very important once I returned to Detroit because they provided an imaginative alternative to the inner city environment that was my home for many years.  Most of my friends in Detroit had never been overseas let alone lived overseas.  It made it easier for me to imagine life in a place that was different…

How did you eventually come to work for the National Park Service and what inspired you to do so?

I was a student in the University of Michigan’s Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Writing.  My emphasis was poetry.  I decided to take a job as a dishwasher in Yellowstone National Park. I did this because I grew up in Detroit watching nature programs with my grandfather who used to fish on Mackinac Island.  I remember seeing many documentaries about Yellowstone and the other national parks but I had never visited a national park in this country.  I had been in the mountains before during the time my family lived in Germany.  We visited Berchtesgaden or Eagle’s Nest which was a former stronghold of Hitler during WWII.  It was also high in the Bavarian Alps and I never forgot the beauty of those snowy mountains…

Traditionally, African American attendance at National Parks, especially the nature parks, has been significantly lower than that of whites. One of your goals is to increase awareness of the National Parks within the African American community. What are some of the misconceptions Africans Americans, Latinos, and other minority groups have about Yellowstone, Yosemite, the Grand Canyon, and elsewhere?

I think it’s basically an unknown and with any unknown there’s a certain amount of fear.  Some African American are nervous about visiting ANY area where there are very few other African Americans.  You have to remember that there’s a history of violence against African Americans, and those cultural memories are alive and well.  There’s still fear of groups like the KKK and other supremacist organizations, and that results in fear and anxiety.  People don’t go on vacation to be fearful or anxious!  Consequently, some African Americans who briefly considered a trip to a national park, decide to go somewhere else because of this fear of the unknown.  But history can work in your favor too.  The knowledge that the Buffalo Soldiers once protected Yosemite and Sequoia can result in a feeling of ownership and pride rather than fear and that can lead to a trip back to the mountains.

Who, or what, would you say are your greatest intellectual influences?

Too many to list. I was a literature major!  John Keats, Langston Hughes, Shelley, Richard Wright, Shakespeare, Chaucer, St. John Perse, Cavafy, Anna Akmatova, Pablo Neruda, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Aime Cesaire, and the list goes on!

You have a Literature background. What role, if any, has this played in your approach to Interpretation?

It has shaped everything in terms of structure and content with regard to my Interpretive programs, as well as my classical music background!

(images/top, Sierra Club; bottom, National Park Service)


The New York Times has an interesting piece about African American attendance at National Park sites. We have long known that black attendance at Civil War-related sites is considerably less than other ethnic groups. This is not surprising given the emphasis on the Lost Cause narrative that has held sway at Civil War parks since their creation starting in the 1890s. Recent shifts in Interpretation have caused an uptick in the stats, but I doubt seriously that African Americans will ever visit Gettysburg, Antietam, or elsewhere in significant numbers. Still, the problem of African American attendance at National Park sites runs deeper than that: numbers at nature parks such as Yellowstone and the Grand Canyon are lower–much lower–as well. Ranger Shelton Johnson of Yosemite addressed this very issue in the interview he did here at the Strawfoot this past March.  I urge you to read it if you have not already done so. I did not know until reading the New York Times piece that there is a growing movement afoot to attract minorities, especially young minorities, to our country’s natural and scenic wonders. I spent the past half hour checking out some of the websites these travelers have created and was impressed. As Ranger Johnson pointed out in the documentary The Way Home , this is the next chapter in the Civil Rights Movement. It could be the next chapter for the National Parks as well.

Made in the USA?

made-in-americaI am not sure how I feel about this, but two congresspersons from New York have introduced legislation that would make it mandatory for all merchandise sold at National Park Service and other sites to be made in America. Part of me is dismayed when I see items on sale at a historic site that are made outside the country; another part of me takes it in stride as a reality of contemporary life. I am not looking for authenticity in my keychain; that comes from the site itself. It is difficult to tell at this stage if this is a bit of political grandstanding or if it is intended to go anywhere. If it is the latter, I hope they think it through. I would not mind seeing a lot of the cheap trinkets gone from the shops of our various cultural institutions, but who know what worthwhile may get excluded if such legislation were to pass? It seems there are many considerations to work out. The way I understand it, superintendents at the over 400 national parks and monuments currently have the authority to select what can be sold in their Eastern National stores. More guidelines could take away their flexibility and autonomy. It will be especially interesting to see how this one turns out with the NPS centennial just three years away. This is a story I will be following.