Their Yosemite Valley tour was nearing its end, and the church ladies and gents from South Los Angeles had heard enough. Almost.
“He’s been telling us stories he thinks we want to hear for two hours,” said Ann Hale, 70, heaving a sigh of frustration from the back of the tram.
In fact, guide William Fontana had been regaling his listeners — most of them white — with stories about John Muir and Theodore Roosevelt, about fur trappers and rock climbers.
“We’re still waiting for at least a few words about Yosemite’s African American Buffalo Soldiers,” Hale grumbled to a fellow passenger.
After filing off the tram, some women from Grace United Methodist Church surrounded Fontana on the sidewalk outside the Yosemite Lodge.
“Questions, ladies?” he asked.
“Yes,” Hale said. “We want to know why you left out Yosemite’s African American story.”
Fontana seemed puzzled. “I don’t have enough time to talk about Buffalo Soldiers in a two-hour tour,” he explained.
Hale nodded politely and walked away.
For more than 60 years, the National Park Service has been trying to reach out to African Americans and Latinos. But its 395 parks, monuments, waterways, historic places and recreational areas remain largely the province of white Americans and tourists from around the world.
In an interview, Park Service Director Jon Jarvis reiterated an old lament: Parks must attract a more diverse slice of the American public or eventually risk losing taxpayer support. Yet only about 1% of the nearly 4 million people who visit Yosemite each year are African Americans.
So officials were elated earlier this month when they learned that two groups of African Americans, the one from Grace United Methodist and one from the Inglewood Senior Center, were touring the park on the same day.
That meant there were more than 65 black Americans on the valley floor on the same day, an event so rare that ranger Shelton Johnson — who is of African American and Native American descent and has worked in Yosemite for 18 years — called it “possibly unprecedented.”
“But I also believe it’s the start of a trend,” Johnson said, “triggered by a series of recent events that are having a cumulative impact on African American perceptions about places like Yosemite.”
With the entire nation watching, he pointed out, the first black president and his family visited the Grand Canyon and Yellowstone in the summer of 2009. That same year, filmmaker Ken Burns featured Johnson in his 2009 documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Then last year, Oprah Winfrey aired her “Big Yosemite Camping Adventure.”
The increased interest is reflected in the 2010 launch of OutdoorAfro.com, an online community where African American campers, hikers and backpackers can share experiences and snapshots.
“After decades of wringing our hands over the diversity issue, the needle is finally starting to move in a positive direction,” Johnson said, acknowledging that there still was a long way to go.
Indeed, when Grace United Methodist parishioner Aaron Shannon, 75, told friends of his vacation plans, they were puzzled. “They said, ‘Yosemite? Why are you going there?’”
The 20 women and three men from the church group arrived here in bright purple T-shirts and ball caps emblazoned with the name of their club, “Amazing Grace 50 plus.” Seventeen had never been to Yosemite.
Among them was former Los Angeles schoolteacher Marian Howell, 92, who was not about to let a recent knee injury get in the way of a trip to Yosemite. Tapping the ground with her cane beneath towering El Capitan, Howell said, “This is as close to heaven as we’re likely to get in this life.”
Hale said she’d always viewed Yosemite as “a country club for white folks.” Sure, it looked majestic in photographs, she said, “but I never felt that I fit into Yosemite’s design. I never saw people who looked like me.”
Throughout the day, the group drew friendly smiles, stares and a few glares when they showed up at tourist stops such as Tunnel View, Bridalveil Fall and the Ahwahnee Hotel, where they had lunch after the tram tour.
Retired court reporter Elizabeth White, 63, said she tries not to let the attitudes of others wear down her spirit and determination. “We’re all children of God, and no one can bring us down,” she said. “We’re here to take in the beauty of this place and learn as much as we can about it, like everyone else.”
After lunch, the church members gathered in the Ahwahnee’s Winter Club Room, where Johnson, clad in a tight blue U.S. Calvary jacket, soiled brown trousers and scuffed black boots, greeted them as Elizy Boman, a Buffalo Soldier who had been posted in Yosemite in 1903.
Grace United Methodist’s activities leader, Myrna-Joy Pugh, had arranged for her group to participate in the reenactment, predicting it would be “the highlight of our trip. We always try to focus on some black history on our annual vacations.”
“Buffalo Soldier” was a term bestowed on African American cavalry members assigned to the western frontier. Boman spoke of being haunted by prejudice and sustained by prayers and dreams of a better life. In Yosemite, he said, he had found peace and beauty.
The church members leaned forward in their seats, hanging on every word. Some wiped tears from their eyes. “Amen!” one woman said.
When he finished, Johnson opened the floor to questions. Several women wanted to know why Yosemite guides were not required to include stories about the Buffalo Soldiers during the tours.
As they spoke, Hale quietly got up, walked to the hotel counter and asked for a complaint form.
“I was very dissatisfied with a tour guide who failed to mention any contribution made by Buffalo Soldiers during a 21/2 -hour tour of Yosemite Valley,” she wrote, weighing her words carefully. “I am an African American woman from Los Angeles.”
The next day, the group embarked on a guided excursion to Glacier Point.
“Guess what? That tour guide mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers,” said Hale, who wouldn’t trade her four days in Yosemite for anything. “Why do we care so much about this? It’s a pride thing. The same kind of pride others feel when someone publicly praises the contributions of their ancestors.”