Shelton Johnson was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1958, the son of a Seamstress and a Soldier. His maternal and paternal grandparents were Black Indians from Oklahoma Territory and South Carolina respectively. He had one older brother and they all lived together with his maternal grandparents for the bulk of his childhood in Motown.
Due to his dad’s military career, they also lived for 3 years in Germany and England. The Bavarian Alps were the mountains that first awakened his sense of wonder.
Shelton graduated from Detroit’s Cass Technical High School in 1976 with a diploma in Classical Music. By 1977 he was a college student at Wayne State University in Detroit. He eventually transferred to the University of Michigan where he received a B.A. in English Literature in 1981 and won a Major Hopwood Award in Poetry.
After college, he briefly served in the U.S. Peace Corps in Liberia, West Africa teaching 7th grade English. Returning to the States he was accepted into the M.F.A. Program in Creative Writing (Poetry) in 1983 at the University of Michigan. After a year as a graduate student in this program he spent the following summer working for a Concessionaire in Yellowstone National Park.
That summer of 1984 would eventually spark his career with the National Park Service. By 1987 he was an N.P.S. Ranger at the West Entrance to Yellowstone National Park.
After 5 years in Yellowstone, he worked in Washington, D.C., Great Basin National Park, and finally Yosemite National Park where he was introduced to the park’s African American history, including the relatively unknown legacy of the Black troops who served in both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
For the past 25 years he’s worked on connecting African Americans, and other people of color, to the National Parks, using history as a tool for social change. Black people are the one ethnic group in the U.S. least likely to visit a National Park and changing that fact has become the foundation for his passion to forge a bridge between the African American community and America’s Best Idea.
That work eventually led to media coverage in The L.A. Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, the Associated Press, the New York Times, The New Yorker, U.S.A. Today, the Guardian, Sunset Magazine, ABC, CBS, and NBC regional and national news, National Public Radio, PBS in San Francisco and Cleveland, OH., and ultimately Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s PBS documentary film, “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea” in 2009, and “The Oprah Winfrey Show” in 2010.
He received two additional national awards. The first was the 2021 Lifetime Achievement Award from Outdoor Afro, a national park advocacy organization that was created by Rue Mapp to encourage African Americans to venture into the Great Outdoors. This is the first significant recognition that he has received from the African American community regarding his work to connect African Americans to their national parks.
The second national award was from the National Park Trust in Washington, D.C., and he was their recipient for the 2022 American Park Experience Award (APEX). Previous recipients of this award include Ken Burns, Dayton Duncan, former Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell, and former Secretary of the Interior & U.S. Senator Ken Salazar who is also the current U.S. ambassador to Mexico. Shelton is the first National Park Ranger to receive this award, but the greatest honor was to have this award presented to him by Robert Stanton, the first African American Director of the National Park Service, and who has been his mentor for many years.
25 years after intentionally engaging the media as a means of amplifying this once lost history, the number of people aware of this legacy has grown from several thousand to over 100 million here in the U.S. and around the world.