Black Americans considering vacations have long overlooked one of the world’s greatest bargains right under their collective noses.
At the same time, they have also overlooked a treasured area of Black American history–the United States National Park System.
Audrey and Frank Peterman, authors of the book “Legacy on the Land,” (Earthwise Productions Inc., $19.95) recount a story about Frank, who was sitting in a bar in the tiny Central American nation of Belize, chatting with a Belizean patron. Frank and Audrey were considering a permanent move to the country.
The other bar patron, who had never ventured out of Belize, asked Frank if he’d ever visited the Badlands (in South Dakota). Frank answered no. Then the man asked if he’d ever seen the Grand Canyon. Frank said no.
When Frank returned to the hotel where he and Audrey were staying, he told her: “Honey, we can’t leave America and go to somebody else’s country, because we don’t know our own country. It’s time to explore these world-class destinations that people come from all over the world to see.”
That was 17 years and 162 parks ago, and the Petermans haven’t stopped exploring the National Park System yet.
In 1995, the Petermans drove around the country, taking in 40 states and 14 national parks, including the Grand Canyon (Colorado and Arizona), Yellowstone (Wyoming), Sequoia and Yosemite (California) and Olympic (Washington state), among others. “The first national park we went to was Acadia National Park in Maine, and I have to tell you I fell massively in love,” said Audrey.
“Looking out at the unspoiled beauty as far as my eyes could see I felt like someone who had been living in a mansion, but until then I had only seen the kitchen,” she said. “Now all of sudden here I was in the grand ballroom.”
One concern that many Americans have about visiting the parks is that they don’t like roughing it, but Audrey quickly counters that concern. “You don’t have to rough it. In many cases, there are hotels and lodges right inside the park, and certainly in the community right outside the park, that offer every convenience.”
Another concern for some is the cost.
“If you’re over age 62 you can buy a pass for $10, and that gives you and a carload of people access to all the parks for the rest of your life,” exclaimed Audrey. “If you’re not 62, an annual pass costs $80.”
An even bigger secret unknown to most African Americans is the heavy Black involvement in the park system.
For example, in 1903, Capt. Charles Young, the third African American to graduate from West Point, led two troops of Buffalo Soldiers into Sequoia National Park near Visalia to build a road making the park more accessible. The park had been established in 1890.
“Captain Young and the Buffalo Soldiers so impressed the citizens of nearby Visalia that community leaders insisted that one of the giant sequoias should be named in his honor,” according to the Petermans’ book, “Legacy on the Land.” “Young refused, asserting that these lofty 2,000-year-old living beings should not be diminished by the attachment of any human’s name. He capitulated only when it was agreed that the person honored would be Booker T. Washington, who was his contemporary,” says the book.
The Booker T. Washington tree still stands.
In addition to building roads, the Buffalo Soldiers were the ones appointed to protect the park, because in those early days, there was no other agency to do the job.
Among the problems were that ranchers wanted their cattle to graze in the parkland and timber men wanted to cut down the majestic trees.
Audrey also tells of the Lafayette Jones family, which gave islands to the Biscayne National Park in Florida. Presumably born a slave, Jones, a foreman on a pineapple plantation, developed proficiency in growing both pineapples and limes. In 1897, he and his family had saved $300, enough to buy a small island in Biscayne Bay.
“Within two years of their arrival, the industrious family was producing enough pineapples and limes to turn a profit, and they eventually became the biggest sellers to markets on the east coast of Florida,” the Petermans write.
In 1911, the family bought another small island. Eventually, wealthy industrialists, including the Firestones and the Honeywells, built an ultra-private club across from one of the Jones islands and developers later tried to buy up theirs and other islands in the bay as part of planned city similar to Miami Beach.
Jones’ last surviving son, Sir Lancelot [his older brother was named King Arthur], organized a counter movement and refused to sell. That stopped the planned development. In 1970, Sir Lancelot and King Arthur’s widow “sold the ancestral land to the federal government to be protected as part of Biscayne National Monument.”
Biscayne is the largest marine park in the National Park System.
Today, a group of Black divers–Diving With a Purpose–are training young people to be underwater archeologists at Biscayne National Park. “They are helping to explore, discover and document shipwrecks, some of which may have brought our enslaved ancestors to these shores,” Audrey said during a phone interview.
“In Kentucky, there is Mammoth Cave National Park, the largest in the world with over 300 miles documented,” Audrey said. “The first explorers in 1834, other than the Native Americans, bought the cave and brought in two enslaved Africans. One was named Matt Branford. Over the years, these Black men were the ones who explored the cave and led tours of the scientists and others who wanted to study the caves. The visitors were told that they were to obey these men at the cost of their very lives, because one misstep could land them in the abyss.
“The descendants of these men led tours and worked in the cave system for 100 years continuously,” she said. “When the park system bought the caves in the 1930s to make them into a National Park they let the Blacks go, but one descendant, Jerry Branford, still works at the park and gives tours in the summer.”
“There are many other parks with Black history, and the Peterman’s book is full of information and is a delightful read. View the video “The Way Home.”