An African-American Couple Tells of Their Cross-country Trek Through 40 States that Included Camping and Hiking in Numerous National Parks

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Audrey and Frank Peterman were unfamiliar with the National Park System until they took the road trip of a lifetime, driving 12,000 miles across the country. Hiking and camping in the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone and Yosemite National Parks, they saw only a handful of other African Americans. They became advocates for diversity in the National Parks and have become nationally recognized as experts on this issue.

Legacy on the Land

Few people know the parks as well as Audrey and Frank, and the excitement that they bring to the issue is inspiring and contagious.

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Sequoia/Kings Canyon and Yosemite are two of America’s premier “Crown Jewel” National Parks, but their stupendous natural beauty might not be here for us to enjoy, if not for the dedication of the “Buffalo Soldiers” at the turn of the 19th Century. The African American soldiers of the Ninth U.S. Cavalry, recently returned from service in the Spanish American War, were detached to patrol the vast wilderness reaches of the newly-created Sequoia National Park in 1903, and Yosemite in 1904. They spent long days in the saddle, protecting the giant sequoia trees from timber thieves and illegal grazers while also building roads in the park to make it accessible to travelers.

On the opposite side of the country, in Biscayne Bay, Florida, “Pahson” LaFayette Jones bought the island of Porgy Key and moved his family there in 1897. Pahson, his wife Mozelle and their sons, King Arthur Jones and Sir Lancelot Jones, coaxed an agricultural empire from the coral rock soil, eventually owning two and one-half islands and supplying all the limes and pineapples along the Southeast coast, down to Key West. But when enterprising businessmen came calling in the 1960s, with a vision of turning the islands into “Miami Beach No. 2,” Sir Lancelot Jones torpedoed the deal. He chose instead to sell his land to the National Park Service, enabling the creation of Biscayne National Park, which is today the largest marine park in the National Park System.

These are but a few of the powerful but little-known stories of the heroism of Americans of African American, Asian, Hispanic and Native backgrounds that the Petermans discovered and tell of in their book, “Legacy On the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.”

“Americans are heirs to the greatest treasury on the face of the Earth,” says Audrey Peterman who wrote the book with her husband, Frank. “We were the first country to come up with the idea of national parks, setting aside the most scenic, historic and culturally important lands for the ‘benefit and enjoyment of the people.’ These places allow us to see what we were, where we are coming from, and the real story of what Americans of every race and ethnic group contributed to getting us here.”

The Petermans say that just as the stories of the contributions of Americans of color to the National Park System are “hidden in plain view,” their involvement in the environmental movement has been just as overlooked.

“If you look at how the environmental movement is represented today, you wouldn’t know the diversity of Americans that are working to protect our natural and cultural landscapes, and provide experiences in nature for young people,” says Frank. “Some outstanding examples include Nadine Patrice in Miami, who founded the non-profit Operation Green Leaves 20 years ago, and has introduced thousands of young people and families to the Everglades, Biscayne, and the Dry Tortugas National Parks. In South Carolina Queen Quet, the enstooled head of the Gullah Geechee Nation, was instrumental in the creation of the Gullah Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2006, as part of the National Park System. And in California, our friend Prof. Carolyn Finney PhD at UC Berkley is doing ground-breaking work on the relationship of people and place, particularly in regards to African Americans and the Great Outdoors.”

Those contemporary stories are also told in Legacy. The Petermans expect that the exposure generated by Oprah Winfrey – who recently went on a camping trip in Yosemite with her friend Gayle - will exponentially increase the number of people who know about the National Parks and choose to explore them. Oprah’s visit resulted from the dedication of Ranger Shelton Johnson, who wrote a letter inviting her to the park some four years ago.

“There are so many stories in the National Park System waiting to be re-discovered,” said Johnson, author of the book, Gloryland, which fictionalizes the story of the Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite.

The Petermans are renowned advocates who travel around the country speaking to groups encouraging African-Americans and all Americans to visit the national parks. Audrey has visited more than 155 units of the National Park System and has inspired many first-time visitors to the national parks.

The Petermans continue their 15-plus years of advocacy by serving on the boards of many environmental organizations. They are just beginning to see significant results of their work through ads and other means of outdoor promotions that now include Americans of color.

As a result of their advocacy, many first-timers have visited the parks. They frequently receive comments about the eye-opening experiences of people who have heard their presentation. Hundreds of families continue to communicate that their book is full of valuable information and resources that have made a tremendous difference in how they view the public lands.

For more information contact Audrey Peterman at 404.432.2839.

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Audrey Peterman

Carolyn Hartfield

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