A few weeks back, I visited the Presidio of San Francisco, to hang out with Buffalo Soldiers historian, Ranger Rik Penn. I wanted to get an idea of what a day in the life of a park ranger looks like. As Rik and I walked the grounds of the Presidio, he shared with me that less than 25% of the approximate 1400 acres that make up the Presidio, is controlled by the National Park Service, which came as a surprise to me, the rest of the presidio in under the control of the Presidio Trust.
Rik started out with the park service in 1993 at Muir Woods , once the Army left the Presidio and turned over control to the National Park Service ,Rik was then transferred to the Presidio, where he has been for the past 13 years.
African American Explorations: What is the most challenging part of your job as a park ranger? What is the most enjoyable part?
Ranger Rik Penn: I think the most challenging part of my job is balancing ‘service’ and ‘protection’. People sometimes don’t realize that it’s called The National Park Service (not a bureau, department or agency) and ‘serving the public’ as a steward and protector and preserver of a national treasure can be difficult.
Many citizens have their own interpretation of what should be allowed in the National Parks, of what’s ok and what is not.
The real joy comes from seeing folks experience and appreciate the wonder and beauty of the parks. The awe and reverence people have for the history of the United States and their eager curiosity to learn more about the heritage that belongs to all of us,….the whole story, warts and all.
AAE: When it comes to diversity, does the GGNRA have a problem attracting diverse audiences to events held at the Presidio?
RRP: When it comes to diversity, I think we do have a problem in creating and promoting an ‘awareness’ of what the GGNRA has to offer and of what the Presidio has to offer. Part of the disconnect is the public’s mis-perception of the National Parks as some sort of exclusive area for vacationers who stay in $300 a night lodges. The truth is that most National Parks are free to the public. The diversity of visitation is still not where we would like it to be but it is changing. Historic and economic factors have played a big role in determining the make-up of the visiting public. If you are from a family that has had the leisure time and the money to travel, then that family may have established a tradition of exploring and camping in the parks. However, our national history of segregation served to thwart the aspirations of many citizens of color to venture out and visit their own national parks.
So, given the historic restrictions and impediments put in the path of families of color, both economically and socially, there has been little encouragement or opportunities over the last 100 years for establishing such a pattern of park visitation.
I feel it is of historic importance to know that African Americans, as far back as the 1800’s, have played a significant role in establishing and protecting our National Parks. African Americans and other people of color have a long history of living in rural, wooded or desert areas of the country….we have worked and settled in the bayous and deltas and mountains regions of the land for hundreds of years. This appreciation of the natural world is also an African heritage, and that’s why I am proud to tell the very human story of the famous Buffalo Soldiers and their moral dilemma, for it is relevant to the 21st century and the on-going struggle for human rights.
AAE: What would you like the general public to know about the Presidio?
RRP: I would like to remind the general public that the Presidio has layers of history that goes back more than 200 years. Actually, the Ohlone people have been here for at least 5,000 years and they are still here! (I work with descendants of the Rumsien Ohlone.) Street names dot the landscape with Moraga, Portola, Aguello, Anza and Mesa and others like….. Sheridan, Sherman, Mason and McDowell. Booker T. Washington once addressed a group of black soldiers during the same year that 200 Buffalo Soldiers escorted President Teddy Roosevelt down Van Ness and over to Union Square. Colonel Charles Young, the highest ranking black officer in the Army lived on the Presidio with his wife, Ada Mills in 1903.
I invite you to come and walk through the forest here that was planted by human hands over 135 years ago and stroll along the beach front and lunch at tables facing the bay-side or ocean. I even show up here on my day off! It’s one of the best ‘staycations’ around!