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Black to Nature

Bill Gwaltney wants to see more people like him at Rocky Mountain National Park.

Gwaltney had long dreamed of staging a Civil War reenactment with only black soldiers, and the success of the mock abolition rally convinced him to pursue it. In July 1988, at a Gettysburg reenactment held in honor of the battle's 125th anniversary, Gwaltney told some actors about his idea. A few days later, when Gwaltney was back at his office in the basement of the Frederick Douglass house, the phone rang. He remembers the voice on the other end saying, "'You don't know us, but we know you. We're calling from Hollywood, and we're doing a movie on the 54th Regiment of the Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry. We want you to recruit and train some of the actors and play the first sergeant in the movie.'

"I said, 'Yeah, right,'" Gwaltney recalls. "But I checked him out, and he was for real."

Some Hollywood agents had attended the Gettysburg reenactment and heard about Gwaltney there; the movie they were planning to produce was Glory. Desperate to find the brigade of black actors Tri Star pictures needed, Gwaltney appeared on Washington, D.C., and Howard University radio and television shows and blanketed the city with posters seeking young black men interested in learning how to be Civil War soldiers. While other recruiters rounded up actors in Maine, Arkansas and South Carolina, Gwaltney enlisted 43 men from Washington and other mid-Atlantic cities. For the next ten weeks, they practiced military drills in public parks.

Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.
photo courtesy of James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Educ
Negotiating the white water: Inner-city kids get out of town through the James P. Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center.

Most of the volunteers told Gwaltney they'd never felt welcome in national parks; the stories of black men who had fought for the Union Army had long been ignored. "When they went to Civil War battlefields, they said they felt like they were sneaking in. No one asked them what they were doing or told them to leave, but they felt like they didn't belong there. At the battlefields, visitors can walk around and see cannons, markers indicating where the regiments fought and displays of uniforms and weapons," Gwaltney explains. "But there was no discussion at those parks about how the Civil War came to be. These men felt like the Civil War had nothing to do with them, even though they knew their story was a big part of the Civil War.

"I made it my goal then to make sure people of color would feel the parks belonged to them," Gwaltney says.

Even before that, he was driven to tell history's whole story. Gwaltney was raised in D.C. by schoolteacher parents who worked during the summers so Gwaltney and his younger brother could attend parochial school. They took their sons to national parks, monuments and civil-rights marches. When he wasn't studying or visiting historical sites, Gwaltney was riding horses, swimming, playing soccer or taking karate lessons. He admits his upbringing was different from that of most inner-city kids: He had what a lot of black children didn't.

"I call it 'social permission,'" says Gwaltney, 43. "By taking us places, my parents said, if not out loud, 'This is a place where you belong. You can go to parks and exhibits and museums.' But a lot of black kids don't have the social permission to go to those places. If everyone in your neighborhood plays basketball and you want to go backpacking, you've got to go out and buy a backpack and go somewhere you haven't gone before."

Even though his parents enrolled him in sports, it was the time Gwaltney spent in the Boy Scouts that ultimately determined his career. Gwaltney remembers his scoutmaster, Phillip DeWees, a black man in charge of a troop that was half black and half white. During his first summer at Boy Scout camp, when he was eleven years old, Gwaltney's teenage patrol leader did something Gwaltney didn't approve of, and Gwaltney let out a string of epithets.

DeWees chided him for cursing and asked Gwaltney if he thought he could do a better job than his patrol leader. When Gwaltney answered in the affirmative, DeWees turned over the job to him. That moment made a lasting impression -- it was Gwaltney's first taste of leadership. Five years later, Gwaltney returned to the summer camp as a counselor, then came back for the next seven years to teach archery, lead nature studies and develop programs for a history theme camp. When he left the Boy Scouts, he was a camp director overseeing sixty employees.

He credits his grandfather with igniting his passion for history. "My grandfather was born in the nineteenth century, and I was so taken with that that I pumped him for information. He lived from the time of the horse and buggy to the man on the moon," Gwaltney says.

In preparation for being a better outdoorsman, Gwaltney read everything he could on the history of the fur trade and the American Indians' role in it. His obsession was further fed by the John Wayne movies he watched on his grandfather's round-screen black-and-white television. After the films, he ate ice cream in the kitchen while his grandfather told him about Benjamin Davis Sr., an ancestor who was the first black general in the U.S. Army. After the Civil War, Davis served in the West, as did John Anderson, another relative who had been a member of all four black Civil War regiments. Hearing the stories, Gwaltney became fascinated with the role of black people in the American West.

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