Helping Ken Burns uncover National Parks' diversity

Lancelot Jones. Courtesy NPS.

Our own Frank Peterman had a hand in helping documentary maker Ken Burns find  one of the interesting characters portrayed in Burns’ much-anticipated series on national parks (The National Parks: America’s Best Idea), to begin airing on PBS on Sept. 27.

Frank knew of Lancelot Jones, whose father was born into slavery but went on to become a successful lime producer and to buy a pair of islands in Florida’s Biscayne Bay. Lancelot, a well-known fishing guide, lived alone on Porgy Key in Biscayne Bay as the last survivor of this pioneering family. He was a key figure in fighting various development schemes for the bay until the time when Biscayne Bay National Park was established. Before his death in 1997, Jones sold his property to the Park Service for a reduced price.

''His story is so interesting and unique,'' Burns said. “He didn't cash in and make his millions the way the other faux islanders were going to do if their plan had gone through.”

Jones' tale, Burns said, was among many revelations that the national park system wasn't built by — or exclusively for the use of — white America alone. ''We weren't looking for the diversity, but we found when you lift up the rock of any national park, there it was,'' Burns said. “It's been a terrific, terrific discovery for us.”

Making the connection between our public lands and people of color is Frank Peterman’s passion. He and his wife Audrey created Earthwise Productions, Inc. a private company to promote African-American involvement in the enjoyment and conservation of these special places. As director of The Wilderness Society’s Atlanta office, Frank teamed up with several partners in 2005 to start the Keeping it Wild program. The goal is to connect urban residents to Georgia’s natural areas through education, experience, and action.

Keeping It Wild offers a wide range of hikes and other outings for all skill levels to beautiful Georgia wilderness as well as to green spaces in Atlanta's backyard. The outings are led by experts on local ecosystems.

A seminar series features scholars and conservation leaders from across the country, with a special focus on the perspectives of African Americans and other people of color. Our seminar partners include Morehouse and Spelman Colleges, Emory University, and other educational institutions.

“I just wanted you to know what a difference ‘Keeping It Wild’ has made in my life,” Paulette Eddie wrote to us. “I sent this message to my friends and family, and posted it on my family web site that I created. They all live vicariously through my outdoor experiences.

“Last Saturday, my environmental group went on a snorkeling excursion. We drove almost two hours to the Conasauga River in North Georgia. It was sooooo cool that I think I'm considering changing careers! Maybe become an environmentalist or a marine biologist…”

As Frank had hoped, Keeping It Wild now has become strong and independent enough to be spun off and become a separate nonprofit group. Learn more.

Check out our interview with Ken Burns below, where he talks about the long history of diversity in our National Parks.

Watch our complete collection of videos from the interview with Ken Burns.

Bank of America is a proud sponsor of The National Parks: America’s Best Idea, and is also a proud supporter of The Wilderness Society. To learn more about our affinity banking products and credit cards, click here.

photo: Lancelot Jones. Courtesy NPS.