The Living History of Frank and Audrey Peterman

Frank and Audrey Peterman seem to waltz through life in ways that bring more and more people along, wherever they go. Frank is a fountain of wisdom and makes it easy to pay attention to him because of his halo-like white afro and the dulcet DJ tones in his voice. Audrey has the legs and energy of Tina Turner and a heart so expansive that when she calls you "Darling! My love!" you know she means it!

In the 1990s, they were preparing to retire from their professional careers in business and journalism and maybe open up a Bed and Breakfast in a place where they would like to live. While scoping out possible locations in Belize, Frank was having drinks with some locals when they asked him about the Badlands, then the Grand Canyon and other world famous natural attractions back in the US.

Photo from Audrey And Frank Peterman archives

He was embarrassed to say he had never been to any of them, and Audrey was too. Together they changed plans, bought a pickup truck and some camping gear, threw in some clothes and headed out to visit some of America’s natural wonders. To their dismay, there were almost no people of color (except international tourists) visiting the National Park System at that time.

As they dug deeper, they met people who cared about racial equality and these beautiful places. One of them was Park Ranger/Historian Shelton Johnson (who I could write another whole article on). Through a beautiful one-man show and book called “Gloryland,” Shelton vividly brings to life the stories of the “Buffalo Soldiers.” Not just the Bob Marley song, the Buffalo Soldiers were the actual formerly enslaved Black men who helped protect the first national parks.

Audrey and Frank continued their research and discovered how deeply embedded African-American history was throughout conservation and the protection of natural areas. They learned about the Jones family whose patriarch, Israel Lafayette "Parson" Jones, was born into slavery in North Carolina but once freed, pursued a prosperous career as the foreman on a large farm in Florida. To expand his family’s horizons, Parson Jones was one of the first Black men to venture into real estate in that area where he bought two and a half islands in Biscayne Bay. 

The Jones family became one of the largest pineapple and lime producers on the East Coast of Florida, despite the resentment from Whites towards upwardly mobile African Americans.

His sons were named King Arthur and Sir Lancelot Jones. Among Blacks born in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, their parents would often give them first names like Sir, King, or in the case of my father, born in 1907, Major, to help ensure a level of respect at least in name because they were unlikely to ever hear a “Mr” or “Ms” or other term of respect.  

The sons carried on the family business into the 1930s and pivoted from farming to tourism with visitors such as Lyndon B Johnson, who came to see the amazing natural resources of the Florida keys as a way to protect and preserve them.

Their timely conservation efforts in the 1960s helped resist political pressure to develop the islands, and eventually the surviving brother, Sir Lancelot, sold Porgy Key to the National Park Service to be protected as part of Biscayne National Monument. The monument was later expanded to become Biscayne National Park, the largest marine park in the System. Yep, Black folks saved the Florida Keys!

When Audrey found herself at a gathering with the team behind the award winning documentarian Ken Burns researching his next epic on the National Parks, it was Audrey who placed preserving African American history, including the Jones story, firmly in their minds.  

What started as a detour from what they thought they would do in retirement, turned into multiple roles in national conservation organizations, a widely-read newsletter on how, when, and where people of color can reconnect to nature and all of its benefits, and — importantly — a demographic turnaround for National Park System attendance for which they could rightly claim credit, if they were the kind of people who toot their own horn.

Instead, they continue to build by example, leading many people to take a second look at hiking up in the mountains even though it’s a little scary; and inspiring the next generation of birdwatchers of color; and promoting an impressive cadre of environmental speakers of color through DEL (Diverse Environmental Leaders), a speakers bureau they started. Now, Audrey is devoting her time to spreading more joy in the world to counteract the gloom of the pandemic through a subscription-based newsletter, The Joy Train.

At each point along the way, Frank and Audrey Peterman surround themselves with beauty and adventure. They are connecting all peoples to the land, to history, and to each other in ways that are impossible to describe in mere words and for her efforts over a quarter of a century, Audrey will be presented with the 2022 Centennial Leadership Award by the National Parks Conservation Association.

Check out more about the Petermans here and then keep looking.