Remembering the Buffalo Soldiers

New highway designation will commemorate Yosemite’s first black rangers.

 

Though the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is baked into the DNA of the National Park Service, their 150th anniversary, coming up June 28, has been overshadowed, to the brink of being ignored, by the agency’s centennial celebration. But a California lawmaker hopes to help change that.

The Buffalo Soldiers were four segregated black regiments of the U.S. Army, assigned to patrol Yosemite during the late 1800s and early 1900s. They were garrisoned at the Presidio of San Francisco during the winter and now, part of their route for summer patrol at Yosemite, on California Highway 41, is proposed for renaming in their honor.

Robert Hanna (left) and Assembly Member Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals) submitting the resolution.
Robert Hanna (left) and Assembly Member Frank Bigelow (R-O'Neals) submitting a resolution to designate a road in Yosemite as the "Buffalo Soldier Memorial Highway."
Courtesy Robert Hanna

As the precursors to national park rangers and backcountry rangers, and as attendants during the ground-breaking meetings between President Theodore Roosevelt and John Muir in Yosemite Valley, the Buffalo Soldiers helped set the stage, it can be argued, for the establishment of a system of U.S. national parks. And their story provides a critical bridge between public lands and communities of color, long a strained relationship.

Robert Hanna is one of those bridge-builders. Not only is he the great-great-grandson of John Muir, considered the father of U.S. national parks, Hanna is the driving force behind a resolution, introduced Thursday, April 21 in the California state legislature, that would rename as Buffalo Soldier Memorial Highway a stretch of road at the south entrance of Yosemite National Park. That section runs from from the Mariposa-Madera county line to the south entrance of Yosemite National Park.

When Assembly Member Frank Bigelow (R-O’Neals) submitted Assembly Concurrent Resolution No. 174 yesterday, he did so at a fortuitous confluence of history – during National Parks Week, in the centennial year of the Park Service and the sesquicentennial of the Buffalo Soldiers, and, to the day, the 178th birthday of Muir.

Hanna said he was inspired to seek the commemoration while on a retracing of the Buffalo Soldiers’ route from San Francisco to Yosemite, organized two years ago by Teresa Baker, who conducts the annual African American National Parks Experience, a weekend encouraging blacks and other people of color to visit national parks. After giving a presentation about the Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio in 2013, Baker, with the help of Hanna and Kelli English, a supervisory ranger at Golden Gate National Recreational Area, pulled together the Golden Gate National Parks Conservancy, chapters of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, the city of Los Banos, the Presidio Trust, the National Parks Conservation Association and the Yosemite Conservancy to stage the retracing in 2014.

Shelton Johnson in Yosemite.
Park Ranger Shelton Johnson portrays a Buffalo Soldier in 2009 as he interprets Yosemite’s history to children from Mariposa Middle School. Ken Salazar, then Interior Secretary, looks on.
Department of Interior

“That trip and that experience were absolutely life-changing,” Hanna said, adding that the highway bill was introduced with confidence that it has the support to pass. He had previously encouraged Bigelow to introduce ACR-143, which recognized the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers and their role in national parks. That resolution passed on June 7, 2014.

“Buffalo Soldiers” was a name coined by the Cheyenne and other plains Natives who saw a similarity between the dark, curly hair of the black soldiers and that of buffalos. Charles Young, a Buffalo Soldier commanding officer, is considered the first African American superintendent of a national park, Sequoia. The Buffalo Soldiers also are credited with building the first trail to the top of Mount Whitney, the highest peak in the contiguous U.S.; the first usable road into the Giant Forest in Sequoia National Park, and an arboretum in Yosemite National Park that contains what is believed to be the first marked nature trail in the national park system.

Shelton Johnson, an African American ranger at Yosemite, is widely credited with keeping alive the story of the Buffalo Soldiers through his research, writings, and the popular summer living history performance at the park, “Yosemite Through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier.” He helped introduce the story to the nation in the Ken Burns documentary, “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” Johnson also wrote the historical novel Gloryland, published by Sierra Club Books in 2009, about a black Native American who becomes a Buffalo Soldier assigned to patrol Yosemite in 1903.

In a recent interview, Johnson said he took a mantle handed down by African-American interpretive rangers Kenneth Noel and Althea Roberson, who preceded him at Yosemite. Johnson said he likes to stop African-American visitors at Yosemite and tell them about the Buffalo Soldiers “to give them a cultural connection to the park.”

“I realized this story has a shelf life and, if not told, would disappear into obscurity,” Johnson said. “Re-telling the story is a way of keeping the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers alive.” And so, in another way, is the highway designation – a reminder to Yosemite visitors of the men who played such a key role in the park’s early days.

Glenn Nelson is a High Country News contributing editor. He is an Asian-American journalist in Seattle who founded The Trail Posse, trailposse.com, to encourage diversity and inclusion in the outdoors. Follow @trailposse.

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