Buffalo Soldier history could get a boost in national parks


Two bills awaiting review in the Senate could mean that the National Park Service will recount the history of African-American soldiers in a more complete way.

“The Buffalo Soldiers were true pioneers who braved the Western frontier as well as the scourge of racism as they fought for and served our country,” California Congresswoman Jackie Speier, who's sponsoring one of the bills, said earlier this year. “The legacy these regiments left us…is an important and often overlooked chapter in our post-Civil War history.”

Until establishment of the National Park Service in 1914, the U.S. military monitored parks and assigned Buffalo Soldiers -- African American infantrymen who served in the late 19th and early 20th centuries -- in California to build trails, combat illegal logging, poaching and fires, and to fight unregulated livestock grazing in the parks.

The legislation would enable a $400,000 deep-dive research project to unearth the history of Buffalo Soldiers’ stewardship in the parks, consider how to better share that narrative in the parks, and evaluate the feasibility of creating a national historic trail commemorating the soldiers’ treks from San Francisco's Presidio to Yosemite and Sequoia Parks, where they served in the summers of 1899, 1903 and 1904. The Senate bill, sponsored by California Senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer has passed through the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee, and awaits action on the Senate floor. The House bill sponsored by Speier has passed the House and awaits action in the Senate.

The bills may do more than just provide a better history lesson, though. Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson, not commenting on the legislation specifically, sees any way to improve African-American participation in national parks as not only serving the public, but helping to protect the future of the parks themselves.

Buffalo Soldiers in the 24th Infantry in Yosemite, 1899. Credit: Yosemite Research Library

“The demographics of the U.S. are changing, and people of color will be the majority” in the future, Johnson says. “National parks exist by the will of the people…and the majority usually gets what they want. It doesn’t seem that bodes very well for the sustainability of national parks. If there’s a lack of a sense of ownership today – what’s the consequence of that lack of ownership 40 years from now?

Johnson says that the history of the soldiers protecting Yosemite was largely forgotten until the 1980s, when a couple of rangers took it upon themselves to tell the story. Eventually the story was passed on to him, and now Johnson has become a nationally known raconteur of Buffalo Soldier history in California.

For the past 15 years, Johnson has been telling the soldiers' history to foster a connection between African American communities and the national park experience. Making the Buffalo Soldier history more accessible to the public, Johnson says, helps more African Americans see the parks as a place where they belong. And that, he says, ultimately creates more potential stewards of the parks.

Minorities’ visitation to national parks has improved in recent decades, but at a very slow pace, according to a National Park Service study released in 2011. The survey showed that African Americans make up 12 percent of the overall population, but constituted only 4 percent of park visitors in 2000 and 7 percent in 2009.  A 2009 survey of just Yosemite found that less than 1 percent of the visitors were black.

Hotel and food costs, lack of knowledge about the NPS and the parks being too far from home were the main deterrents for black visitors in the 2011 survey. Those first two points were also the primary reasons American Indians gave for not participating in the parks more.

On the plus side, Johnson has seen at least some evidence of increasing visits by blacks at Yosemite since he began working there in 1994. “I would see an African American once in a blue moon; there would be weeks and months between the times I would see an African American,” he says. “Now I see African Americans just about every other day.”

Meanwhile, Johnson says his 15-year march to teach the public of Buffalo Soldier history is getting a bit tiring, but someone has to make sure it gets told, he says: “Great stories have no validity unless people hear them.”

Tay Wiles is HCN's Online Editor. Follow her on Twitter @taywiles.

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