When I was 10 or 11 years old, I camped in the Nebraska wilderness with my fellow campers and chaperones. The highlight of my experence was riding high atop my favorite horse along rugged and somewhat dangerous trails in the Black Hills National Park in South Dakota. I’ve since learned that my childhood suspicions were correct: The trails are so dangerous that it has long been fenced off to protect public use.
Like the fence around today’s Black Hills, the Buffalo Soldiers were the human hedge around our nation’s most precious national park lands.
Buffalo Soldiers protecting the nation’s most precious park lands. Courtesy, U.S. National Park Service.
I remember dreaming of becoming a park ranger. Perhaps my dreams were filtered from our African American ancestors who were among the nation’s and the world’s first park rangers in the early 1900s. Their origins as park rangers are traced to 1899, 1903 and 1904 in Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks.
Why were they called Buffalo Soliders?
Based on research, it is believed that Native Americans provided the nickname for African American soldiers based on the eyesight similarities of our ancestor soliders’ wooly hair and dark appearance to that of the buffaloes that roamed the parks. It is likely the soldiers were dubbed “Buffalo” beginning in 1866 with the 9th and 10th All-Black Calvary regiments.
Our family ancestors from Hope, Arkansas were members of the 9th Calvary of Buffalo Soliders based in New Orleans and formed in 1866. We are researching whether our lineage is traced to the 25th all-Black Infantry that also fought together against the Confederate Army.
Today’s Park Service looking for Black “Soldiers” to share African American history
Today’s Park Service is woefully underrepresented with African American park rangers and interpeters. In 2019 and earlier, the Park Service reports that 80 percent of its workforce are non-African American.
There’s a rich and storied history involving African Americans and magestic park lands in the United States. Col. Charles Young, the third Black graduate of West Point University was the first African American superintendent of a national park when he accepted the assignment at Sequoia National Park in the summer of 1903. Much of his work has gone unrecognized, yet Young is credited with the paved roads in the park, new bridges that are still in use today and the basic infrastructure of the trails.
The inscription by Col. Young reads: “Yours for Race and Country, Charles Young. 22 Feby., 1919.” Photo courtesy of Library of Congress
Under his leadership, he created an infrastructure of trails, paved roads, and bridges, some of which are still in use today. He also was friend of W.E.B. DuBois. The two met while teaching at Wilberforce University in Ohio, according to the researcher and writer Nineka M. Okona in her June 2020 article in Conde Nast Traveler.
She also interviewed a modern-day Park Ranger, Shelton Johnson, who was based on Yosemite. He has dedicated his work to preserving African American history and sharing it when he can. The post-COVID opening of the parks will allow Johnson and others to deliver the stories of the stewardship and pride that Black soliders had when they served as park rangers more than a century ago.
Seventeen National Parks bear African American History
From the Jameston to MLK National Parks, I am on a mission to visit and discover more about the rich history of African Americans.
Historic Jamestowne in Colonial National Historical Park – Photo credit: National Park Service / Paula Degen
Ebenezer Baptist Church, Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historical Park – Photo credit: Library of Congress
For the full listing of the 17 sites with beautiful, historic African American connections, see https://www.travel-experience-live.com/african-american-history-national-parks/#:~:text=%2017%20National%20Park%20Service%20Sites%20That%20Commemorate,Monument%2C%20Illinois.%20Also%20known%20as%20the…%20More%20