Skip navigation

Category Archives: buffalo soldiers

President Teddy Roosevelt, the founder of our national parks system, said, "the West will not be won until it is rid of the black, the brown, the yellow and red men."  The legacy of segregation lingers in America's parks- only 1% of the visitors to Yosemite last year were African American.  But Shelton Johnson, an African-America Ranger at Yosemite, is trying to make sure all people visit out nation's most beautiful places. You may remember Ranger Johnson from LoE's story on his "interpretive history tours" where he invokes the spirit of the African American buffalo soldiers who defended Yosemite soon after its creation.

Johnson is still beating the drum for African Americans to return to the park- and now Oprah is listening.  On Friday  “The Oprah Winfrey Show" devoted the full hour to a segment that was taped at Yosemite in response to Mr. Johnson’s appeal.  Orpah and Gayle visited some Redwoods, set up camp and took photographs with the one other black patron they saw.  Part 2 of the episode will be broadcast today. 

Ranger Johnson was also featured in the New York Times, where he told them, “every year, America is becoming increasingly diverse, but that diversity is not reflected in the national parks, even though African-Americans and other groups played a vital role in the founding of national parks. If the national parks are America’s playground, then why are we not playing in the most beautiful places in America?”

Beyond broadening the tent of park patrons, the Park Service also hopes to attract a more diverse force of park rangers. It is actively seeking to recruit employees from historically black colleges and universities.  Check out the Park Service site for job opportunities.

For more on the buffalo soliders that helped found Yosemite, check out our article on a House bill raised to honor their legacy.

The history of some of America's first black soldiers and park rangers remains largely unwritten.  Bob Marley (and mangled covers) of "Buffalo Soldier" can only tell so much. "If you know your history/ then you know where you coming from/ then you wouldn't have to ask me."

Now, Congresswoman, Jackie Speier (D-Ca), is trying to pass legislation that will assert the Buffalo Soldiers' position in history.  The bill, H.R. 4491, would create a National Historic Trail marking the route traveled by the Buffalo Soldiers from their post in San Francisco to Sequoia and Yosemite National Parks.

In a week where the Texas Board of Education approved slanting the significance of black history out of their text books (ex. "slave trade" sanitized as the "Atlantic triangular trade”), there is a push against that tilt.

So who were these forgotten stewards of the land?  They were two black-only cavalry regiments and 2 infantry regiments that fought in the Indian Wars, in the American Southwest from 1866 through 1890.  The Buffalo soldiers supposedly were named by the Cheyenne in the winter of 1867 because their dark curly hair resembled a buffalo's coat.  Besides their role in the Indian Wars, the Buffalo soldiers' lesser known contribution to the land was their service as the nation's first park rangers.  Two of the companies stationed in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon, endured long days on horseback, surviving on slim rations, guarding the parks.  And they did it with style- their round-brimmed hat later gave inspiration to Smokey the Bear's preferred headgear.

The "Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act" has just passed the House and is up for vote in the Senate.

Take a listen to Living on Earth's profile of a Buffalo Soldier performing a reenactment at Yosemite National Park.