Honoring Buffalo Soldiers on African American National Park Day
“Tell your friends and family to visit. This is their park.” Ranger Shelton Johnson told a large mostly African American crowd on Saturday June 7 in Yosemite National Park. Shelton has been a National Park Ranger for 21 years. He told us that every year he speaks to thousands of visitors from all over the world and wishes he saw more African American faces. He told us “This is a dream come true to see so many of our people in one place.”
We were there as a part of the second annual African American National Park Day founded by Teresa Baker from Outdoor Afro, a community focused on reconnecting African Americans with the outdoors and one another through outdoor activities. Last year, Teresa started the annual celebration as a way to encourage African Americans across the country to visit a National Park. This year, the weekend celebration went country-wide: from World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument, to Yosemite to the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, African Americans spent the weekend connecting to the outdoors and their heritage.
Outdoor Afros, park employees and the Buffalo Soldiers motorcycle club met that Saturday morning in the Presidio of San Francisco, to retrace the route African American soldiers from the 24th Infantry and 9th Cavalry took to get to Sierra parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904. These men (and a few women) were some of our first park rangers in the Sierra Nevada. They spent their summer building roads, making maps, extinguishing fires, and keeping poachers and loggers at bay.
The weekend festivities gave first time and experienced visitors the opportunity to get a “taste of the park” so that they stopover for a longer stay on their own in the future. And what a taste! We sang under the trees with Sista Monica Parker, listened to great-great-grandson of John Muir, Robert Hanna, tell us about the history of Yosemite as we walked the Valley floor, and we cooked, ate and slept beneath a bright moon in Yellow Pines Campground.
The highlight of the trip was watching Shelton Johnson perform as fictional Buffalo Soldier Sergeant Elizy Bowman. The interpretive reenactment took us through time: from the sidewalk in the post-civil-war south to a summer in Yosemite, to modern day America. His performance tackled racism, discrimination, sexism, love, respect, loss and the healing power of nature. I encourage you to see it with your own eyes. Visit Yosemite. Visit all of the National Parks, for that matter.
Support the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks Study Act - a bill to authorize the Secretary of the Interior to conduct a study of alternatives for commemorating and interpreting the role of the Buffalo Soldiers.
Read Chelsea Roberts’ article, “Retracing History: Following The Buffalo Soldiers To Yosemite” on Brown Girls Fly and check out James Mills’ commentary “Dispatch from Yosemite: Honoring national parks’ black heritage” in High Country News.
Join NPCA and special guests on Wednesday, June 25 for a Google+ Hangout discussion, The Legacy of Buffalo Soldiers and Our National Parks. This online discussion will feature an interactive Q&A with several panelists, including Yosemite National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, African American National Parks Day founder Teresa Baker, and NPCA Cultural Resources Director Alan Spears.