The Buffalo Soldiers

Back in January of 2009 I had the pleasure of speaking to Ken Burns. He sat with me for an interview about his documentary film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea.” A program that first aired last year on PBS television stations nation wide this five-part series reveals in stunning detail some amazing historical facts. But what came out of that conversation was an awareness for the role people of color played in the creation of my favorite wild and scenic places.

At the turn of 20th century more than 400 members of the 9th and 10th Divisions of the U.S. Cavalry, African-Americans know as the Buffalo Soldiers, actively patrolled the newly designated National Parks of Yellowstone, Yosemite and Sequoia. These men performed many of the same duties tasked today to the National Park Service. The Buffalo Soldiers were in effect among the world’s first park rangers.

But over the last 100 years African-Americans and other minority groups have had few opportunities to visit the National Parks. Practices of racial discrimination and

institutional segregation restricted most people of color to cities across America. And even after the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s made it possible for minorities to roam freely throughout the county, persistent memory of past injustices and the loss of outdoor recreation traditions had made full integration of our National Parks difficult to this day.

How ironic it is that so few African-Americans visit the very parks their ancestors helped to create. This  piece produced for the Public Radio International program To The Best of Our Knowledge tell the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and shares the meaning behind their enduring legacy.

Many thanks to Recreational Equipment Inc. for their support in the production of this story.


Author:James

I'm a freelance journalist that specializes in telling stories about outdoor recreation, environmental conservation, acts of charitable giving and practices of sustainable living.
  • Michael

    I really enjoyed your piece on the "Buffalo Soldiers", which I heard on "To The Best of Our Knowledge". So much that i do not know!!!

  • Michael

    I really enjoyed your piece on the "Buffalo Soldiers", which I heard on "To The Best of Our Knowledge". So much that i do not know!!!

  • http://rescueatpineridge.com Buffalo Soldier 9

    How do you keep a people down? You ‘never’ let them ‘know’ their history.

    The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn’t for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. Read, and visit site/great history, rescueatpineridge.com

  • karen

    Wonderful! Thanks for the education. What a good, well-balanced piece.

    Karen

  • karen

    Wonderful! Thanks for the education. What a good, well-balanced piece.

    Karen

  • John Odom

    “I was fascinated by your public radio discussion of the role of Black Americans, esp. Buffalo Soldiers, in establishing the national parks and about how infrequently Black people visit those parks. I am “Guilty as charged.”

    I’m 61 and a lifelong angler who has lived in Wisconsin for 40 years and I have NEVER camped out a day in my life! I have fished early in the morning to late at night, but there was always a roof and a bed involved eventually. I was born in Mississippi and lived in Arkansas and Tennessee prior to moving to Wisconsin. Camping out in the deep South was not recommended recreation at the time.

    When I think “vacation” I think Broadway not Yosemite. “Roughing it” for me is a small Holiday Inn. Much of this has to do with security and potential hassle reduction. I am not alone in suffering from the “Wild Bill Hickok” syndrome (Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards) of needing to control one’s space. It is a running joke for dining Black men to jockey for the seat that faces the entrances. And “I got your back!” is a common colloquialism.

    Translate this cautiousness to camping and wilderness experiences, and I’m not surprised that few Black people leap at outdoor experiences. There is no way to control the directions from which trouble might come. I know a Black woman, a veteran police officer, who told me of the first time she camped out. An adult at the time, she slept with her gun in her hand.

    Taken to an extreme, this "concern" also correlates with childhood obesity – of fear that a kid who walks to the neighborhood playground may not return. So kids are kept inside – watching TV and eating.

    I have provided diversity training for Dept. of Natural Resources warden trainees. The supervising warden told of a 6’ 6” 300 lb. Black man who was hunting with some friends in northern Wisconsin and the game warden checked the same man’s hunting license every day for 3 days. The man finally said something to the effect of “It’s still me and my license is still valid!” I and my fishing and hunting friends have similar stories…

    You are doing important work. Hopefully, you’ll inspire more young Black people to explore the outdoors.”

    Dr. John

  • John Odom

    “I was fascinated by your public radio discussion of the role of Black Americans, esp. Buffalo Soldiers, in establishing the national parks and about how infrequently Black people visit those parks. I am “Guilty as charged.”

    I’m 61 and a lifelong angler who has lived in Wisconsin for 40 years and I have NEVER camped out a day in my life! I have fished early in the morning to late at night, but there was always a roof and a bed involved eventually. I was born in Mississippi and lived in Arkansas and Tennessee prior to moving to Wisconsin. Camping out in the deep South was not recommended recreation at the time.

    When I think “vacation” I think Broadway not Yosemite. “Roughing it” for me is a small Holiday Inn. Much of this has to do with security and potential hassle reduction. I am not alone in suffering from the “Wild Bill Hickok” syndrome (Hickok was shot in the back while playing cards) of needing to control one’s space. It is a running joke for dining Black men to jockey for the seat that faces the entrances. And “I got your back!” is a common colloquialism.

    Translate this cautiousness to camping and wilderness experiences, and I’m not surprised that few Black people leap at outdoor experiences. There is no way to control the directions from which trouble might come. I know a Black woman, a veteran police officer, who told me of the first time she camped out. An adult at the time, she slept with her gun in her hand.

    Taken to an extreme, this "concern" also correlates with childhood obesity – of fear that a kid who walks to the neighborhood playground may not return. So kids are kept inside – watching TV and eating.

    I have provided diversity training for Dept. of Natural Resources warden trainees. The supervising warden told of a 6’ 6” 300 lb. Black man who was hunting with some friends in northern Wisconsin and the game warden checked the same man’s hunting license every day for 3 days. The man finally said something to the effect of “It’s still me and my license is still valid!” I and my fishing and hunting friends have similar stories…

    You are doing important work. Hopefully, you’ll inspire more young Black people to explore the outdoors.”

    Dr. John

  • http://rescueatpineridge.com/ Buffalo Soldier 9

    How do you keep a people down? You 'never' let them 'know' their history.

    The 7th Cavalry got their butts in a sling again after the Little Big Horn Massacre, fourteen years later, the day after the Wounded Knee Massacre. If it wasn't for the 9th Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers, there would of been a second massacre of the 7th Cavalry. Read, and visit site/great history, rescueatpineridge.com

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