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.