America’s National Parks have never been associated with Black History Month. What makes that disconnect mind-boggling is that African-American troops were some of the first tasked with protecting these federally-designated sacred lands. Yosemite and nearby Sequoia were patrolled by approximately 500 Black soldiers during their early years as National Parks.
In an era when Black men could be killed in other parts of the US for simply disagreeing with someone White, these brave – and armed – soldiers successfully carried out their duties in the face of vile and rampant racism. In 1899, 1903, and 1904, the 24th and 9th calvaries were tasked with shaping park infrastructure, fighting forest fires and protecting valuable park resources from poachers and loggers. These troops were known as The Buffalo Soldiers.
The soldiers helped install hiking trails, walking paths and roads throughout both parks; and are also credited with completing the first usable road into Giant Forest, the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney and the construction of an arboretum in Yosemite. “One scholar considered the latter the first marked nature trail in the national park system” according to the National Park Service.
But if the Buffalo Soldiers contributions fail to beckon conversation about including National Parks as Black History Month destinations, the story of Charles Young might help. Young was the third African-American to graduate from West Point. He also served as the acting military superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903 making him likely the first African-American superintendent of a national park. A road running through Sequoia was dedicated to him in 2019.
Black men and women helped shape our National Park system. That is a fact. And something we can all hang our hats proudly on the next – or first – time we visit. For more on the Buffalo Soldiers in the National Parks, watch our video below. And head over to the National Park Service website for more reading.