SACRAMENTO (AP) — In the decades after the Civil War, the nation's first black Army regiments guarded Yosemite and Sequoia national parks against poaching and timber thefts, a role that in hindsight made them some of the United States' first park rangers.
Now as the National Park Service prepares for its 100th anniversary in 2016, there is a move in Congress to formally recognize the role of these "Buffalo Soldiers," who set aside their guns to build the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney and the first wagon road into the Giant Forest.
On Monday, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a bill by Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Francisco, allowing the federal government to study creation of a national historic trail along the 280-mile route the soldiers traveled between The Presidio in San Francisco, where they were stationed, and the Sierra Nevada they patrolled.
"This relates to a bigger goal we have — and that is to celebrate the centennial by diversifying our national parks so that they reflect all of our cultural heritages," said Ron Sundergill, senior regional director for the National Parks Conservation Association, which has pushed for the Buffalo Soldiers to be honored.
Companion legislation is being sponsored by California's Democratic senators Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer.
"Many African-Americans don't feel a cultural connection to the national parks because they don't feel a connection to the history," said Yosemite Ranger Shelton Johnson, a historian who interprets the park soldiers' lives. "It's good for the entire country to know that people of color and women made contributions to our parks."
The all African-American regiments were comprised of men from the South who faced limited economic opportunities. Native Americans named them "Buffalo Soldiers" because their curly hair resembled the tuft between the horns of a buffalo.
In times of peace, their mission was tough: to maintain order in a wild and often lawless region of California, while not arousing feelings of racial prejudice. The route they rode took them south through San Jose then over the Diablo Mountains and through the Central Valley.
Supporters hope that recognizing the soldiers leads to a broader awareness of the role African-Americans troops played in protecting resources, as well as fighting wars in Cuba and the Philippines.
"Children learn about Spanish missionaries, the 49ers, and the railroad barons, but how much do they know about the Buffalo Soldiers?" Speier said. "My hope is that their remarkable service to this country takes its rightful place alongside other great stories from the San Francisco Bay."