Too bad Mark Matthews, the last Buffalo Soldier who died six years ago at age 111, isn't around to mark this historic moment.
Congresswoman Jackie Speier (D- San Mateo) is pushing through a bill that would -- for the first time -- give the nation's all-black cavalry a prominent place in history. Her bill would allow the Department of The Interior to study the role the African American soldiers played in establishing the parks system, including Yosemite.
She wants the history of our Buffalo Soldiers to be incorporated into classroom curriculum and honored at national parks.
"It's a really important bill for helping to bring into light the role these black troops played in protecting national parks before the parks system existed," said Alan Spears, legislative analyst for the National Parks Conservation Association.
So what did they do?
Dating back to 1899, the African American troops served in the summer
months, protecting Sequoia and Yosemite long before there was a national
park system. They kept timber thieves at bay, stopped illegal grazing, and put out forest fires.
They constructed roads and created maps; they were, in essence, the country's first park rangers.
The soldiers also built the arboretum in the south area of
Yosemite, which is the first museum in the national park system.
"Not enough people know that," Spears said.
Including Speier who was "blown away" to discover this deep history in her own backyard. Her bill punctuates the 1995 discovery of an old archival photo of some Buffalo Soldiers in Yosemite by local park ranger Shelton Johnson. He later wrote a book titled Gloryland which, along with a 2009 PBS documentary, finally brought the long lost history of the Buffalo Soldiers to the surface.
The Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned at the San Francisco Presidio
during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Speier said. Many came to San
Francisco after successful campaigns in the Philippines and in the
Spanish American War, where they gained legendary status as fearless
fighters alongside Theodore Roosevelt's Rough Riders.
To get to the parks,
the soldiers left the Presidio in spring and headed south along El
Camino Real through San Mateo County, in a nearly two-week-journey that covered 280 miles from San Francisco to Yosemite.
Along the way they came across Native Americans who coined the name Buffalo Soldiers because of their dark skin.
"I think the story has gained greater understanding in the public," Spears said. "So the timing is right to get this [bill] to the finish line."
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