'They paved the way': How Buffalo Soldiers shaped America's national parks

Eve Chen
USA TODAY
  • Buffalo Soldiers were among the first rangers at America's national parks.
  • A national monument in Ohio honors their decades of service to the parks and country.
  • Admission to all 423 National Park Service sites is free on Veterans Day.
Col. Charles Young was one of the first Black graduates of the U.S. Military Academy. He commanded the 9th Cavalry, one of the first regiments of Buffalo Soldiers, and continued to blaze trails his entire life.

Not many people can say they spent their formative years in a national monument.

Growing up, Renotta Young was often at the family home of Col. Charles Young, which is now the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Wilberforce, Ohio.

"It's my happy place," said Young, now president of the Colonel Charles Young Foundation.

The late colonel was her grandfather's cousin and one of the first Black graduates of the U.S. Military Academy West Point; a Buffalo soldier; the first acting superintendent of Sequoia National Park; a military attache to Haiti, the Dominican Republic and Liberia; a professor at Wilberforce University; an engineer; a published author; a member the Black intelligentsia; a close friend of W.E.B. DuBois; and a mentor to Gen. Benjamin Davis.

"I once had an audience with Gen. (Colin) Powell, and he commented that he wouldn't have gotten to where he was if it hadn't been for trailblazers like Col. Young," said Renotta Young.

While she learned about the colonel's legacy from his children, who were more like her close aunt and uncle than distant cousins, she said she never learned about him at school.

This Veterans Day, he and other Buffalo Soldiers can be remembered at the parks they helped shape – for free.

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The 9th Cavalry, commanded by Charles Young, is seen at the Presidio around 1900.

Who are the Buffalo Soldiers?

"According to folklore, the name was given to them by Native Americans, and the term means 'man with hair like buffalo,' " said Robert Stewart, superintendent of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument. "At first, it was only given to the Cavalry, then it was given to everybody and the name basically stuck."

The all-Black U.S. regiments were established in 1866 to fight on the frontiers out West. 

Yosemite National Park ranger Shelton Young leads living history programs about Buffalo Soldiers at the park. His father was a Buffalo Soldier.

Despite orders to integrate in decades to come, the units remained segregated into the early 1950s, according to Shelton Johnson, a longtime interpretive ranger and community engagement specialist at Yosemite National Park who specializes in Buffalo Soldier history and wrote about it in his book "Gloryland."

"A Buffalo Soldier is a warrior who's always fighting on two fronts," Johnson said. "He's fighting the enemy that the government is saying he should fight, but he's also fighting with his own superiors in the military chain of command, who think less of him because of the color of his skin."

With few exceptions like Charles Young, the units were commanded by white officers.

Johnson's father was a Buffalo Soldier in the 1940s.

"He dealt with the same issues, that was a common thread that was woven all the way from 1866, when these regiments were created, all the way to the Korean War, and that that thread is race," he said. Still, he said it was "safer" for his dad to serve than stay in his hometown of Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the Jim Crow era. "It was safer for my father to be in combat, to be in war than to be an African American just asking to be treated like a human being."

Amid incredible challenges, and what Johnson called the daily "waking reality" of racism, Buffalo Soldiers like Col. Charles Young saw the opportunity to enact change.

"Despite the injustices that he endured, he loved his country, " said Renotta Young, who noted that in her family, doing one's best despite challenges was known as the "Young Doctrine." 

Members of the 24th Infantry are seen at Yosemite National Park in 1899.

"That's what really shines through when it comes to the legacy of Buffalo Soldiers, working in places where they weren't necessarily looked upon a positive light, but still doing the job to the best of their abilities, to protect and serve those around," added Stewart of the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

How Buffalo Soldiers shaped national parks

Before the National Park Service was established in 1916, Buffalo Soldiers were among the U.S. Cavalry who served as the first rangers of America's earliest national parks.

Robert Stewart is superintendent of Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

"You have Buffalo Soldiers that served at over 20 national parks ... from Yellowstone through Acadia to the Everglades," Stewart said. "These men and women should be remembered for the work."

At least one Buffalo Soldier was a woman, Cathay Williams, who disguised herself as a man to serve in the military in 1866 when women were not allowed.

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In addition to protecting lands from poachers and fires, Buffalo Soldiers shaped the way some parks look today. Their contributions include building an arboretum at Yosemite, building the precursor to the modern Mauna Loa Trail at Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park and under the direction of Young, completing the first accessible road into Sequoia National Park's Giant Forest.

"Why was the Army brought in to build roads?" Johnson asked. "West Point was the greatest school of engineering in the United States in the middle of the 19th century, so they knew everything about building roads."

While most Buffalo Soldiers didn't have that classical West Point training themselves, Johnson said their commanders, including Young, did.

Charles Young wrote in 1903:

"Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation."

Young was not only the first superintendent of Sequoia National Park, but he was the first Black superintendent of any national park.

A living legacy

Harold J. Warren points to a display honoring his WWII service at the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument in Ohio.

While the Buffalo Soldiers who worked on national parks in those early days have since died, they're still remembered across the National Park Service today.

And later generations of Buffalo Soldiers, like 97-year-old WWII veteran Harold J. Warren, Jr., keep their legacy alive.

"I would hope that Americans, and actually, people globally, would take time to appreciate and study the important contributions of the U.S. Army Buffalo Soldiers from the days of their formation in 1866 through the days of their bravery and courage in World War II," Warren said. "The documented stories of these African American troops, often under less than desirable racial conditions and extreme hostility, helped add to the freedoms and liberties all Americans enjoy today."

Warren's story and many others have been documented by the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument, which is closed for renovations through early 2023. However, a temporary visitor center is open at the Bishop Reverdy C. Ransom Memorial Library at Payne Theological Seminary. There are also educational resources on the monument's website.

Col. Charles Young's family home is now the Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

Like Johnson at Yosemite, Reggie Murray helps bring the Buffalo Soldiers' experiences to life through living history programs. The acting operations manager at William Howard Taft National Historic Site portrays Buffalo Soldiers like Charles Young at parks across the Midwest and brings added insight as a veteran himself.

"I may not have served back then, but (I know) how they felt being a soldier, what they had to endure," the 15-year Army vet said.

Veterans make up more than 20% of National Park Service staff.

Reggie Murray portrays Buffalo Soldiers like Col. Charles Young at National Park Service sites across the Midwest.

Murray says he loves interpreting the lives of Buffalo Soldiers and teaching kids who may have never heard of them before.

"Black soldiers have been serving in the military since the Continental Army, you just don't have any idea, " he said. "Those are the things that are left out of history books." 

He wants people to remember the sacrifices of Buffalo Soldiers.

"They paved the way to show that the color of the skin doesn't matter," Murray said. "It's what you have in your heart. And anybody can be a hero."

"The Buffalo Soldiers must be celebrated and their history told," Renotta Young testified before the Ohio House Armed Services Committee in support of declaring a statewide Buffalo Soldiers Day. "They had a central role in helping to protect, build, and preserve America’s national parks."

Renotta Young, third from left, joins Charles Young Foundation board members and others in celebrating the naming of a portion of California State Route 198 as Colonel Charles Young Memorial Highway.