© 2024 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Derek Mosley is a portal to Milwaukee. Each month, he joins Lake Effect to talk Black history, the local food scene and whatever else he's discovered.

The lasting legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. National Park System

United States 24th Infantry Regiment, 1899, in Yosemite National Park, Cal.
U.S. National Park Service
Stock Adobe
United States 24th Infantry Regiment, 1899, in Yosemite National Park, Cal.

On August 25, The National Parks Service celebrated its 107th birthday. Since its founding in 1916, the National Park System has grown to more than 400 national parks.

However, Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872 before a Parks Service even existed. So, management of the park fell to the Secretary of the Interior, who employed the U.S. Army — specifically its Black regiments — to help manage and protect the land.

These men were also known as Buffalo Soldiers, and about 500 served in Yosemite, Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, playing a huge role in building the infrastructure we still see today.

As detailed by Derek Mosley, the director of Marquette University Law School's Lubar Center for Public Policy Research and Civic Education, the Buffalo Soldiers' role in the eventual development of the National Park System was significant.

Black soldiers were not initially allowed to serve in the U.S. Army during peacetime. This changed with The 1866 Army Reorganization Act, which allowed Black people to serve as full-time soldiers. The national parks began in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone. But with no accompanying park service, the parks needed consistent policing.

"The only organization that had the ability and the actual logistics to do this [working the parks] was the United States Army. And they said, 'Well, we just had the soldiers, these African Americans that became full-time soldiers. So, let's have them monitor the parks," says Mosley.

Mosley also says the term "Buffalo Soldier" came from Natives in the area who noticed a resemblance between the Black soldiers' hair and the fur of a Buffalo between its horns.

Buffalo Soldiers created the roads and other infrastructures that you see in the parks, such as the main road people travel along in Sequoia National Park and the trail up to Mount Whitney, were responsible for patrolling poachers to protect wildlife and natural resources in the area, and even tested out the use of bicycles in the Army instead of horses.

"This is still the 1800s, early 1900s, and so the perception of African Americans at that time by whites was that they were still kind of like second-class citizens. So I just think of those park rangers, who are there, who are responsible for stopping people from poaching ... that had to be a really delicate balance they had to walk there," says Mosley. "But what they did was phenomenal for our country and we know very little [about them]."

Outdoor spaces and park Rangers, in particular, are often viewed as predominantly white, but Black soldiers pioneered this avenue. Mosley credits a park Ranger named Shelton Johnson with spreading the story and legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers. "He's responsible for getting Black people to know about their role in the National Parks," he says.


Audrey is a WUWM host and producer for Lake Effect.
Rob is All Things Considered Host and Digital Producer.
Related Content