As Black History Month continues, CalVet recognizes the African American “Buffalo Soldiers” who once protected Yosemite and Sequoia national parks in the central Sierra in the years before the national parks systems was established in 1916.
One day many summers ago, Yosemite Park Ranger and Historian Shelton Johnson had just finished his portrayal of a Buffalo Soldier who once served in Yosemite and Sequoia national parks. A particular park visitor in the audience that day still needed some convincing that African American cavalrymen protected the Sierra parks in 1899, 1903, and 1904, as Johnson explains when he portrays Buffalo Soldier Elizy Boman. The man went to Johnson’s supervisor and expressed his skepticism.
“He didn’t believe it was true,” Johnson said. “The implication was that it was some kind of politically correct thing.”
His supervisor assured the guest that Buffalo Soldiers were, indeed, the real deal and among the state’s first park rangers. In fact, while doing research Johnson found a roster of roughly 500 Buffalo Soldiers who served their summers in the Sierra then wintered at the Presidio in San Francisco. Boman, the soldier whom Johnson portrays, was among them (although his name appears on the roster as Elizie Bomane).
The segregated Buffalo Soldier regiments were formed of freemen and former slaves in 1866, a year after the Civil War ended. They remained segregated for more than 80 years. Their missions in the Sierra involved patrolling and stewardship.
The soldiers were caring for the parks as far back as 1899. They served during the summer of 1903 under Colonel Charles Young, the third African American to graduate from West Point and ostensibly the first African American superintendent of a national park. The soldiers built roads and trails. They stopped illegal timber harvests in the parks. They confiscated firearms, went after wildlife poachers, and fought wildfires. In 1904, they built an arboretum in Yosemite and the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney.
They remained active as a segregated unit until President Truman ordered the desegregation of the military in 1948. The last of the Buffalo Soldier units disbanded in 1951. Their story is left for historians like Johnson – the son of a military veteran who served from 1946 through the Vietnam War – to tell.
He does this in the role of Buffalo Soldier Elizy Boman, and lets the facts speak for themselves.
The Yosemite Conservancy, which operates the Yosemite Theater, will soon post a schedule of events that will include Johnson’s presentations. For more information visit https://yosemite.org/experience/theater/. Videos of Johnson’s Buffalo Soldier portrayal can be found at https://bit.ly/2HQ8s1n and https://bit.ly/2SIW5Ko.