February 14, 2014

African American Legacy in National Parks ‘From Sea to Shining Sea’

by Audrey Peterman from Earthwise Productions, Inc.

We were strolling down the main street of the quaint old town of Skagway, bordered by the blue of its cruise-ship laden deepwater port and the greenery of mountains sweeping up to the sky. Suddenly Frank and I felt a bolt of lightning go through us when the Park Ranger leading our tour said, “And this is where the Buffalo Soldiers. . .”

We stopped dead in our tracks, so suddenly that the people behind bumped into us. I felt a rushing in my ears and I could see from the look on my husband’s face that he was equally stunned.

“What did you say?” I asked the Ranger. “The Buffalo Soldiers were here? When?!”

“Yes,” he said mildly. “When gold was discovered in the Yukon Gold Fields in the late 1890s, the Buffalo Soldiers were sent here to keep the peace.”

A shiver of delight ran through me. It was, as our most famous ranger Shelton Johnson describes, “like running into family in a foreign country.”

Most surprising of all, Frank and I thought we already knew ALL the units in the National Park System that are a legacy from the Buffalo Soldiers. We had ‘met’ them at Fort Davis National Historical Site in Texas where, from 1867 they protected the Western Migration along the San Antonio-El Paso Road, and constructed 91 miles of telegraph wire connecting east to west. We’d honored them at the Presidio of San Francisco from whence they rode up to the Sierra Nevada Mountains to protect the newly-formed Sequoia/Kings Canyon National Park in 1903, and we felt their presence in Yosemite Valley as we admired the ‘Range of Light” they guarded in 1904.

But we had never before heard that they were in Alaska!

This is the great joy of knowing the National Park System, and the source of my chagrin that more Americans – and particularly Americans of color – do not know these sacred treasures that literally enable us to walk proudly in the footsteps of our ancestors. It was sheer chance that Frank and I “discovered” the system in 1995, as we spent 8 weeks gallivanting around the country, driving from the Atlantic to the Pacific and exploring parts between. The moment I set eyes on my first national park – Acadia in Maine – I was transformed into an advocate to let all America know the beauty, wonder, history and sense of liberation to be found in our exquisite natural treasures.

The black history and the stories of African Americans’ contributions to the development of our country that are protected in our National Park System at the very place where it happened is a completely unexpected bonus. Who knew that in Boston National Historic Park, I could stand on the spot where Crispus Attucks fell, the black man whose life was taken with the first shot of the Revolutionary War? Who knew that at Valley Forge National Historical Park in Pennsylvania, I could walk in the footsteps of my black ancestors who served in Col. George Washington’s Continental Army, and suffered the privations of hell alongside their fellow soldiers in the fateful winter of 1777-78? Who knew that I could explore the subterranean territories of Mammoth Cave National Park in Kentucky with my grandson and the great-grandson of enslaved Africans who were the first to explore the caves from the 1830s? Or, that I could go glass-bottom boating in Biscayne National Park, Florida, the largest marine park in the system which is available to us because of a black man whose parents named him “Sir Lancelot” Jones to encourage lofty deeds?

And this is only the tip of the iceberg. After 19 years dedicated to bringing our park treasures to the attention of the urban-based and more youthful public, we are overjoyed to find that the movement is exploding across the country. From the famed Team Denali of black mountaineers aged 19-57 who attempted to reach the summit of Mount Denali last year (they reached 19,600 feet before weather turned them back); to the focused efforts of Bay Area-based Outdoor Afro that has established groups around the country that organize and lead eco-tours for their peers, to the Greening Youth Foundation in Atlanta that prepares young people to take their rightful place as stewards of our national parks, forests and wildlife preserves, we are seeing a glorious expansion of interest and attachment to our precious publicly-owned lands.

The Buffalo Soldiers who tamed the wild frontier town of Skagway could only look forward and work toward the day when all Americans would have equality of respect and opportunity. Today, when that vision is closer than ever to being realized, I look forward to the day when all Americans know, love, enjoy and treasure our national parks and publicly-owned lands.

(Longtime environmental advocate Audrey Peterman and her husband Frank are authors of “Legacy on the Land:A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care” and other works. www.legacyontheland.com)

8 Comments

  1. Audrey, what a wonderful article. We had no idea that the Buffalo Soldiers served in Skagway. We are going to be in Skagway this Summer and look forward to learning more. Thanks for your service to the National Parks.

  2. Thank you for sharing your story and the incredible legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers!

  3. Hi Don and Shelly!!
    Thanks so much for all YOU contribute! Lucky you to be going to Skagway..love that place..be sure to check out the Buffalo Soldiers Barracks among the historical buildings in the park..http://www.nps.gov/klgo/historyculture/buffalo-soldiers-in-skagway.htm

  4. Thank you Alanna! And guess what??? June 7 & 8 this year a tour will leave from the Presidio to Yosemite, retracing the Buffalo Soldiers journey to protect the Range of Light in 1904. You should come if you can..it’s going to be awesome! love, a

  5. It is amazing to see so many stories of the Buffalo Soldiers . I am so looking forward to June 7th & 8th, as we will again honor their legacy. Audrey Peterman, you are the light. Expedition Denali, thank you for being brave enough, strong enough and determined enough, to show that as people of color, we too can climb heights.

  6. Keep it free

  7. I love you Teresa Baker!! You are among my s/heroes now alongside the Buffalo Soldiers, Harriet Tubman, Teddy Roosevelt ..all of whom did what was needed to move us forward as you are doing..

  8. Audrey, the June 7 & 8 tour sounds absolutely incredible. I wish I could go! I’d love to hear all about it. Perhaps someone from the tour can share their experience here afterward!

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