By Shirley Hawkins
EXPOSITION PARK — The California African American Museum is featuring the contributions of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers in an exhibit entitled “For Race and Country — Buffalo Soldiers in California” that is on display through Oct. 30.
The exhibit focuses on the group of Black soldiers’ contributions in California, and visitors may not be aware that members of the Buffalo Soldiers served as park rangers in California in the late 1890s.
Congress created the national parks, but securing the vast terrains became a problem. Congress had yet to create the National Park Service and the secretary of the interior to protect the land from farmers and poachers. Prior to President Woodrow Wilson creating the National Park Service in 1916, the U.S. Army protected the parks and security fell to troops stationed at forts and bases located near the parks.
Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers, many of whom were former slaves, assisted in patrolling and protecting the vast Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks.
Nearby farmers and herders often entered the parks and were familiar with the park trails. They frequently would herd their sheep into the parks to graze the land, which damaged the parks’ natural resources.
“Black soldiers kept ranchers and farmers from driving their herds through the parks,” CAAM’s history curator Susan Anderson said.
“They also chased away poachers, bandits and criminals that tried to rob stagecoaches and steal the mail.”
The soldiers also put out forest fires and helped to build roads and trails.
Not only did the Buffalo Soldiers guard the parks, but they persevered despite the racism they occasionally encountered from white regiments.
“One of the highlights of the exhibit is that it gives voice to soldiers who spoke out about inequality in the army,” Anderson said. “The fight for being recognized within the army is part of our civil rights movement.
“We focus on some of the individuals who played a role in Buffalo Soldiers in California such as George Prioleau, who served in the 9th Cavalry for 20 years before being transferred to the 10th Cavalry and later the 25th Cavalry with a promotion to major. He retired in 1920.
“Prioleau was very outspoken,” Anderson added. “He published letters and articles that were printed in newspapers across the country where he vilified segregation in the U.S. He eventually moved his family to Los Angeles in 1920 where he and his wife founded the Bethel AME Church on Western Avenue, which is still standing.
After Prioleau died, his wife sued the city of Los Angeles over their practice of segregating swimming pools across the city.
“People are going to see many incredible artifacts, such as the flag that draped the coffin of Col. Allen Allensworth in 1914 who was the chaplain of the 24th infantry,” Anderson said.
Allensworth, who was born into slavery in Kentucky and was the youngest of 13 children, escaped during the American Civil War and later became a Union soldier, a Baptist minister, an educator and was eventually appointed as a military chaplin of the Buffalo Soldiers of the 24th Infantry in 1886.
He was the first African American to reach the rank of lieutenant colonel and was instrumental in helping secure Black chaplains for Black army regiments.
After retiring from the U.S. Army as the highest ranking officer at the time in 1906, he moved West and co-founded the town of Allensworth in 1908, the only town in California to be founded, financed and governed by African Americans.
Allensworth was run over and killed by a motorcycle while crossing the street in 1914.
The town of Allensworth was officially named Colonel Allensworth State Historic Park in 1974.
“Also on display will be the real uniforms of some of the Buffalo Soldiers officers profiled in the exhibit such as Colonel Charles Young,” Anderson said.
Young was the third African-American graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and is considered to be one of the first African-Americans to serve as the acting military superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903. The duties of most of the men under Young’s command in Sequoia and Yosemite included confiscating firearms as well as curbing poaching of the park’s wildlife, suppressing wildfires and ending illegal grazing of livestock.
“There will be films and television clips about the soldiers throughout the exhibit,” Anderson said. “There will be lots of historic photographs and a section depicting the roads that the Buffalo Soldiers built in our national parks.”
Shirley Hawkins is a freelance reporter for Wave Newspapers. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.