At the turn of the last century, a great American hero set an enduring standard of excellence that forged the basis of the modern National Park System.
With a “take charge” style of leadership, Colonel Charles Young commanded a regiment of U.S. Army soldiers in the construction of improved roads that made it possible for the growing number of wagons and automobiles to safely visit the newly designated national park of Sequoia and its stands of giant redwood trees, the largest in the world. As the first African-American superintendent of a national park, Young led a distinguished military career in war and peace to usher in a new era of racial equality and wilderness preservation.
By presidential proclamation on March 25, 2013, Barack Obama designated the home of Charles Young in Xenia, Ohio, as a national monument to honor his great work along with the men that served as members of the all-African-American 9th and 10th Cavalry divisions known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
With the creation of this site, the president has set in motion a long-overdue exploration into the role African Americans have played in our national legacy of environmental protection. Linking together other places of historical significance, the Charles Young monument will serve as a focal point for a detailed study of the often-forgotten contributions of some of the world’s first Park Rangers.
“The National Park Service shall coordinate with the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, which manages the Presidio in San Francisco, and Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks to commemorate the historical ties between Colonel Charles Young and his military assignments at those sites, and the role of the Buffalo Soldiers as pioneering stewards of our national parks,” the proclamation reads.
Though Charles Young and his men served with great distinction at many other duty stations, the Buffalo Soldiers’ work to establish and defend the earliest national parks is a unique highlight of their career. Certainly other white army units served at Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite, but under Young’s leadership, the African-American soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry worked tirelessly through this “plum assignment” to make substantial improvements to the parks for others to enjoy. In the summer of 1903 it’s estimated that his men completed more work projects than the previous years of military administration combined. Many of the roads and trails they improved are still in use today.
The exemplary service of Young and his men is worthy of great praise and admiration. Shelton Johnson, the only permanent African-American national park ranger serving at Yosemite today and a national authority on the Buffalo Soldiers said blacks who patrolled the parks during this period endured many hardships due to the racial attitudes of the time.
“I always say that what separates any Buffalo Soldier from a white soldier is that the Buffalo Soldiers were always fighting on two fronts. There was the enemy before them, and that enemy called racism that completely surround them every day of their lives,” Johnson said. “In spite of that fact, they did their duty even though they carried a far heavier burden. They worked harder than their counterparts. They had to, just to prove that they could do the work at all.”
It’s important to realize that during the time Charles Young served his county (roughly 1880 to 1920) a horrific chapter opened in American history, a period known as the “nadir.” Many of the rights blacks attained at the end of the Civil War were abolished. Racial violence, public beatings, and lynchings directed toward African Americans, began to steadily increase and then skyrocketed.
“Colonel Young didn’t simply endure that ‘bad, worse time’ he excelled during it,” wrote Legislative Representative Alan Spears in a statement from NPCA. “Young’s time in national parks was notable then, earning him accolades from admirers military and civilian alike. Today, Young’s legacy has the strong potential to serve as a reminder to those African Americans who think that parks are unwelcoming places with little to no relevance for them or their people, that we have, in fact, always been in and connected to these landscapes, this history.”
Today, when African Americans represent less than 5 percent of national park visitors, a commemorative site that celebrates their enduring legacy and heritage is long overdue. Audrey Peterman author of the new book Our True Nature: Finding A Zest for Life in the National Park System says the memory of Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers can help a new generation of environmental advocates identify with role models whose example they can follow.
“When I walk among the giant sequoia trees in Sequoia National Park, I am overcome with feelings of awe and amazement,” Peterman said in a recent exchange via email. “Charles Young was so far ahead of his time that he is credited with taking the first conservation action in Sequoia, fencing off the roots of the most vulnerable trees to prevent them being trampled by humans.”
Though park evangelists of the present day might become distracted by threats of spending cuts and the reallocation of resources away from wilderness preservation, lessons learned in the past can help to encourage the best work of protection for generations yet to come.
“As an advocate for the national parks who is also African American, I keep Col. Young’s example uppermost in my mind,” Peterman said “Those days when I feel that it’s just too much to keep going in the face of overwhelming ‘benign neglect’ from the powers that be, I remind myself that he persisted, and so must I.”
The Charles Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument will stand as a clear reminder for the future. Since the beginning of the National Park System, even those already suffering the most tragic circumstances of their day stood and fought to protect the precious natural resources and wild places they loved. Today with the higher stakes of a warming planet, overpopulation, and dwindling sources of energy, how could we now do any less?
This story originally appeared on The Joy Trip Project blog and is reprinted with permission. The Joy Trip Project is made possible with the support sponsors Patagonia, Rayovac, and the New Belgium Brewing Company.
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- President Obama Preserves Three Important Sites in America’s History, Honors Civil War Hero Harriet Tubman (March 25, 2013)
- A Valentine’s Day Q&A with Audrey Peterman: One Enthusiast’s “Love Letter to the Parks” (February 14, 2013)
- Standing Guard: Meet America’s Buffalo Soldiers—some of the nation’s first park rangers (from the Fall 2012 issue of National Parks magazine)