It wasn’t until after the Civil War that Black soldiers could enlist in the U.S. Army as more than volunteers. These men enlisted for five years and were paid a salary of $13 per month. For many, this represented a personal dignity: they earned a steady salary and the chance to be treated with greater respect.
In 1869, the U.S. Army restructured the troops. This included consolidating Black troops into two cavalry units and two infantry units. Led by white officers, their main tasks were to capture cattle rustlers and thieves; protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad crews along the Western front.
These men were Buffalo Soldiers: African-American soldiers who mainly served on the Western frontier in 1866, after Congress passed the Army Organization Act.
No one knows for certain why the Native Americans dubbed the troops “buffalo soldiers.” One theory claims it was because the soldiers’ dark, curly hair resembled the fur of a buffalo; another is the soldiers fought so valiantly and fiercely that Native Americans respected them as they did the mighty buffalo.
No matter the reason, Shelton Johnson, born in 1958, a park ranger with the U.S. National Park Service, makes it his business to continue to educate others by retracing the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in National Parks. In his mind, there is no greater story.
Johnson is dedicated to introducing people of color to the national parks and connecting them to the natural world. One of the great losses to African culture from slavery, he says, “was the loss of kinship with the Earth.” He is known for his research and publications on the assignments of the 24th Infantry Regiment and the 9th Cavalry Regiment to protect the new national parks in California’s Sierra Nevada.
Growing up in Detroit’s inner-city, Johnson could only dream of mountains and parks. His only connection with nature and its wildlife came through television. While attending the University of Michigan, he applied for a seasonal worker’s position at Yellowstone National Park because he thought it would be the perfect place to write.
On disembarking the bus in Gardiner, Mont., Johnson recalls: “(As) I was stepping down onto the ground, there was a bison, a 2,000-pound animal walking by…. I looked up at the driver and I said, ‘Does this happen all the time?’ And he looked at me and said, ‘All the time.’ And I said to myself: ‘I have arrived.’”
It was after Johnson discovered a worn photo of buffalo soldiers who had patrolled Yosemite that he began connecting their stories to the national parks. He travels to public schools across America and has even located descendants of the soldiers.
“I can’t forget that little Black kid in Detroit,” said Johnson, now 60. “And I can’t not think of the other kids, just like me in Detroit, Oakland, Watts…. How do I let them know … that we, too, have a place here? … Every time I go to work and put the uniform on, I think about them.”