The California African American Museum will be featuring the contributions of the legendary Buffalo Soldiers in an installation entitled “For Race and Country–Buffalo Soldiers in California,” which will be exhibited through October 30, 2022.
The exhibit focuses on the soldiers’ contributions in California, and visitors may not be aware that the soldiers served as park rangers in California in the late 1890s.
“One of the exhibit’s highlights is that it gives voice to soldiers who spoke out about inequality in the army,” said CAAM’s history curator Susan Anderson. “The fight for being recognized within the army is part of our Civil Rights Movement.”
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. Until President Woodrow Wilson started the National Park Service in 1916, the U.S. Army took over protecting the parks. Security fell to troops stationed at forts and bases near the parks.
Approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers, many of whom were former slaves, assisted in patrolling and protecting the vast Yosemite, Sequoia, and General Grant national parks.
Nearby farmers and herders often entered the parks and were familiar with the park trails. They frequently herded their sheep into the parks to graze the land, damaging the parks’ natural resources.
“Black soldiers kept ranchers and farmers out by driving their herds through the parks,” said Anderson.
“They also chased away poachers, bandits, and criminals that tried to rob stagecoaches and steal the mail.”
The soldiers also helped to put out forest fires and 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.
“We focus on some of the individuals who played a role in Buffalo Soldier 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 A.M.E. church on Western Avenue, which is still standing.
After Prioleau died, his wife sued the city of Los Angeles over their practice of segregating the swimming pools across the city.
“People are going to see many incredible artifacts, such as the flag that draped the coffin of Colonel Allen Allensworth in 1914, who was the chaplain of the 24th infantry,” said Anderson.
Allensworth, born into slavery in Kentucky and 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 US Army as the highest-ranking officer in 1906, he moved West. He 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,” said Anderson.
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. There will be lots of historic photographs and a section depicting the roads that the Buffalo Soldiers built in our national parks,” said Anderson.
By Shirley Hawkins
California African American Museum
600 State Drive, Exposition Park, Los Angeles, CA 90037
10:00 a.m.-5:00 p.m.