San Francisco park ranger works to keep Buffalo Soldier legacy alive

SAN FRANCISCO (KGO) -- Park Ranger Rik Penn not only wears the uniform of a Buffalo Soldier, he's battling to bring their contributions back to life for visitors at San Francisco's Presidio.

"I like to think that there are holes in the fabric of our national history. And certain stories will fall through those holes," said Penn.

The African Americans of the 9th Calvary were stationed at the Presidio in the early 1900's, in the years after the Spanish American war. And while the Buffalo soldiers were widely celebrated for their military adventures, appreciation for their contributions here in California has dimmed over the decades.

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"This is Yosemite in 1899," said Penn, pointing to a photograph in an extensive exhibit housed at Fort Point. "One of the first excursions into the park by Buffalo Soldiers."

Penn says those lesser-known excursions to both Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks changed history and helped shape the landscapes into national treasures. Acting as rangers, the Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the parks, protected early visitors, and along with other Army units, began building.

"They built roads, and they built fences, and they really began the infrastructure of the national parks," Penn said.

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To further mark those achievements, Penn has worked with Historian John William Templeton to help rally support for the Buffalo Soldiers trail in California. Proposals include a series of historical monuments and an interactive on-line guide to mark the 280-mile route soldiers would have taken from the Presidio to Yosemite

"What we're doing is creating is a heritage corridor," explained Templeton.
Nearly 400 Buffalo Soldiers are buried in the Presidio cemetery. Their names carved in stone. But as the decades pass, Penn and Templeton believe it's essential to etch their achievements into the living story of California.

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"Without the Buffalo Soldiers, the West would not have developed as it did," said Templeton.

Penn agrees.

"The fact that African American soldiers played such an integral part in the beginning of the national parks, there are so many layers to American history and we that need to know the full story."

On Thursday, Sen. Kamala Harris introduced a resolution in Congress honoring the Buffalo Soldiers and Black History Month.

Written and produced by Tim Didion.
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