FRESNO, Calif. (KGPE) – As we honor the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr, we also kick off our special series highlighting the contributions of African Americans across Central California.

We are shining a spotlight on one of the most famous landmarks in the country– Yosemite National Park!

“The concepts of protecting and conserving the environment are commonplace now, but it was groundwork done by African American soldiers in the 1800s, that ensured national parks are here for us to enjoy,” said National Park Ranger Shelton Johnson. 

Our national parks are home to some of the most iconic views in the world. 

“When you look across here you’re seeing the south fork of the Merced River, the varying coniferous trees and the sinuous trees.” 

Johnson teaches visitors about Yosemite. Among the reenactments and talks, he presents is the story of a group of African American troops called the Buffalo Soldiers.  

Their name gives by Native American fighters who harken their hair to the crown on a buffalo.

“If you could bring them back and put them right, here again, it wouldn’t look that much different than what they experienced.”

In 1866 the Army sent the group, which included civil war veterans and other soldiers enlisted in the 9th and 10th cavalry and 24th and 25th infantry to serve in the wilderness we know as Wawona.

“Roads had to be built, hotels had to be built lodging of some sort and they were all built for the convenience of visitors.”

For the next several summers a few hundred soldiers would camp in a tent city at the headquarters located in “Loop A” of the Wawona Campground.

“Essentially they were some of the first park rangers in the world.” 

National parks were a new idea.  Poaching and timber thieves were new to families accustomed to exploration and life in the wild west.

“Basically they were providing a presence of discipline and authority so that people knew the park was under the command of these forces.”

The national parks and park rangers would not be established until years later in 1916.

The Buffalo Soldiers left their mark in the area of conservation. 

“On the slopes behind me, the buffalo soldiers built an arboretum.”

Built-in 1904,  it is believed to be the first museum in the national park system. 

Although some contributions are gone, Johnson says other connections are still very present.

“The hat that I am wearing on my head is derived from hats that were worn by the U.S. Army troops in Yosemite, Sequoia, and Yellowstone.”

The history of the African American contribution to the national parks is what Johnson is working to keep alive and inspire others. 

“We didn’t just come along after it was set up we were  part of the setting up and building of this idea.”