To commemorate Black History Month, Bethel A.M.E Church hosted a celebratory event paying homage to the revered Buffalo Soldiers and renowned African-American men and women park rangers of the U.S. National Park Service.
Sponsored by Bethel’s Green Team, a ministry focused on stewardship and sustainability, the “Century of Stewardship: Our Story, Our Legacy, Our Land” program attracted a crowd of intergenerational, multiethnic Bostonians on the snowy morning of Feb. 14.
The day began with a brief introduction of community organizations over brunch refreshments to facilitate an atmosphere of camaraderie and comfort. After everyone in the room was acquainted a video breaking down the often over-looked history of the Buffalo Soldiers was shown. “Buffalo Soldiers were African-American army regiments that served in the West, fighting in the Indian War but they also served here in Yosemite,” said Park Ranger Shelton Johnson in the film.
During the 1860’s on the Western frontier the Buffalo Soldiers, six regiments of African-American men and some women, the famous Cathay Williams and other women were later revealed to be enlisted disguised as men, were sanctioned by the U.S. government to protect settlers from turmoil, thieves and the threat of Native Americans.
Regarded by some as a military experiment, it was one that proved to be integral to the success of the war and resulted in the first park rangers of color who to this day govern the environment and lands of this country with esteem. Buffalo was a term these soldiers were dubbed with because of their hair texture and the fearlessness with which they fought by Native Americans who with admiration feared the buffalo.
Audience members watched the film intently, shaking their heads, nodding in agreement and periodically laughing all the while. For some it was a refresher on history they were very familiar with but for others it would be the first time they had ever heard of the Black heroes.
“I remember I used to feel left out until [the Park Rangers] came to my school and stuff, then I knew [about the Buffalo Soldiers] because they didn’t teach us nothing in school but we were slaves. That’s all they taught us. Slave this, slave that. They didn’t teach us that we were heroes or nothing,” said Keith Williams, a student in the film.
Following the video that visibly moved and touched everyone in the room, even the young kids who were at first distracted by their technological devices, Bethel’s Rev. Dr. Ray A. Hammond gave a welcome and introduction of the afternoon’s speaker, Rosalyn Fennell, deputy superintendent of the Boston National Historical Park and Boston African American National Historic Site.
In her speech Fennell wanted to share a story of integration. Too often in her experience she has witnessed a telling of National Park Services’ African-American stories in a “separate and apart, an addendum, asterisks” form.
“I find that my next iteration in the National Park Service is to find that group of people who want to start talking about these [African-American] stories as part of all of the stories we tell about why national parks were created.”
She went on to give a history of herself that clearly defined her passion, expertise, and commitment to serving the land and making much of the shoes she’s walking in and upon the shoulders of giants on which she stands. Wanting to be a park ranger since she was eight, Fennell charged the audience to join in her in being a white ant, one who is finding the best way to affect change is from the inside — much like the Buffalo Soldiers did.
The National Park Service will be 100 years old in 2016. Where they now are in terms of active ways to tell the African-American park ranger stories is one of the top items on Fennell’s agenda of tireless pursuit.
In her talk that was relatable, humorous, witty and insightful, Fennell reinforced that there’s so much as individuals and a collective group that can be done to have a global impact and improve care for the land. She ended by impressing upon the audience to stay smart and not be ashamed of Black history.
“Now is not the time to allow the pendulum to swing the other way,” she said. The event concluded with a panel discussion featuring educator, youth worker, social activist, community organizer, elected official, and author Mel King, Patricia Spence, executive director of the Urban Farming Institute, veteran urban farmers and husband and wife team Bobby Walker, Farm Trainer and Nataka Crayton-Walker of the Urban Farming Institute.
The panel discussed tangible ways to affect change in the environment by taking charge of the resources available. They emphasized the importance of not only doing this but sharing it with other places and carrying on the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers in that regard.
Some of the many partners and local guest organizations involved were U.S. National Park Service, Boston, U.S. Forest Service, Urban Farming Institute, Museum of African American History, Seeds of Hope, Edward Cooper Community Garden and Education Center and Southwest Boston Community Development Corporation Hyde Park Green Team. Each organization shared employment and volunteer opportunities available.
“I was really interested in coming and hearing the Buffalo story. I’m just so proud of our heritage and how we invested so much into this country,” said Denise Turner of Roxbury and National Council of Negro Women member.
“Today we went for awareness. Awareness is key especially in changing the behaviors and in shaping the future. My hope is that the folks that participated in today’s event walked away with a greater awareness of our history, the role that we’ve played as stewards of the public lands of this country and also in how they themselves also play a part in encouraging and inspiring their children or their relatives to also be a part of that,” said Jessie Scott of Malden and the U.S. Forest Service.