Buffalo Soldiers Los Banos connection in hands of U.S. Senate

cpride@losbanosenterprise.comApril 25, 2014 

Among those promoting the Buffalo Soldiers are, from left, David Ofwono,Congresswoman Jackie Speier; Kevin Craig, Geneva Brett and Kevin Craig Jr. They’re pictured in 2010.

LOS BANOS ENTERPRISE FILE Buy Photo

Los Banos left an impression on Pvt. James “Jim” Hall and now, in death, he is bringing attention to the city where he chose to reside.

Hall, a Buffalo Soldier in the 24th Infantry, passed through Los Banos on day seven of the African American regiment’s 16-day journey from San Francisco’s Presidio to Sequoia National Park in 1899. The Buffalo Soldiers camped at a racetrack, with stables for the soldiers’ horses, at Mercey Springs Road from Overland Avenue to East B Street.

From that brief stay, Hall thought enough of Los Banos to make it his home, befriending prominent veterans and business owners in town.

Hall died in 1955 at age 77 and is buried in the Los Banos Cemetery District. He and his infantry’s trip through town are the motivation for a ceremony in Los Banos this summer and a U.S. Senate bill that could set the stage for the area of the now-defunct racetrack to become a historic landmark.

Senate Bill 225, sponsored by Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, would commission a $400,000 study on commemorating the Buffalo Soldier. The legislation, which has already passed the House of Representatives, was lobbied for in front of Congress in 2010 by a local Buffalo Soldiers group.

Geneva Brett, former member of the disbanded Los Banos Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry Association, said Los Banos will be included June 8 as a stop on the Buffalo Soldier Trail Retracing Project, with motorcyclists and two tour buses retracing the route. A wreath will be placed at Hall’s grave and a ceremony commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers will be held at the Los Banos Fairgrounds, Brett said.

“It’s local history,” Brett said, of her desire for the Buffalo Soldiers to be recognized. “Some things come in your life and you won’t let go.”

Teresa Baker, who oversees the Buffalo Soldiers Trail Retracing Project, organized the tour as part of the African American National Parks Event. She said she wants to get more blacks to use the national park system.

“I was tired of the conversation of the lack of African Americans at national parks,” Baker said. “There are several reasons more African Americans don’t visit. One (reason) is when people don’t see people that look like them, there is a level of being uncomfortable.”

Baker said she believes people know about the Buffalo Soldiers in general, but many have no idea they served at the national parks.

The all-black regiments served during Reconstruction. The Army was the the official administrator of Yosemite and Sequoia national parks between 1891 and 1913 and, in that capacity, helped create a model for park management. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at the Presidio during winter and served in the Sierra during the summer.

Brett said having Los Banos nationally recognized could bring tourist dollars. However, receiving that recognition may be difficult.

The legislation for the study may have to be reintroduced next year, said Alan Spears of the National Parks Conservation Association.

“The problem is a truncated calendar,” Spears said. “There’s a recess in August and this is an election year, so you lose September and October to campaigning.”

Spears also said he believes it is more difficult to pass legislation in Congress because there seems to be a desire to stall new bills. Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, introduced the Buffalo Soldiers legislation twice in the House of Representatives before it was brought to a vote.

Baker said she believes acknowledging the Buffalo Soldiers is important.

“It’s not just African American history. It’s everybody’s history,” she said.

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