Los Banos’ Buffalo Soldier honored

tmiller@mercedsunstar.comJune 13, 2014 

— About two dozen motorcycle riders rumbled into a cemetery here on Saturday to pay tribute to one of about 500 American heroes.

Members of the Buffalo Soldier Motorcycle Club were at the Los Banos District Cemetery to honor Pvt. James Hall, a Buffalo Soldier who settled in Los Banos and lived there until he died on Feb. 16, 1955. A small committee of Los Banos residents deemed the day Buffalo Soldier Day.

Phil “Spiderman” Frierson, president of the South Bay chapter of the club, said members from the North Bay, Sacramento, San Jose, Fairfield and other chapters gathered to work toward continuing the legacy of the all-black Army regiment.

“It’s wonderful that people are starting to understand the history behind the Buffalo Soldiers,” the 57-year-old said.

The regiment routinely rode more than 320 miles from the Presidio to Sequoia and Yosemite national parks, which until 1914 were under Army management. The soldiers patrolled the backcountry, built roads and trails, fought fires and undertook other work later assigned to park rangers. The hats that rangers wear are a vestige of the Army connection.

The motorcycle club was on a journey to retrace the Buffalo Soldiers’ historical trail, which included a stop in Los Banos. The historic encampment in Los Banos was in the area of Mercey Springs and Overland roads.

Another trekker, Nelson Birden, 60, of Stockton rode his motorcycle to the cemetery. Though not a member of the club, Birden said he wanted to connect to the roughly 500 men in the regiment by being at Hall’s graveside and following the trail. “I just wanted to share in that,” he said. “I wanted to walk where he walked.”

Birden, an Army veteran, said he appreciates the struggle that the soldiers fought to clear the path for the next generation. “They endured a lot, so that we had a better life,” he said.

The Buffalo Soldiers also figured heavily in the Spanish-American War, and were personally requested to serve as escorts for President Theodore Roosevelt in 1902 in San Francisco.

One of the day’s organizers, Geneva Brett, said busloads of tourists also traced the trail of the soldiers, leaving from the Presidio on Saturday morning and stopping in Los Banos for lunch.

Those tourists were part of a Bay Area event called African American National Park Day, which was organized to encourage African Americans to visit more often. The tourists came from as far away as Florida to retrace the steps of the Buffalo Soldiers.

According to a 2009 Yosemite study, 1 percent of park visitors marked their ethnicity as “black or African American.”

Buffalo Soldier enthusiasts want to make following the trail easier for future trekkers by getting it recognized as part of the National Parks System.

Senate Bill 225, sponsored by Sens. Diane Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, both D-Calif., would commission a $400,000 study on commemorating the Buffalo Soldier trail. 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.

About a dozen members of the Los Banos-based California Buffalo Soldiers also turned out in their Reconstruction Era garb. Kevin Craig Sr., who holds the rank of sergeant in the group, said he’s glad to be able to embrace history in Los Banos’ backyard. “To have that trail recognized, that (would be) a big thing,” the 50-year-old said. “We want this trail to be as big as Yellowstone, Yosemite and some of the other national parks.”

Brett said local enthusiasts have been lobbying state and federal representatives to grant the historic trail the recognition it’s due. She compared the treatment of the soldiers to those returning stateside after the Vietnam War, saying they deserve more respect.

“These 500 men deserve to go to the front of the line,” she said.

Sun-Star staff writer Thaddeus Miller can be reached at (209) 385-2453 or tmiller@mercedsunstar.com.

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