Born and raised on a farm in rural Virginia, Fredrik Penn is an Army veteran who began working for the U.S. Army in the Presidio as a civilian employee in 1989. After the Army departed the Presidio in 1994, Rik was hired as a National Park Service employee at Muir Woods where he mended fences and took care of trees. There he discovered he loved any opportunity to talk to visitors about history and ecology, so he began volunteering in the Presidio with the education group. After a year, he was hired by the National Park Service and is now an Education Coordinator for the Parks as Classroom Program in the Presidio. Fourteen years later, Ranger Rik still loves sharing park history. On the 150th anniversary of the Buffalo Soldiers and the National Park Service's Centennial, we spoke with Rik about his background and the history of Buffalo Soldiers in our national parks.
Tell us about your role?
When I was in high school and college, I initially thought I wanted to be a teacher. But then I entered the military and the years went by. When I began volunteering in the Presidio, I got to work with inner city kids from East Palo Alto and Oakland, and this really brought back the teaching interest in me. It was a great opportunity to work with youth and be someone these kids could look to and say, "Hey – he looks like me, and he's working in the park!" I want all kids to feel welcome here and that they have a place within our national parks.
Now, teaching is essentially what I do – I spend about half my time out and about in the park with groups, and the other half of the time, I'm in the office, arranging group visits and researching information for groups with specialized interests. I love what I do – I've given special walking tours about the Buffalo Soldiers, the San Francisco 1906 earthquake refugees and their time in the park, and the history of aviation in the Presidio. I've also given a tour of the famous people interred in the Presidio's San Francisco National Cemetery.
Can you give us a little history of the Buffalo Soldiers, and their ties to the Presidio?
In 1866, Congress established four all-black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and the 24th and 25th Infantry. These regiments were located all over the country and did everything from fighting campaigns against native tribes to pursuing bandits, improving our roads, scouting, and mapping frontier land. According to legend, the "buffalo soldiers" name actually came from Native Americans. The buffalo was revered for its bravery and Native Americans referred to these soldiers as "buffalo soldiers" as a sign of respect.
All four of these Buffalo Soldiers units passed through the Presidio on their way to the Philippine American war in 1899-1902. When they returned to the states, the Buffalo Soldiers were scattered among various forts around the country. In 1903-1904, about 200 African American soldiers were stationed in the Presidio and this was the first time African Americans were permanently garrisoned at the Presidio.
The National Park Service itself was established in 1916, but before this, the Army was responsible for patrolling Yellowstone, Sequoia, and Yosemite – some of our first national parks. For three summers, starting in 1899, as part of their service, the Buffalo Soldiers patrolled the parks. They're often referred to as being among the original "Guardians of the National Parks."