Buffalo Soldiers Monument – A Colin Powell Idea to Recognize African Americans
September 1, 2008
THE BUFFALO SOLDIERS
African Americans, by law, were not permitted to serve in the Regular U.S. Peacetime Army until 28 July 1866. Congress then authorized the formation of six black regiments–four infantry and two cavalry. Prior to that time, they were permitted to serve only in the state militias.
Operating under the harshest conditions and with the worst horses and equipment in the military, the Buffalo Soldiers had the lowest desertion rate of any unit in the U.S. Army and at least 20 men earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. In addition, they received four campaign citations in the Indian Wars; campaign citations for action in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine Insurrection and the Mexican Expedition; the French Campaign World War I Citation; five unit citations from World War II; 10 unit citations from the Korean Conflict; three Presidential Unit Citations; a Navy Unit Commendation; a Philippine Presidential Citation; and two Republic of Korea Presidential citations.
Reference: Military Review August 1990
“. . . since 1641 there has never been a time in this country when Blacks were unwilling to serve and sacrifice for America.”
General Colin Powell, Buffalo Soldier Monument Ground-breaking ceremony, July 28, 1990.
Despite a record of uninterrupted courage, valor, patriotism and bravery, historians and this country had never fully recognized or acknowledged the honorable and selfless military service of African Americans. Dedication of the Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas on July 25, 1992, was a major step in changing this. However, as popular as the monument is, it does not mean the same thing to everyone. Most people think it is great, but a few do not think it is deserved.
To the remaining Buffalo Soldiers and their families, it is a symbol of immediate recognition and gratitude for a job well done, as well as a daily source of pride, satisfaction and inspiration. To the older Buffalo Soldiers like 110 year old Jones Morgan of Richmond, Virginia and 98 year old Sergeant William Harrington of Salina, Kansas, it gave them their flowers to smell while they were alive. To all, it is a beauty to see. Trooper Elmer Robinson of Leavenworth, Kansas said it best one cold February night in 1989 as we looked over the vacant spot where the monument would be erected, “after all these years I didn’t think anyone cared, now I feel like a hero.”
To General Colin Powell, the originator of the idea for the monument, it is the realization of a modest ten year dream. The idea came to him one day in 1981 as he was jogging around Fort Leavenworth, During the jog he noticed there was little to show the Buffalo Soldiers had been there. The 10th Cavalry was formed and activated at Fort Leavenworth in 1867, and some contingent of the Buffalo Soldiers was always there through WWII. However, only their graves and two alleys next to the cemetery (9th and 10th Cavalry roads) bore their names. The General felt there should be more.
To the sculptor, Mr. Eddie Dixon, the monument is a source of inspiration for future generations. He knew that history denied to one group is history denied to all groups. He also wanted young people, especially Black youth, to understand that all Black heroes are not athletes and musicians. Both Jackie Robinson and Joe Louis served in Black units at Fort Riley, Kansas.
To the committee members and the thousands of people who helped build the monument, it means several things. First it is a symbol to stimulate and enhance public interest and awareness. Both young and old need to know they were the best in spite of having the worst. With hand me down horses, clothing and equipment they earned more Congressional Medals of Honor (20) and had the lowest desertion rate of any unit in the army. Against prejudice in and out of the military, they were the essence of excellence!
Second and most important, it is a symbol to motivate and encourage historians, authors, publishers, movie makers and teachers to include the exploits of the Buffalo Soldiers in books, movies and lesson plans. When historians write about Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in the Spanish American War, they must write that the Buffalo Soldiers rescued the future president in the Battle of Kettle Hill and were the first to reach the top of San Juan Hill.
The next time movies are made about the great Apache Chiefs Geronimo and Victorio, the Buffalo Soldiers must not be omitted. And when television series like Little Indiana Jones portray Mexico during the days of Pancho Villa, the prominent role of the Buffalo Soldiers and Lieutenant Colonel Charles Young (the third black graduate of West Point) must be represented.
In their lesson plans about western expansion, teachers should include how the Buffalo Soldiers delivered the mail and protected the wagon trains, cattle drives, stage coaches, railroads, and settlers. Additionally they should note that the trails and roads surveyed and blazed by the Buffalo Soldiers were just as critical as those by Lewis and Clark. Next March, during Women’s History Month, classroom bulletin boards should mention the only known female Buffalo Soldier, Cathy Williams. She served in the infantry under the name of William Cathy from 1866-1868.
For the small group of African Americans who say the Buffalo Soldiers are not deserving of recognition, the monument should be a source of healthy debate. Their opinion is that the fame of these Black knights of courage is a result on one minority (Blacks) killing another minority (Native Americans). To this group, I say the Buffalo Soldiers are not great because they killed Indians. They are great and deserving of recognition because they changed the face of the military forever.
They were the first African Americans to serve in the military during peace-time. On July 28, 1866, nearly sixteen months after the Civil War, the 39the Congress approved the formation of six Black regiments: the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th 40th and 41st Infantry. In 1869 the military down sized and the four infantry units were combine into two, the 24th and 25th. In about 1867 the Indians gave them the name Buffalo Soldiers.
There are various views of how the name originated. One, the Black man’s hair resembled the mane of the buffalo. Two, like the buffalo, when wounded or cornered, the Black soldiers fought ferociously and courageously. Three, they wore buffalo hide to keep warm; and finally, like stampeding buffalos, the Black soldiers charged into battle with their sabers forward and their heads down. However, regardless of the origin, they wore the name proudly and as a badge of honor.
Because the Buffalo Soldiers were first and very successful at what they did, other firsts followed. These included: General Colin Powell, the first Black Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; the Tuskegee Airmen, the first Black aviation unit; the 761st, the first Black tank battalion; the 555th (Triple Nickel), the first Black Parachute unit; and the Golden Thirteen, the first Black Navy Officers. As General Powell so often states, “. . . they are the wind beneath my wings.” When these true American heroes find their proper place in the history books, they will be the wind beneath the wings of many generations to come.
Reference: The Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers, by Colonel Rick Swain, USA (Ret.), Buffalo Soldier Monument Dedication Souvenir Book. For copies write the Buffalo Soldier Educational and Historical Committee at P.O. Box 3372, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas 33027. Cost $20.00 (includes taxes, s/h).
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