BACKROADS TO FREEDOM, PATHWAYS TO GLORY: Ode to the Buffalo Soldier

Talking Drum: At Peace...Buffalo soldier, dreadlock Rasta
There was a Buffalo Soldier in the heart of America
Stolen from Africa, brought to America
Fighting on arrival, fighting for survival…
(Jamaican Reggae, “The Buffalo Soldier,” sung by Bob Marley)

These were the thoughts I had nearly a year ago when I first posted the essay, below, at rizingcubenterprises.com.  They are the same thoughts I had when giving “reflections” this week at the funeral of a great friend. He died from long-term complications stemming from exposures to “Agent Orange” in Viet Nam. The Rev. Otis D. Hawkins, Sr., U.S. Marine Corp, Viet Nam Combat Veteran, was buried with honors two days ago at the Quantico National Cemetery, in Quantico, Virginia.  Yet, these same thoughts are worth repeating, today:

From the Boston Massacre and the American Revolutionary War to the American-Indian Wars; from the Mexican-American War to the Civil War; from the Spanish-American War to the American-Indian Wars; from the great World Wars and the Halls of Montezuma to Tripoli, Korea and Viet Nam; from the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Crisis to the Global Wars on Terror, African-Americans have been thick in the fight for freedom– and survival.  In spite of tremendous odds, lingering against them, their courage in battle has been exemplary.  In the hovering shadows of covert and overt racism their commitment to civil liberties remained persistent.  Their heritage is a legacy of honor.

The traditions of the generically dubbed “Buffalo Soldier” are the same.  It stems from the Arapaho, Kiowa and Cheyenne Warriors’ respect (circa 1867) for the fierce fighting skills of the black Union warriors they confronted and their matted hair resembling that of the revered and powerful buffalo.  “Buffalo Soldiers” began their laudable journey when Congress created six black U.S. Army units (9th & 10th Calvary and 38th through 41st Infantry), in 1866.  The high gene pool of the “Buffalo Soldier” is heavily represented within the ancestry of our family, as well as many African-American families in the United States.  Although the dubbing became associated with all-black army regiments, as a U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Crisis veteran, who served in fully integrated units, I’m still proud of the kinship. 

In the 1960 Warner Brothers film, “Sergeant Rutledge,” our nation received a glimpse of related “Buffalo Soldier” trials and tribulations.  Woody Strode, an African-American, with Black-Cherokee and Creek lineage similar to my own, starred as the black 1st Sergeant of the 9th U.S. Calvary (circa 1880), falsely accused of raping and murdering the daughter of his white commanding officer.  For many whites, the film opened their eyes to the frustrations of black soldiers, who remained patriotic while befuddling racism constantly snapped at their heels. But, I found solace in the fact that the whispered oral history of the “Buffalo Soldier” finally crept onto the national stage.

Thirty years later, during ground breaking ceremonies for the “Buffalo Soldier Monument,” in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas (July 28, 1990), Four-star General Colin Powell, Jamaican-born African-American and Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, pointed out, “. . . since 1641 there has never been a time in this country when Blacks were unwilling to serve and sacrifice for America.”  He was the originator of the idea for the monument.  It came to him 10 years earlier as he was jogging around Fort Leavenworth, where the 10th Calvary was activated. He noticed the only evidence of the “Buffalo Soldiers” existence was only their graves.   Two alleys, next to the cemetery, 9th & 10th Calvary Roads, bore their names. But, he felt there should be more.

I, too, feel it’s a story of the African-American military commitment which shouldn’t get lost in the fading ink of history, even if our classrooms won’t teach it. The multi-dimensional array of unsung contributions within our nation’s proud but often ugly past is important to understand, no matter what race, creed or religion. 

That’s why I was proud to see African-Americans Denzel Washington, Morgan Freeman and Andre Braugher (and, a huge supporting cast) in their respective portrayals of “Private Trip,” “Grave Digger” and “Snowflake,” in the 1989 “TriStar Pictures” film release of “Glory,” a sobering and somber version of the all-African-American, “54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry” and their exploits during the Civil War.  Matthew Broderick’s portrayal of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the white commanding officer, was powerful.  I felt it was a sensitive interpretation of the conflicting dynamics, associated with the duality of allegiance by black warriors, from the viewpoint of white brothers-in-arms.  It displayed the cultural clash of black and white minds, melded to one soul, with bodies bleeding red blood– for “Old Glory”– at least, until the cannon smoke faded behind the next earthen berm.  It’s a story within the story of our nation.  And, it ought to be told more often.  Racism not only victimizes the African-American.  It gnaws at the heart of America, as well. 

While “Glory” revealed certain ironies often faced by many African-Americans in uniform, its particular Civil War setting excluded the dramatic irony associated with black military regiments of former slaves, the first “Buffalo Soldier,” tasked with protecting white Confederates from frontier Plains Indians which the United States wanted to kill or enslave.  In the Civil War, “Negro troops” fought for their personal freedom.  On the frontier “…troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalries would fight for the freedom and security of white settlers, who treated the troopers with disdain and hatred, and even murdered them for sport” (“Buffalo Soldiers,” T. Willard, 1996).

Yet, “Glory” was a poetic punctuation to another history-related family vacation, taken that summer, while two of our three kids were in high school and middle school.  The third, the eldest, had just graduated from high school and was preparing to enter the U.S. Marine Corp Boot Camp, in Parris Island, SC.  “Glory’s” timing couldn’t have been better, since he was immediately thrown into the Persian Gulf’s “Operation Desert Storm,” the first so-called Gulf War.  The vacation had taken us to Boston and their Black Heritage Trail.  Standing next to the Boston Common’s monument for “Col. Shaw and his Colored Regiment,” I thought it was a poignant reminder of the conflicting obligations for America’s guardians of freedom, black and white. Uniting against a common enemy has often presented blessings in disguise, in reminding us of our nation’s unique and precious freedoms—still worth dying for, today.

According to the “Brown Quarterly” (The Brown Foundation Newsletter, Vol. 1, #1, August 1996, “The Buffalo Soldier Monument: Its Meaning and Significance), “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.”

After the monument was built, during dedication ceremonies, in 1992, General Powell cited accolades from the farewell speech of Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson to his troops of the 10th Calvary Regiment, as well as the his own feeling of the unit. He also quoted another hero of mine, Frederick Douglass, Abolitionist, author and namesake for our youngest son.  According to Powell, Douglass had said, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters of ‘U.S.,’ let him get an eagle on his buttons, and a musket on his shoulder, and bullets in his pocket and there is no power on earth which can deny him his citizenship in the United States of America…” 

When I heard the televised speech, I envisioned the long proud lines of ebony faces, beneath their Calvary slouch hats, sitting tall in the saddle, decked in Union Blue with brass buttons, saluting with sabers drawn.  Then, as if on cue, readied for the Calvary charge- the thrust, slash and parry- they lifted another menacing battle cry, spurring their chestnut war horses toward another faceless foe…  I also thought about the internal forces still seeking to divide our nation.  They’d have you believe that the “Buffalo Soldier” is just another “black thang.”  Actually, it’s a time-honored narrative of unsung service, sacrifice and pride.  It’s an American story– as American as apple pie.

So, rest in peace my brother(s).  Thank you for a job well done!

May God continue to bless and watch over all of this nation’s military forces, living or dead, as well as their families, no matter what race, creed or religion.

Please feel free to share your thoughts within the ‘comments’ section below. Thanks.

“Backstreet Djeli”  w.d.s.

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About William "Duke" Smither (formerly, pen name: "Backstreet Djeli")

William "Duke" Smither, author of “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior, in the Shadows of the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade,” is a Frankfort Kentucky native; Richmond Virginia resident. Retired Public Utility Sr. Investigator and nuclear site worker, Married w/ 3 children and 6 grandchildren; U.S. Navy Viet Nam Era & Cuban Missile Crisis Veteran; Member of "Cuban Blockade Survivors" & The American Legion; B.S. Degree (Business Mgmt) w/ independent studies in Ancient African History and African-American History. Post-graduate studies in Criminal Justice Administration. Former Sports & Feature writer for the weekly Richmond Afro-American Newspaper, during Freshman year of college. Retirement activities include: Freelance writer, playwright, actor and director of faith-based community theater productions; founder of "Backstreet's Blog" ("Talking Drum Dialogues") at www.backstreetdjeli.com and contributing writer for "BlackPast.Org," the international, on-line reference center for African American History. His debut novel, “BACKROADS TO 'BETHLEHEM': Odysseys of the Maroon Warrior…,” is the first installment of a possible historical-fiction trilogy.