Commentary by Rex Jones
21st Space Wing Equal Opportunity Office director
PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. — Recently, my wife and I were walking through Manitou Springs when we overheard Bob Marley’s classic “Buffalo Soldier” coming from the speakers in a nearby park.
I reflected back to the first time I heard the song live at a concert in Tacoma, Wash., where he and “The Wailers” performed. As we got closer to the park we could see many were familiar with the artist’s lyrics and were singing along. A portion of the song goes like this, “He was a buffalo soldier, dreadlock Rasta, he was a buffalo soldier fighting for America, fighting a rival, fighting for survival.”
“Uncle Bob” and his band sang a gritty ballad that tells the cruelly ironic story of the black man being conscripted into the ranks of the Union Army to kill Native Americans. Although as a young teenager I enjoyed the song immensely, it took me a long time before I realized that he was singing about black soldiers and not Indian warriors. It wasn’t until I attended a course on minority studies in 1988 that I realized African Americans played a far greater role in American military history than I ever imagined.
My curiosity piqued when the movie “Glory” was released in 1989. You may recall it was about the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment, which was the first official black Regiment to be organized in the Northern states with the U.S. Army during the Civil War.
Despite the significant contributions of the Buffalo soldier, they were usually dismissed with a bare mention, ignored completely, or their efforts mocked. Complicating matters, there simply wasn’t much personal information available, such as letters, due to the fact that many troops were illiterate. Only a few pictures, personal interviews and a couple of congressional records proved helpful. Nevertheless, here are a few tidbits that I learned:
The “Negro troops,” as they were known at the time, marched in the ranks of George Washington’s armies in the cause for independence and served with Andrew Jackson at New Orleans in 1815 to repress the British invaders. The first large-scale employment awaited the coming of the Civil War when the Confederate batteries fired on Fort Sumter early in the morning of Apr. 1, 1861. Many black troops were eager to wear the Union Blue but found their service was neither wanted at the time nor contemplated for the future.
With the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, the enlistment of blacks was on its way up. Again, this was not a popular decision. In fact, one historian wrote, “This decision to use the Negro soldier did not necessarily grow out of any broad humanitarian resolve. It seems to have come more largely out of the dawning realization that since the Confederates were going to kill a great many more Union soldiers before the war was over, a good many white men would escape death if a considerable percentage of those soldiers were colored.”
Resistance to use black troops eventually diminished. Once white officers discovered that a commission in the black regiments could lead to faster promotion, there was no shortage of candidates to lead these new Regiments. Furthermore, as the black soldier proved his worth as a soldier, reluctant acceptance started to become the rule. Not to be misleading, however, race discrimination continued to be very prevalent.
By the end of the war, nearly 180,000 black soldiers served in the Union Army and 33,380 of them had given their lives for freedom.
On July 28, 1866, Congress passed an Act that allowed the black soldiers to serve in the regular Army and in 1867 Congress sent them out to fight “the Indians.” It was at this time the Native Americans gave the troopers a nickname. Called all manner of names, such as “moacs” and “brunettes,” by all manner of people, they were dubbed “Buffalo soldiers” as a result of their skin color and hair texture, which seemed to resemble the mane of the buffalo. Most simply accepted the name and wore it proudly knowing the Native Americans worshipped the buffalo and wouldn’t give somebody that name if they did not respect them.
Now, I find myself relocated to the Air Force’s best kept secret, Peterson Air Force Base. In the short time I have been here, I learned that nearly a third of the cowboys who helped build the West were black. In Colorado they were miners, soldiers, homesteaders, ranchers, blacksmiths, schoolteachers, lawmen and every other profession needed to build up the state.
I learned if the ideals of democracy are to prevail, America must continue to acknowledge, respect and appreciate the contributions of all people. That said, let’s no longer ignore our history, but instead learn it, and provide it accurately and completely.