Bob Marley’s distinctive song immediately came to mind when I learned that July 28 is National Buffalo Soldier Day — instituted in 1992 by Gen. Colin Powell at the dedication of a memorial in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Like many suburban white kids of my generation, I thought Marley was cool; I had no idea about the political subtext of the reggae star’s song.
Following the Civil War, in which hundreds of thousands of Black soldiers fought for the Union, Congress established the first all-Black regiments in a peacetime army. Initially, these men could only serve west of the Mississippi due to racist prohibitions. Many Black soldiers fought Native Americans for land as the country looked to expand westward. This is the tragic irony — recently freed men enlisted by a still-racist government to take the land and liberty away from a different race of people.
Certain sources claim that the term buffalo soldier was bestowed by Native Americans, like the Apache, out of respect for the Black soldiers. It’s far more likely that the term originated as a derogatory reference to the soldiers’ physical characteristics, including the color of their skin and texture of their hair. In letters from the late 19th century, when the so-called Indian Wars were fought, Black soldiers referred to the Native Americans with the same racial epithets common among white Americans.
Racism diminishes all of us.
Eventually, buffalo did become a moniker of pride; the animal was even included on the insignia of certain regiments. Buffalo soldiers served our country into the 20th century, including abroad in both world wars. They were also the first unofficial national park rangers — “unofficial” because the National Park Service hadn’t been established. But Black soldiers helped build the roads that made travel possible for more Americans.
Today, the soldiers are remembered in the Buffalo Soldiers National Museum in Houston, Texas, as well as at an exhibit in the National Museum of African American History & Culture in Washington, D.C., which notes “(their) legacy is a complex one and raises challenging questions about the relationship of the soldiers to the government they served as well as to the native peoples they fought.” I do not wish to be read as glossing over the history of racism and imperialism like I did as an undergraduate.
But I have been moved by reading the biographies of the 19 buffalo soldiers awarded the Medal of Honor before the turn of the 20th century. Many of these men overcame prejudice to distinguish themselves in service to our country. For example, Henry Johnson was born a slave in 1850. He enlisted in the calvary at 16 and rose to the rank of sergeant in 1879. Isaiah Mays was part of the guard for the U.S. Army paymaster. When his caravan was ambushed, Mays crawled over 2 miles with an injured leg to the nearest town for help.
“If you know your history,” sang Marley about the buffalo soldiers, “then you would know where you coming from.” July 28 is a good day to take Marley as his word and discover more about these men and their complicated legacy through the websites of these museums or, even better, making a visit.