Remembering the Buffalo Soldiers 150 Years Later

Jul 27, 2016

 

Thursday marks the 150th anniversary of the creation of the so-called Buffalo Soldier regiments of the U.S. Army. The segregated units, composed of African-American men, were formed just a year after the end of the Civil War, and played a role in the establishment of the American West. A local group has spent the last two years working to honor the soldiers and their contributions to American history.  

As the clock tower in Memorial Park chimed noon on a sunny day last week, a small crew placed a polished slab of Canadian red granite in its new home, amidst a handful of other stone monuments to veterans of major U.S. conflicts. Retired Army Chief Warrant Officer Willie Breazell looked on.

"You're looking at the installation of the Buffalo Soldier Memorial, we call it the Buffalo Soldier Community Memorial," said Breazell, who chairs of the Buffalo Soldiers Community Memorial Committee. "We're here to make sure it gets installed and kind of oversee it, and make sure our little baby is coming to a proper conclusion."

The monument commemorates men known as Buffalo Soldiers. Former slaves and children of former slaves, they fought in the Indian Wars of the late 19th century and helped expand the American frontier. They helped build roads and telegraph lines, protected settlers, and even guarded surveyors mapping the borders of Colorado in the 1870s. But they faced discrimination, and as Breazell sees it, their contributions are largely absent from story of America's westward expansion.

"The Buffalo Soldiers did a whole range of things that history does not reflect, typically," said Breazell. "So I think it's important that every American understands as much about American history as possible. We're looking for inclusivity, the wholeness of American history."
 

Soldiers at Fort Carson in the 4th Squadron 10th Cavalry Regiment, one of the original Buffalo Soldier units, wear Cavalry hats for a "Punch Ceremony."
Credit Jake Brownell / KRCC

At the headquarters of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team at Fort Carson, the history of the Buffalo Soldiers is on full display. This is the home of the last remaining squadron of the 10th Cavalry regiment, one of the original Buffalo Soldier units. On a recent visit to the office, the unit honored a departing officer with a traditional Punch Ceremony, and soldiers in fatigues donned ceremonial black cowboy hats and spurs.

"They actually have very little utility nowadays in actual combat, but they are one of the many links we have back to our forebears," said Lieutenant Colonel Chad Foster, the unit's commander.

The office lobby boasts a large buffalo sculpture, old uniforms, framed newspaper clippings, and paintings of African-American soldiers charging into battle on horseback.

"These are symbols, these are important artifacts for the history of the unit that we are entrusted with keeping now that we are the only unit left," said Lt. Col. Foster.

The unit was desegregated, along with the rest of the Army, after World War II, and its soldiers today ride in tanks instead of on horseback. But to Lt. Col. Foster, the regiment still owes a great deal to the pioneering African-American soldiers that first comprised it.

"We're all just standing on the shoulders of people that came before us so you have great accomplishments today," he said. "But every accomplishment today is at least in part due to things that have been accomplished well before any of us got here."
 

Lt. Col. Chad Foster beside a buffalo statue in the office of the 4th Squadron 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Carson.
Credit Jake Brownell / KRCC

Honoring those accomplishments is still an ongoing project. The new monument in Memorial Park is part of that, as is the dedication and renaming of a ten-mile stretch of Highway 24, taking place during a ceremony Thursday. The Buffalo Soldiers Community Memorial Committee spearheaded both efforts.

Michael Sawyer is a professor of Race, Ethnicity, and Migration Studies at Colorado College, and is the keynote speaker at the dedication ceremony.

"This is a process that's never ending, of making sure that we analyze, recognize and critically examine the contributions of all people," said Sawyer.

According to Sawyer, bound up in the story of the Buffalo Soldiers are big questions about who gets remembered and who doesn't, and what it meant for former slaves and their children to fight for the country that enslaved them.

"To think about all that at the same time, and to have these kinds of complicated discussions without shying away from them, is what I hope the Memorial represents. I think that's where we're at, from a perspective in this country -- what's required is the ability to have complicated conversations," he said.
 

The back side of the Buffalo Soldier Memorial monument at Memorial Park.
Credit Jake Brownell / KRCC

Sawyer said he hopes the new Buffalo Soldier Memorial will encourage dialogue about race, history, and what it means to remember.

The Buffalo Soldier Community Memorial dedication ceremony will take place Thursday from 12-1:30pm at Stargazers Theater and Event Center. More information on that event is available HERE.

Colorado College is KRCC's licensee.