Wednesday, April 28, 2010 8:05 PM EDT
By Lea Kahn, Staff Writer - The Lawrence Ledger
Ask most people how the West was won, and they’ll tell you it was through the presence of Army soldiers.
But what they can’t tell you is the pivotal role black soldiers — known as Buffalo Soldiers — played in ensuring the safety of settlers.
The origin and history of the Buffalo Soldiers, who served in the segregated Army between 1866 and 1951, was outlined before about a dozen audience members Sunday night at the Lawrence Community Center at 295 Eggerts Crossing Road.
To understand the Buffalo Soldiers, it is necessary to understand both black history and the importance of the buffalo to the American Indians, said T.C. Costley. He is a member of the New Jersey Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, which presented the program.
The New Jersey Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club is one of 87 chapters in the United States and Canada. The nonprofit group is made up of black men and women who enjoy motorcycles — or “iron horses,” Mr. Costley said — and also educates people about blacks’ role in American history.
But back to the Buffalo Soldiers.
Blacks were imported to the United States to serve as labor in the fields, Mr. Costley said. As more and more blacks were brought to this country to make money for planters, more land was needed to grow crops. That meant taking land away from the Indians.
Meanwhile, the bison — or buffalo — was the lifeblood of the American Indians, he said. The buffalo provided food as well as shelter and clothing, he said. Every bit of the buffalo was used by the Indians — right down to the bones, which became tools, and the horns, which were used for storage.
“(The government) knew that if we killed enough buffaloes, the Indians could not exist,” Mr. Costley said. “Some of the rights that were taken away from us as slaves, we took the same rights away from the Indians.”
The government signed treaties with the Indians and began pushing them westward, he said. The Indian Removal Act of 1830 forced all Indians who lived east of the Mississippi River to move west to Oklahoma.
Then came the Civil War, Mr. Costley said. Although blacks had served in every military conflict since the American Revolutionary War as members of state militias, black soldiers were organized and served in the Bureau of U.S. Colored Troops during the Civil War.
After the Civil War, the Army was reorganized, and the black soldiers were assigned to the 9th Cavalry, 10th Cavalry, the 24th Infantry or the 25th Infantry, Mr. Costley said. The four units were made up exclusively of black soldiers.
The government had intended to send the black soldiers to the South to help during Reconstruction, but because of fear of retaliation from white Southerners, the cavalry units and the 24th Infantry were sent to the West, he said.
When the Indians first saw the black soldiers, they took notice of their black faces and curly hair, which reminded them of buffalo, Mr. Costley said. And that’s the origin of the name “Buffalo Soldier,” he said.
The Buffalo Soldiers were the law of the land, keeping in line the bandits and cattle rustlers, he said. The black soldiers had a low desertion rate, despite the difficult living arrangements and the low pay — $13 per month with the only time off at Christmas and the Fourth of July, he said.
Why did blacks join the Army?
For many reasons, explained Sunny Emanuel-Costley, who also belongs to the motorcycle club. The slaves were free, but they had no jobs. They were illiterate, and their options were few, she said.
“They also wanted to serve their country,” Ms. Emanual-Costley said. “They wanted to be given the honor and respect they had never been given as slaves. They wanted to fight. We took our place and donned uniforms.”
But they did not receive that respect, she said. Several blacks entered the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but few graduated.
Nevertheless, the Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve in the Army. They were sent to fight in the Spanish-American War and also saw action in the Philippine-American War — both in the 1890s. They participated in the Mexican expedition in 1916.
The cavalry and infantry units were assigned to patrol the national parks in California in 1903 and served in that capacity until the National Park System was formed in 1916.
The Buffalo Soldiers continued to serve in the Army until it was integrated in the 1950s. Then the black soldiers were placed in various Army units.