February 2 – 15, 2019.
In a prior post, I wondered why a canyon in Texas would be named after a Florida Indian tribe. Seminole Canyon State Park & Historic Site was named after the Seminole, the only tribe never to surrender to the U.S. government. But this canyon is named for a specific group associated with the tribe — Black Seminoles who served here at Fort Clark.
In the late 1600s, slaves started fleeing South Carolina for Florida, which was loosely under Spanish control. There they developed a relationship with the Seminole Tribe. They became superior trackers. After the Civil War, they came west to help track bands of Native Americans who were denying settlers of European descent their “Manifest Destiny” to occupy the West.
The Black Seminoles were not the only African American servicemen. Many blacks joined the military in 1866. Six segregated regiments were created. These cavalry and infantry troops built western forts, strung telegraph wire, and provided protection for railroad crews and settlers. They quickly gained the respect of Native Americans. In deference to their tight curly hair and willingness to fight to the death they became known as Buffalo Soldiers.
In addition to Seminole Canyon, we’ve visited Fort Davis in Texas and Fort Verde in Arizona. Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at both of these forts in the 19th century. At Fort Verde, there was a Buffalo Soldier festival when we went. We also visited the Buffalo Soldier Museum in Houston, Texas. We’ve heard tales that were new to us. We thought we’d share them.
Our first story is about one-time Atlanta resident Henry Ossian Flipper. Flipper, who was born into slavery, chose to join four other black cadets at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. The Africans were universally despised and frozen out of social activities. In 1877 Flipper was the first to graduate, commissioned as a 2nd lieutenant in the 10th Cavalry, commanding Buffalo Soldiers. The hazing didn’t stop.
In 1881 Flipper was serving as quartermaster when a new Colonel assumed command. Flipper was immediately dismissed as quartermaster but “asked” to keep watch on the quartermaster’s safe. He was court-martialed after a shortage of funds was found. He was found innocent of the charge, but was then found guilty of “conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman”. He was dishonorably discharged.
He worked as a civil engineer, and eventually retired in Atlanta. He volunteered to serve in the Spanish-American War, but his request was ignored. In 1976 the military reviewed his case and found the original sentence “unduly harsh and unjust”. He was Honorably Discharged, effective June 30th, 1882.
Speaking of the Spanish-American War, remember Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan Hill? Well, Teddy led the charge up nearby Kettle Hill. When he got to the top he saw that Buffalo Soldier Sgt. George Berry was planting the U.S. flag atop San Juan Hill. Roosevelt tried to join the action at San Juan but was ordered to go back and hold Kettle Hill.
Here’s what (then 1st lieutenant) “Black Jack,” Pershing said of the battle: “White regiments, black regiments, regulars and Rough Riders [i.e. volunteers], representing the young manhood of the North and the South, fought shoulder to shoulder, unmindful of race or color, unmindful of whether commanded by ex-Confederate or not, and mindful of only their common duty as Americans”.
Roosevelt was a bit of a glory hound. His publicist went to war with him. It was said that Teddy could never attend a wedding without wishing he were the bride or a funeral without wishing he was the corpse. So, while he initially praised the Buffalo Soldiers, it was clear that he wanted he and his Rough Riders to have credit for the victory. In a few short years, he even forgot they were praiseworthy, saying “Negro troops were shirkers in their duties and would only go so far as they were led by white officers”.
In 1906 Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned in Fort Brown near Brownsville, Texas. Brownsville was like many western towns. It welcomed the support the Buffalo Soldiers provided but didn’t welcome the soldiers themselves. Shots were fired in town. A bartender was killed and a police officer wounded. The town decided that soldiers at Fort Brown were responsible.
There was an investigation, but no trial. Teddy Roosevelt (President now) had all 167 Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Brown discharged without honor, pensions, or the possibility of getting civil service jobs in the future. In 1972 the Army investigated and found the men innocent. President Nixon had them pardoned and awarded honorable discharges (without back pay).
The notion of white supremacy in the armed forces persisted through WWI and WWII. Buffalo Soldiers continued hoping that if they fought and died defending the country they would be treated as equals. They continued coming home to segregated public services. Finally, in 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981 abolishing discrimination in the armed services based on race. Maybe the Buffalo Soldiers were correct. It’s easier to discriminate at a lunch counter than on the battlefield. The armed forces were ahead of the rest of the country in recognizing their rights.
That’s all of our stories for now. Quick, send a song title so I can get rid of my Bob Marley earworm:
Woe yoe yoe, woe woe yoe yoe
Woe yoe yeo yo, yo yo woe yo woe yo yoe