The stakes couldn't be higher for these soldiers.
The African-American troops known collectively as the "Buffalo Soldiers" served in conflicts spanning nearly a century, even as they faced blatant racism and unabashed prejudice from their fellow service members. From their roots as cavalry and infantry soldiers in the final phases of the Civil War to their service in the American Indian Wars, the Spanish–American War, the Philippine–American War, the Mexican Border War and World Wars I and II, the Buffalo Soldiers served despite the enmity from their own countrymen.
This persistence stemmed from a sense of duty, as well as a sense of consequence. Fred Applewhite, an educator and administrator with the nonprofit educational organization the Buffalo Soldiers of the American West, spelled out these motives to an eager group of Thunder Ridge Middle School students during a presentation held on Feb. 23.
"They couldn't afford to fail," Applewhite told the crowd assembled in the Thunder Ridge library. "They had to be successful."
Applewhite, who's based in Brighton, came to Thunder Ridge equipped with plenty of tools to properly convey the accomplishments of the Buffalo Soldiers, as well as their everyday hardships and challenges. Decked in an authentic uniform of an 1860s Buffalo Soldier cavalryman, Applewhite showed off a wide array of items from the life of a soldier in the mid to late 19th century.
He held up bridles and horseshoes; he passed around a piece of hardtack, the biscuit made of flour and water that served as soldiers' sustenance during long campaigns. He showed the students a weathered bugle, the same kind of instrument that served as a prime means of field communication for the Buffalo Soldiers. He offered historical context to weathered maps and grainy, black-and-white photographs. He showed off the grizzled hide of a buffalo, and tied it to one of the many origin stories told about the name of the historic group of soldiers. According to some historians, the term "Buffalo Soldiers" stemmed from Native American tribes' association with the soldiers' curly, kinky hair with the hides of the animals.
But more than any physical objects, Applewhite relied on his skill a storyteller to make this important American story come alive. His eyes wide, his smile constant, Applewhite related the tales of some of the most noteworthy Buffalo Soldiers with an infectious enthusiasm. He sang songs of the regiments and had students assemble in simple military formations. He spoke of Cathay Williams, the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1866 – she served despite the prohibition against women in the military, signing up under the pseudonym Willam Cathay and posing as a man.
Applewhite spoke of three Buffalo Soldiers who received the Medal of Honor for their service in the Indian Wars: Pompey Factor, John Ward and Isaac Payne. He highlighted the life and accomplishments of Henry Ossian Flipper, a former slave who, in 1877, became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point. Flipper later went on to earn the rank of second lieutenant in the U.S. Army.
"The only people at West Point who spoke to Flipper were his teachers," Applewhite explained.
In all of the accounts of the lives of these military heroes, a common theme of service arose. These were soldiers who were committed to serving their country, even as their country treated them as second-class citizens.
"They understood that they were doing their job, in spite of everything," Applewhite said. "They did anything their government asked. They were soldiers."