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Honoring the Buffalo Soldier

February 28, 2002|By KEVIN CLAPP

Jackie Robinson was one. So was Joe Louis.

Secretary of State Colin Powell has said he would not be where he is today if not for them.

They are the Buffalo Soldiers, members of all-black units originally founded during the Civil War. Starting as stewards of the western frontier while the Civil War raged, their military presence continued through World War II.

Saturday, March 2, a program at the Martin Luther King Center, 131 W. North St. in Hagerstown, will recognize the struggle of the Buffalo Soldier, including Cpl. William O. Wilson, the only Washington County recipient of the Medal of Honor.

Buffalo Soldier Day will feature displays, including Wilson's medal, speakers, Wilson's descendants, members of the Baltimore Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association historical preservation society and a unit from VisionQuest at Fort James Webster Smith in South Mountain, Pa.

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VisionQuest conducts programs for at-risk youth in six states, including Buffalo Soldier living history and re-enactments. Saturday, VisionQuest's 12th platoon of 15 teenaged women will serve as honor guard.

"We're getting the public to understand the importance of honoring the Buffalo Soldiers and black history in general," says South Mountain Lodge Director Bob Howard. "We try to get kids in touch with that type of heritage to put their history and ancestors in perspective. A lot of kids who come to us don't know what their heritage is, or where their family is from."

Hollywood depictions of the Buffalo Soldiers, says VisionQuest leader Fred Newton, are spotty at best. Buffalo Soldier Day provides an opportunity to learn about the role and plight of black soldiers from those who study it, such as members of the Horse Cavalry.

Buffalo Soldiers were first employed during the Civil War, largely to oversee U.S. interests in the west while war raged back east. In the years following the Civil War, Buffalo Soldiers - so named by Cheyenne warriors impressed by their fighting - were used in the Spanish-American War, served in the Phillipines and in China, and also fought during World Wars I and II.

Black soldiers were segregated in the military until the Korean War.

Houston Wedlock and Isaac and Margo Prentice are all members in the cavalry, spending their time educating the public about Buffalo Soldiers and their legacy. They agree that the present cannot be put into its proper perspective without first looking to the past.

"We talk about history, and I know I read a paragraph once many, many years ago about Buffalo Soldiers. And it comes up a lot in February because of Black History Month," Newton says. "But one of the things you need to remember is we're not just talking about black history. We're talking about American history."

And that history has been woefully underreported.

After all, Prentice says, it is arguable that Teddy Roosevelt would not have become governor of New York, never mind attain the presidency, without the actions of Buffalo Soldiers who led the charge up San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American war, a battle that helped make Roosevelt's reputation.

"All this is very important. This is American history," Prentice says. "This is a rich history that needs to be gotten out."

Fascinated by Wilson's story, Boonsboro resident Don Brown has long been associated with the Wilson family. When the Horse Cavalry expressed an interest in holding Buffalo Soldier Day in Hagerstown, Brown eagerly offered to help pull it off.

Co-coordinator of the event, he says it is critical to recognize the lives and contributions of the men and women who played a vital role in the nation's history.

"Because of the pervasive racism that existed up through the 1950s, the knowledge of what was achieved by black soldiers was just suppressed," Brown says. "Recently, this information is coming out, and will continue to be written about."

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