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Buffalo Soldiers in the Trenches

By February 15, 2019 24 Comments

By the time American troops got to Europe in 1917, African-Americans had an established, but not celebrated history in military service of our country. In 1862, under the direction of Thomas Wentworth Higgenson, the sworn abolitionist and literary heartthrob of Emily Dickinson, the first federally authorized Black military unit, the First South Carolina Volunteers, went to war.

In 1863, the 54th Voluntary Massachusetts Infantry, provided a bloody frontal assault on Ft. Wagner, Charleston, West Virginia, on July 18, 1863, a story boldly told in Glory (1989), starring Denzel Washington.

When the Civil War ended, African-Americans were recruited for a unit that became known as the “Buffalo Soldiers,” a cavalry regiment based at Ft. Leavenworth, Kansas.

African-American rough-riders stormed San Juan Hill with Teddy Roosevelt, even stepped in between cattlemen and ranchers in Wyoming’s Johnson County War.

Still, by 1915 white American Doughboys weren’t thrilled about Black sidekicks. African-Americans believed their service offered a place in society otherwise flatly unachievable. Within a week of Wilson’s Declaration of War, the army stopped enlisting Black volunteers because their quota was full. Eventually, 350,000 would serve.

But racism was everywhere, as was enforced segregation. Still, by the end of the war, the armed forces offered more and varied opportunities for Black men than those Black men would have found had they never left home. Black troops served in cavalry, infantry, signal, medical, engineer, and artillery units, as chaplains, surveyors, truck drivers, chemists, and intelligence officers. Still, often as not, white men refused to salute Black officers and most enlisted African-Americans did only the lowliest service jobs.

Before the Declaration, W. E. B DuBois warned Black folks that the First World War wasn’t just a white man’s war. In an essay titled “White Imperialism,” DeBois called that attitude a mistake. “The present war in Europe,” he wrote, “is one of the great disasters due to race and color prejudice and it but foreshadows greater disasters in the future.”

DuBois claimed the war in France and Belgium pitted powers whose major interest was imperialist, conquering and taking control of lands and people they could exploit.

“Asia, Africa, the South Sea Islands, the West Indies, Mexico and Central America and much of South America have long been designated by the white world as fit field for this kind of commercial exploitation,” he wrote, “for the benefit of Europe and with little regard for the welfare of the natives.”

That kind of exploitation is only one kind of racial “abuse.” There is another, DuBois says. “In this way a theory of the inferiority of the darker peoples and a contempt for their rights and aspirations has become all but universal in the greatest centers of modern culture.”

That line is 104 years old. But I remember a remarkable American newsmaker just recently wondering aloud why America doesn’t recruit more Norwegian immigrants.  “Why are we having all these people from sh*thole countries come here?” he said. A century later, DuBois still had it right.

For the record, in two weeks of intense, hand-to-hand combat at Champagne, the 372nd Infantry of the 93rd Regiment, all African-Americans, suffered 600 casualties. The French government awarded the entire unit the Croix de Guerre, with 43 officers, 14 non-commissioned officers, and 116 privates receiving either the Croix de Guerre or the Distinguished Service Cross. And there were many more.

On 11 November 1918 at 1100 hours, the war ended. African-American troops celebrated, I’m sure, with hugs and shouts of joy and relief. But a price was paid. 53,000 Doughboys didn’t return. The 92d Division and 93rd Divisions, both African-American, suffered more than 5000 casualties.

But then, just imagine what happened next. Finally, all those troops came back stateside in 1919, one hundred years ago right about now. Just like the rest, those African-Americans vets, as battle-weary as any, walked home. In Harlem, a quarter-million people greeted the 369th Infantry Regiment on February 17, 1919.

All that joy and hoopla notwithstanding, many of them marched right back into the malevolent bigotry of the world of Jim Crow.

James C. Schaap

James Calvin Schaap is a retired English prof who has been something of a writer for most of the last 40 years. His latest work, a novel, Looking for Dawn, set in reservation country, is the story of two young women joined by their parents' mutual brokenness and, finally, a machine-shed sacrament of reconciliation. He writes and narrates a weekly essay on regional history for KWIT, public radio, Sioux City, Iowa. He and his wife Barbara live on the northern edge of Alton, Iowa, the Sgt. Floyd River a hundred yards or so from their back door. They have a cat--rather, he has them.


  • Daniel J Meeter says:

    Oh my God. Jim, this is so wonderful, so honouring, so moving.

  • Kathy D Van Rees says:

    I loved this. So full of good history. I once read a novel by Chris Bohlian entitled *Buffalo Soldier*. Heartwarming story about a young boy who relates to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.

  • Jim says:

    In fact, 1919 saw perhaps the worst spate of white-on-black “race riots” in US history. Chicago, StLouis…..

  • George E says:

    Yes, Wilson certainly was a terrible racist, wasn’t he. Fortunately, our current “newsmaker” advocates for less biased diversity.

    • J C Schaap says:

      I’m not sure why you want to be so negative. I’ll never forget the story of how he reacted to taking us to war (see my post of May 4, 2018.) And, yes, our current newsmaker appears to be very good at creating jobs for all.

  • Marty Wondaal says:

    Professor Schaap,

    You and I live in the least racist society in world history. The issues you write about, while historically true, are largely in the past. Much of the progress we have made is based on ideas on which our country (and Western Civilization) were founded. Ideas like natural law, limited government, rule of law, property rights, and the sanctity and dignity of the individual. You should use your considerable research and writing talents to share stories that promote these virtuous ideas.

    I would like to note that the two most recent media-driven racially-based stories (the Covington boys and the Chicago actor) are turning out to be hate hoaxes. The intention of both of these episodes is to drive the narrative that white America is incorrigibly racist. Both stories are falling apart. It takes only a little discernment to avoid falling for these hoaxes, unless prevented by one’s own internal bigotry.

    There are, I believe, injustices that are being externally inflicted on Black Americans that we can help eradicate. They are abortion and open immigration. The former (of course) kills them inordinately and the latter prevents them from climbing the economic latter. Both are immoral and both, either tacitly or explicitly, are promoted by writers on this site.

    • Bob VL says:

      Marty, I’ll follow your lead in telling Jim what he should do and suggest the you should read The Color of Compromise by Jamar Tisby. A brother in Christ, Tisby challenges the church to confront its role in racism. Would he do that if, as you say, the issues of racism “are largely in the past?”

      • James Schaap says:

        Thanks. I must have missed your note, when I replied; but it seems to me that what’s in that book is worth repeating. 🙂

    • James Schaap says:

      You may not find them worth your time, Marty, but I have found two books to be helpful to me as an old white guy. One is _The Cross and the Lynching Tree_, by James H. Cone, and the other is _The Color of Compromise_, by Jemar Tisby, who, by the way, graduated from Reformed Theological Seminary.

      I posted what I did because I have been reading about World War I for a while now–I lost a great uncle in that war. Kansas City has a wonderful WWI museum you could visit. I know, I know–WWI is largely in the past, but the place taught me a lot. I don’t know about you, but at 71 years old, I still think it’s a joy to learn.

      Also, I posted what I did because it happens to be Black History Month. BTW, can we just swap hoaxes and be done with it? How about this? “The Central Park Seven” and Obama’s birth place for just about anything you can throw at me.

      • Marty Wondaal says:

        I’ve read Cone. I’ve researched his theology. I find it risible, derivative of Marxism, and borderline heretical. But, also kind of amusing, in a performance kind of way. I will effort to read Tisby, I’m sure it will be better.

        I think if we did a “hoax-off”, which sounds kind of fun, I would win. Particularly if we limit it to the last 30 years. I must say however, that I did not believe in the two that you mentioned (ahem,ahem). As Christians, we shouldn’t get “rolled by scoundrels” (credit: Matt Huisman) regardless of political affiliation.

        In the past week I’ve seen three movies about post-colonial Africa (Africa Addio, The Last King of Scotland, and another history of Idi Amin on Public TV). The atrocities that happen in Africa are unspeakable, and make me thankful, that, for the most part, we are on the right track regarding how we treat our fellow man. What is the difference between our culture and theirs?

  • William Harris says:

    There is a fine cycle of poems about the return of the 369th in Rita Dove’s American Smooth.

  • Susan Grefe says:

    Thank you for a wonderful article about the Buffalo Soldiers and the deep racism in our country today. Keep writing! You are being read and hopefully minds will become enlightened.

    • James Schaap says:

      Thanks so much for the encouragement. Our racial history is an incredible story. When I can, I’ll keep telling it.

  • John vanStaalduinen says:

    I love History. His Story under this remarkable recent newsmaker tells of record numbers of employed African-Americans. I fail to see where our great nation’s “racism runs so deep”. In fact if my memory serves me correct (I have not googled this) this great nation recently had a remarkable newsmaker that was not “an ole white man”.

    • James Schaap says:

      Incredibly low unemployment is a great blessing. If you do google what you’re speculating, you will discover you’re right. His name was oddly foreign—Barrack Obama. His mother was white, if I remember right.

  • Matt Huisman says:

    I think the comment (“You and I live in the least racist society in world history”) Marty opened with is an interesting one. Is that true (and I mean it would have to be true to a significant degree)? And if it is true, does it matter?

    I honestly have no idea how the writers here would answer.

    • James Schaap says:

      I don’t know how I’d answer that, quite frankly, in part because I’m not at all sure how we would make that kind of evaluation—which country or culture is most or least racist. Jamar Tisby will be speaking at Dordt sometime in the next few weeks. You might want to come around and ask him for his views.

  • MBlacquiere says:

    Many Black soldiers were lynched when they returned from serving in the US military. A good article regarding this sad history:

  • Tom Ackerman says:

    Thought you might find this article published in the Seattle Times on Sunday, to be interesting.

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