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150 Years Later, History of the Buffalo Soldiers Remains Obscure for Many

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry. This photo was taken at Ft. Keogh in Montana, but the Buffalo Soldiers were active throughout the American Southwest. Including at Fort Davis. (Library of Congress)

150 years ago this week, the first entirely black army regiment was formed. Later nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers, these regiments were critical to America's westward expansion but have been largely forgotten in history books and popular culture.

If you're not a West Texan and you don't know much about military history, you might only know the term from the Bob Marley song of the same name.

And if you don't know the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, Historian John Langellier says you're not alone.

"The black soldiers were pretty much forgotten," Langellier says, adding that this is the case for the history of the army in the west more generally.

At an event Tuesday in Fort Davis commemorating the 150th anniversary of this historic black regiment’s founding, Langellier explains the various missions of the Buffalo Soldiers.

"Westward expansion was happening after the Civil War," he says, "So [the Buffalo Soldiers] were here to protect the settlers from American Indian groups such as the Comanche, the Apache, and the Kiowa."

"But conversely," he adds "[to protect] the Indians from encroachment by whites, coming onto the reservations."

When Langelier uses the word "here," he means all across the Great Plains and the American Southwest. "Here" also means here at Fort Davis.

"Fort Davis arguably is one of the spiritual homes of the Buffalo Soldiers," he says.

That’s because it was the home base for three different Buffalo Soldier regiments at different times. But even if you lived in these regions, Langellier says it would have been extremely unlikely for you to have seen a soldier in real life. Especially if you were white, and he says that was by design.

"The Army usually posted black soldiers on the far frontiers of areas, away from civilian communities," Langellier says. "They’re not going to interface with many of these white communities."

The Buffalo Soldiers, it seems, were intended to serve invisibly. But they’ve disappeared from our memories, too.

Langellier places some of the blame on pop culture. For all the western movies shot during the era of John Wayne and Randolph Scott, he counts only two that starred black characters: Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Soul Soldier (1970).

Langellier says efforts to situate black military history in the larger context of American history has made strides within the last 20 years, but there’s still work to be done.

'We know very little about the black soldier from the black soldier’s perspective," he says.

But the way find out about the soldier’s perspective is through what they write. And compared to their white counterparts, black soldiers were much more likely to be illiterate.  

"Because they had been kept in slavery," he quickly adds, "And it was illegal to read and write."

It’s challenging work, but Langellier says it’s important these stories start circulating. And at a much earlier age.

"They really need to start in schools," he says, "I know we have core curriculum and we have things we have to teach. But I think if truly black lives matter -- and again all lives matter -- we need to start looking at different aspects of our past. So that we can learn from that past -- sometimes a very ugly past -- hopefully so we won’t repeat that ugly past."

- Travis Lux