Army erects monument to unsung black soldiers A chapter in history is finally recognized

July 26, 1992|By New York Times News Service

LEAVENWORTH, Kan. -- In the 1860s, it was a swampy meadow where black soldiers slept because they were barred from the white barracks. Last night it was to become the site of a monument to those soldiers, a 12-foot bronze statue of a black cavalryman pulling back the reins of his horse.

The Buffalo Soldier Monument at the Army's Fort Leavenworth commemorates a chapter of military history that is at once proud, shameful and unsung: the existence of separate and unequal all-black regiments in the Army, from the end of the Civil War to the integration of the armed forces in 1952.

Established by Congress to help patrol the harsh, uncharted West, the four black regiments -- two infantry and two cavalry -- were the first all-black units commissioned in peacetime.

Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was scheduled to address several thousand people at the dedication of the monument last night. It was General Powell, the first black to become the nation's highest-ranking military officer, who set in motion the effort to recognize the black regiments.

Cmdr. Carlton G. Philpot, a Navy historian who teaches at Fort Leavenworth Command and General Staff College and who led the effort to raise $850,000 to pay for the statue, says the buffalo soldiers got that name from the Indians against whom they often fought, probably because of their bravery in battle.

"They changed the face of the military forever," he said. "Despite the worst supplies, the worst of everything, they excelled in everything they did."

Although they are hardly to be found in the history textbooks and Wild West movies that shape Americans' image of the frontier, it was soldiers like those of the 9th and 10th cavalries who guarded the wagon trains, protected the payrolls and helped build the towns of the West.

"One out of every five soldiers in the West was black," Commander Philpot said. "Above all else, the buffalo soldiers were patriots."

The units fought overseas as well, distinguishing themselves in the Spanish-American War and in World War II.

In 1983, General Powell, who was then the deputy commanding general at Fort Leavenworth, discovered two gravel alleys named for the 9th and 10th cavalries. He urged that some better way be found to commemorate them. After several false starts, Commander Philpot organized the committee to raise money to build a monument. Ground was broken in 1990.

Yesterday's event coincides with a five-day 126th-anniversary celebration that brought together many surviving buffalo soldiers.

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