Giving the Buffalo Soldiers their due Columbia man spreads story of black troops

February 20, 1996|By Alisa Samuels | Alisa Samuels,SUN STAFF

They traveled across the Western frontier, fighting rustlers and bandits to protect the nation's territories. But Houston Douglas Wedlock's great-great-uncle and other Buffalo Soldiers never reached most American history books.

To correct that, Mr. Wedlock of Columbia's Long Reach village offers educational programs about his uncle, Charles Davis, and other members of the decorated all-black cavalry and infantry units.

The trucking company safety manager is the only Howard County member of the Baltimore chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Association. He heads the 44-member group's research team, members of which wear the soldiers' original blue uniforms during re-enactments.

During Black History Month, the group is traveling around the state. Members will participate in the African-American Patriots Day celebration Saturday in Baltimore.

Still largely unknown, Buffalo Soldiers were black soldiers who were sent west after the Civil War to ensure peaceful settlement of U.S. territory endangered by Mexican bandits and Indians.

It is believed that the Plains Indians labeled them Buffalo Soldiers because their hair and fighting spirit reminded the Indians of buffaloes.

The name -- applied to four Army units of black soldiers -- endured until after World War II, when the armed forces were desegregated.

Recognition of the Buffalo Soldiers is long overdue, said Edward Johnson Sr., one of the last Buffalo Soldiers.

"To talk to children without mentioning the Buffalo Soldiers is like talking about baseball without Willie Mays or Hank Aaron, or basketball without Michael Jordan or Wilt Chamberlain," said the 78-year-old Northeast Baltimore resident.

A farmer from Snow Hill on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mr. Johnson knew how to handle horses when he enlisted in the 10th Cavalry machine-gun troop at Fort Myers, Va., in October 1939. His duties included taking care of officers' horses. Because of Jim Crow laws, there were certain places he couldn't go.

Mr. Johnson said he isn't angry about how the black soldiers were treated but that he would "like this story to get into the history books."

Mr. Wedlock, 59, a retired Army sergeant, is trying to do just that.

He conducts research and visits schools to talk about the soldiers' history. He is trying to determine whether any Howard residents were Buffalo Soldiers. He said he thinks he has found two, from the Ellicott City-Elkridge area, who may have served between 1866 and 1910.

Always interested in history -- particularly military history -- Mr. Wedlock began researching the Buffalo Soldiers as a hobby. At the National Archives about seven years ago, he learned that his ancestor, Mr. Davis, was in the 9th Cavalry for 35 years and fought in the Civil War.

Buffalo Soldiers battled more than a few enemies on the Great Plains, Mr. Wedlock said. Racist settlers wouldn't have anything to do with them. Buffalo Soldiers couldn't give white soldiers orders and couldn't live near them. Sometimes, white soldiers refused to back them up.

Robert H. Miller of Camden, N.J., author of a series of books on black cowboys, said, "They were fighting to save white settlers, and at the same time the white settlers were fighting against them because they were black. It was a strange double-edged sword."

The federal government formed the all-black regiments, the 9th and 10th calvaries, in 1866. Led by white officers, they made up 20 percent of the cavalry in the West and were the only cavalry in Texas for a while. The 24th and 25th all-black infantry regiments were formed in 1869.

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