Riding to rescue of Buffalo Soldiers Black troops ignored by history, kin says

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 his tory books.

To correct the slight, Mr. Wedlock, of Columbia's Long Reach village, offers educational programs about his uncle, Charles Davis, and other members of the oft-decorated, all-black cavalries and infantries.

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

During Black History Month, the group is traveling around the state. It will participate in the African-American Patriots Day celebration Saturday in Baltimore. On March 13, members will visit Glenwood Middle School.

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's believed the plains Indians labelled them Buffalo Soldiers because their hair and fighting spirit reminded the Indians of buffaloes.

The name -- applied to four segregated Army units of black soldiers -- stuck well after World War II until the early 1950s when the U.S. 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 from northeast Baltimore.

Snow Hill farmer

A farmer from Snow Hill on Maryland's Eastern Shore, Mr. Johnson knew how to handle horses and enlisted in the 10th Cavalry machine-gun troop in 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's not angry about how the black soldiers were treated, but "I'd like this story to get into the history books."

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

He conducts research and visits schools to talk about the soldiers' history. Currently, he's trying to discover if any Howard residents were Buffalo Soldiers. He said he thinks he's found two, from the Ellicott City-Elkridge area, who may have served from 1866 to 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.

"I was proud," he said. "A lot of people don't know what blacks have contributed to this nation's defense."

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.

'Double-edged sword'

Robert H. Miller, of Camden, N.J., author of a series of books on black cowboys, added: "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.

"After the Civil War, when blacks had an opportunity to be free, here was a chance for black men out of slavery to earn $13 a month," Mr. Wedlock said. "To them that was big money."

Aside from fighting, the soldiers also built forts and telegraph lines and captured outlaws. They rescued Gen. George A. Custer on several occasions, Mr. Miller said, and fought with Teddy Roosevelt at the Battle of San Juan Hill in Cuba.

Decorated units

Given three presidential citations, the Buffalo Soldiers were among the nation's more decorated military units.

A woman -- Cathy Williams -- even served in the group for 22 months. She changed her name to William Cathy, Mr. Wedlock said. Ill with typhoid, the army discovered her gender during a physical examination.

After the army was integrated, the Buffalo Soldiers unit disbanded in 1952. Forty years later, a monument was built in their honor at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., home of the 10th Cavalry.

Mr. Wedlock said he'd like to turn his research into a book about the Buffalo Soldiers "to set the record straight."

"You see John Wayne [in movies about the Old West]," he said, "but you never see black soldiers."

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