African-American heroes inspiring for researcher

Neighbors

February 09, 1999|By John J. Snyder | John J. Snyder,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

County Council Chairman C. Vernon Gray says that "all African-Americans are living black history."

It's an important point to ponder now, during Black History Month.

The important contribution of Africans to the vigorous growth of the United States is becoming better known through this yearly celebration.

Researcher and re-enactor Houston D. Wedlock, a resident of Oakland Mills, tells of the Buffalo Soldiers, the black troops in the segregated Army who helped open up the West and fought with distinction, although they were denied many of the rights and privileges accorded white soldiers.

Wedlock, 62, a tall, handsome fellow with an easy smile, has the military bearing of a former Army paratrooper. In his 20 years of service, he jumped with the 82nd and 101st Airborne Divisions, and was a member of the elite Green Beret special forces unit in Vietnam.

He retired as a sergeant first class, having earned the Combat Infantryman Badge, two bronze stars and the Vietnam Cross of Gallantry.

Born in Clarke County, Va., Wedlock remembers seeing the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalries passing by his boyhood home on their way to the remount station in nearby Luray.

They came from as far west as Nebraska and were changing horses before continuing on to Fort Myers across the Potomac from Washington, or to other points north or south.

The trail past Wedlock's house dated to 1866, when four black regiments were formed: the 9th and 10th cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries.

The soldiers had earned the job of protecting settlers and survey parties and pursuing bandits and hostile Indians. Those difficult assignments were given to them in recognition of the courageous service of 80,000 black fighting troops in the Union Army during the Civil War.

Buffalo Soldiers were named by the Native Americans for their tenacity in battle and the texture of their hair.

The 10th Cavalry proudly took the symbol of the buffalo, revered by the Indians, as its insignia.

Eighteen Medals of Honor -- the nation's highest award -- were presented to black soldiers for heroism in the Indian wars. Gen. John J. Pershing considered it an honor to have the men of color under his command in pursuing Pancho Villa into Mexico and in the battles of the Spanish-American War.

A living hero

In Virginia during the early 1940s, Cpl. William M. Decatur of the 10th Cavalry might have been one of the soldiers passing young Houston Wedlock's home.

Decatur is nearly 80 and lives on a rolling seven acres in the countryside near Sykesville with his wife, Alma, and their collection of quarter horses, Shetland ponies and a mule.

The vigorous former corporal attends many of the re-enactments and educational programs organized by Wedlock.

In uniform, Decatur adds a stamp of authenticity to the history of the Buffalo Soldier. He is a living example of these brave men.

Decatur served near the end of segregation in the armed forces. The Buffalo Soldiers were still together through World War II and in Korea.

The Army was desegregated in 1952.

Of those times, Decatur says, "you wouldn't give a dime to do it over again, but I wouldn't take a thousand dollars for the experience."

"It was something I did, I liked it, and that's the way it is."

The corporal glosses over the injustices and slights he suffered by remembering the camaraderie of the fine men -- black, white and Native American -- with whom he served. He describes the hard work, how the horses were always attended to first and the rigid ceremonial duties.

He regularly brings Wedlock to fits of laughter with stories of days that just didn't go right, horses that wouldn't behave for pompous generals and solemn funeral details that went awry.

Re-enacting helps Wedlock keep a firm hold on the past. The enduring memory of hundreds of dusty black cavalrymen passing him by as they traveled across the country has kept his attention on the meaning of courage and patriotism and the presence of history in daily life.

"This is not just black history," he says. "This is American history."

Wedlock also has his eye on the future. He earns his living as transportation director for VisionQuest, a national organization that uses the ideals and achievements of the Buffalo Soldiers to guide and support troubled youths.

No matter how mixed up they are, Wedlock says, children will change for the better the minute they get close to a horse. "Put that kid in the saddle," he says, "give him the responsibility of looking after something so powerful and so fragile you'll see a new kid come out."

Under the auspices of the Helping Hands Enrichment and Leadership Foundation, Wedlock and Decatur will bring a historical presentation on the Buffalo Soldiers to Jeffers Hill Elementary School on March 20.

For information, call Wedlock at 410-381-2712.

The African experience

Beverley Meyers, events coordinator for Kings Contrivance Community Association, reports that "The African Experience," a Black History Month celebration featuring a storyteller, crafts for children and a program from the Maryland Museum of African Art, will be held from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday at the Kings Contrivance community center.

Craft items from Africa will be for sale.

Admission is free, but registration is requested. All who attend are asked to bring potluck dishes to share for lunch.

Information: 410-381-9600.

Pub Date: 2/09/99

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