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Buffalo Soldiers Day: Celebrating Black History

The History Behind Buffalo Soldiers Day
The contributions of African Americans to the defense of the United States were overlooked for hundreds of years. In recent decades, American history has shifted and it has started to tell the story of the African American soldier not because the United States is rewriting its history, but because America is finally including the narratives of all Americans.

Over the years, we’ve learned about the bravery of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment, the African American U.S. Army unit that fought in the Civil War and secured their place in history by leading a failed, but extraordinarily valiant assault on Fort Wagner in 1863. We also know about the Tuskegee Airmen, the African American airmen of the U.S. Army Air Forces who flew in World War II and destroyed hundreds of enemy planes in Europe. And while we know about the Buffalo Soldiers, most of us are not really aware about the depths of their contributions to our country and our American culture.

Not long after the Civil War ended, and units like the 54th Massachusetts Regiment were disbanded, Congress passed the Army Reorganization Act in 1866 which doubled the size of the U.S. Army and added six all-African-American regiments to the military. More than 180,000 African Americans served, according to the U.S. Army. Three years later the six segregated regiments were consolidated into the 9th and 10th Calvary, and into the 24th and 25th Infantry. These units would become what we know today as the Buffalo Soldiers.

In their early years, the Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for supporting westward expansion of the United States. They protected settlers and helped build roads and national infrastructure. The Buffalo Soldiers also frequently clashed with Native Americans on the plains and it was during these skirmishes that the Buffalo Soldiers earned their nom de guerre and reputation. 

Historical sources differ, but some state that the African American soldiers were called the Buffalo Soldiers because the Cheyenne warriors who fought them considered them fierce in battle, much like a buffalo when it is being hunted. Other sources state that the Cheyenne tagged them as Buffalo Soldiers because they thought the soldiers’ hair was similar to the fur between the horns of the buffalo. Others believe they were called Buffalo Soldiers because their skin color resembled the color of buffaloes. Whatever the reason, the name stuck.

Buffalo Soldiers and National Parks
The first National Park, Yellowstone, was created in 1872, but by the 1890s, three national parks existed and needed protection from illicit logging, cattle grazing, fires, and hunting. The U.S. Army was tasked with the mission to protect the national parks and the Buffalo Soldiers, assigned to the western United States, were given the task.

According to the National Park Service, the well-recognized park ranger hats of today were actually inspired by the hats worn by the Buffalo Soldiers. In addition, former leaders of the Buffalo Soldiers are recognized as some of the national parks’ first superintendents.

Needless to say, Buffalo Soldiers Day is recognized at national parks.

Buffalo Soldiers Day
Buffalo Soldiers Day is July 28 and marks the formation of the first Army regiments comprised of African American Soldiers. In 1992, Congress passed a law designating July 28 as Buffalo Soldiers Day.

Today, Buffalo Soldiers Day is recognized to acknowledge the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers Day has helped raise awareness of the brave men, and one woman, Cathay Williams, of the Buffalo Soldiers. Williams enlisted as William Cathay and served in the infantry until being discovered and later honorably discharged. She was the first African American woman to serve in the U.S. Army and she is the only woman to serve in uniform as a Buffalo Soldier.

Buffalo Soldiers Day has also given Americans the opportunity to learn about how the Buffalo Soldiers fought alongside of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. Buffalo Soldiers Day has helped teach Americans that the Buffalo Soldiers served in the Philippines and fought against Pancho Villa during the Mexican Punitive Expedition.

Buffalo Soldiers Day Reflections
In 1948, President Harry Truman signed an executive order eliminating racial segregation in the U.S. military and the last African American units were disbanded during the 1950s, but while they existed, Buffalo Soldiers earned Medals of Honor and participated in numerous campaigns. From their ranks emerged great military leaders including Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., Charles Young, and former slave Henry Flipper, the first African American to graduate from West Point.

It is fitting that in July 1992, the first time Buffalo Soldiers Day was commemorated, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Gen. Colin Powell dedicated the National Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas to honor the exceptional legacy of these great soldiers.
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