The Reenactors

Sometimes the best way to remember the past is to bring it to life in the present. Since the early 1990s, Buffalo Soldier reenactment groups have been springing up all over the nation to pay tribute to these largely forgotten American servicemen.

Members of several Arizona-based Buffalo Soldier associations were instrumental in the filming of “ Helluva Way to Treat a Soldier” as they depicted the arduous life of black soldiers stationed at Fort Craig in the late 1800s.

“This film is helping educate the public about the existence of the Buffalo Soldiers,” says Billy Stewart of Phoenix, “and that’s why we do what we do.”

Stewart points to gaps in public awareness of the role that Buffalo Soldiers played in settling the American frontier. “Even among blacks, everybody knows who Puff Daddy and the other rappers are, but they were never taught about the Buffalo Soldiers.”

“It surprised me how much of their history hasn’t been told,” says Sammie Parker of Tucson. Parker’s involvement began when he came across a pamphlet authored by a professor whose history class Parker had attended. “It was about the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Apache and it just described them as playing football and serving in menial jobs. I was amazed at the lack of information because I just knew those guys had done a whole lot more than that.”

In addition to putting on the uniform and marching or riding, Buffalo Soldier reenactors tend to be ardent researchers. They trade information amongst themselves, search online, and immerse themselves in library archives in a tireless pursuit of the hidden chapters of America’s black fighting units.

“There’s nothing in the history books about Buffalo Soldiers,” says Charles Young of Casa Grande. “And this is part of Arizona history, it’s something that should be taught in the schools.” Young, who describes some of the Buffalo Soldier units as America’s “first border patrol” believes that if it weren’t for those African American troops the southwestern portion of the U.S. map could look a lot different today. “We might not have been able settle this land at all.”

That the service of African American soldiers on the western frontier was hidden in plain sight for over a century is hardly a mystery. Blacks from all walks of life were virtually eliminated from novels, films, and even from respected historical accounts of the West. In the case of the Buffalo Soldiers, however, this media purging was doubly ironic. During the American Indian Wars, the public was intensely interested in the conflicts between settlers and native tribes, but frontier reporting was racially selective.

“There was a general ignorance of black soldiers, even within the military and certainly in the media at the time,” says Madison Walker, a Buffalo Soldier reenactor from Mesa, Arizona.

Newspaper readers in the 1880s could have read accounts of the missions of the Ninth and Tenth Cavalries, says Walker, “ And yet not even know that they were reading about black troops.” It was a pattern that extended into the Spanish American War where Buffalo Soldiers engaged in the fiercest fighting in Cuba only to be forgotten by reporters and historians after the smoke cleared.

Correcting the omissions of media past and present is the primary goal of Buffalo Soldier reenactors who participate in parades, exhibits, rodeos, and educational presentations throughout the nation. The groups operate under various names such as Buffalo Soldiers of the Arizona Territory: Ladies and Gentlemen of the Regiment; the Ninth Cavalry Memorial Outfit; and the Arizona Buffalo Soldiers Association. The groups’ members come from various walks of life.

“We have people from all different backgrounds,” says Parker citing engineers, teachers, and managers as examples.

While the actual number of Buffalo Soldier reenactors nationwide is elusive with new groups constantly forming, what is certain is that rediscovering the lost history of black military units has become a passion for African Americans from coast to coast. Much of the motivation is to pay tribute to the tens of thousands of soldiers whose contributions were nearly obliterated forever. But the research and reenacting often also comes from a personal passion.

For Walker, his curiosity was piqued when he dug into his own father’s military records to better understand why the senior Walker had been confined to veterans hospitals for nearly all of his adult life. Digging into classified materials through Freedom of Information requests, Walker discovered that his long absent father had been subjected to chemical testing while serving during World War II. “My father was a hero,” says Walker, who used the same diligence to pursue the Buffalo Soldier story in the National Archives and through other avenues.

Young still regrets the lost history within his own family. “I have kicked myself a thousand times,” says Young, “because my grandmother used to talk about a great uncle who had been a Buffalo Soldier involved with that incident in Brownsville.” (In 1906, dozens of Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Infantry were cashiered out of the military, some losing pensions after 20 years of service, when they were unjustly accused of concealing the murderers of local townspeople.)

“When I first heard about having a relative who was a Buffalo Soldier and involved in that, I was very young. So it just went in one ear and out the other.” When Young became interested in that family story years later, the relatives who could shed light on it had all passed away. Young sees his reenacting activities as part of an effort to prevent more pieces of history from fading from public consciousness.

In addition to his reenacting activities, Parker is also involved in a group seeking to restore Camp Naco, a Buffalo Soldier outpost that played a critical role in protecting the border during the Mexican revolution. Parker, who like Walker, Young, and Stewart is a veteran, believes that contemporary black servicemen owe a debt of gratitude to the Buffalo Soldiers.

“These guys paved the way for the rest of us,” says Parker.

Stewart, who at 82 is the oldest of the Buffalo Soldier reenactors appearing in “ Helluva Way to Treat a Soldier,” has a unique perspective on the Buffalo Soldier story. In 1946, Stewart enlisted in the U.S. Army and was sent overseas with the 24th Infantry, which was an actual Buffalo Soldier regiment. During his service, he participated in what was the first integration of an American infantry unit under President Truman’s order. “I was honored to be part of that.”

Ironically, Stewart didn’t realize at the time that he himself was an actual Buffalo Soldier. “It wasn’t until I moved to Arizona in ’91 that I began to learn this history,” says Stewart.

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