This monument is part of the Buffalo Soldier Commemorative Area located at 290 Stimson Ave, Fort Leavenworth, KS 66027
The original Buffalo Soldier Monument was dedicated in 1992 by General Colin Powell, who was Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the time. The Commemorative Area has since expanded to memorialize significant units and individuals in African American military history, including GEN Powell himself. The project began in 1983 when GEN Powell, then the Director of Combined Arms Combat Development Activity, was stationed at Fort Leavenworth and noticed that there was little mention of Fort Leavenworth’s history with the Buffalo Soldiers beyond the 9th and 10th Cavalry streets. In 1989, years after GEN Powell left Fort Leavenworth, Command and General Staff College (CGSC) instructor Navy Commander Carlton G. Philpot took charge of the project. He, along with the Buffalo Soldier Monument Committee, immediately set to raising funds for the memorial. Artist and veteran Eddie Dixon had, at the same time, been trying to find sponsors for a sculpture memorializing the Buffalo Soldiers. Both parties ultimately shared a desire to explore and honor the history of Black Americans and united to develop the monument we see today.
Dixon’s equestrian statue, which took inspiration from Fort Leavenworth’s own 10th Cavalry, was celebrated with the designation of July 28th as National Buffalo Soldier Day and the issuing of a dedicated postage stamp. Beside the fountain, you can see memorials to the 9th and 10th Cavalries, featuring their mottos and decorations. Although the two Buffalo Soldier cavalry units feature prominently, this commemorative area is dedicated to all Black soldiers in the U.S. Army in the past, present, and future. As CDR Philpot stressed, the goal of the monument is to ensure that the achievements of Black soldiers are properly commemorated as an integral part of “American history” and, through that, emphasize that we cannot dismiss “black history” as lesser than or separate from “American history.”
Although some Black volunteer troops served during the Civil War, they did not count as part of the “regular army” and these units dissolved as soon as the war ended. The Buffalo Soldiers, consisting of the 9th and 10th Cavalries and 24th and 25th Infantries, were established in 1866 as permanent, though segregated, units of the U.S. Army. While the 9th was established in Texas, the 10th Cavalry was founded with Colonel Benjamin Grierson as its commander right here in Fort Leavenworth although most of its troops initially hailed from northeastern states, avoiding recruitment from the Deep South. Factors that played into the regional preferences for recruits included prejudice against former slaves in the South and better access to education in the North. You can find some old Buffalo Soldier barracks from the 1930s at what is now McNair Hall, just across the lake from the Commemorative Area, and their service club was at present-day Gruber Field.
There were originally four all-Black infantry units in 1866, but the 38th and 41st consolidated into the 24th and the 39th and 40th into the 25th by Congressional decree in 1869. These new units were based in Texas and Louisiana, respectively. By 1870, all companies of both infantry units had begun a tour of Texas that would last into the 1880s until they moved north. One popular theory about where the term “Buffalo Soldier” comes from is that it derives from the nickname Cheyenne people used to refer to the all-Black cavalry units in the region. Regardless of the name’s origins, though, the Buffalo Soldiers could take pride in this as buffalo were highly regarded in the Great Plains. Their overarching purpose was to defend Western frontier territories in Texas, the Dakotas, and beyond as the United States expanded its borders, most notably serving in the American Frontier Wars, Spanish-American War, and Mexican “Punitive” Expedition. The Buffalo Soldiers’ participation in the former conflict is a source of ongoing debate and study that is worth noting. Several of the Buffalo Soldiers’ achievements in the nineteenth century, as with most American military accomplishments during this time, came at the inherent expense of Indigenous life, autonomy and land, adding to the complex legacy of US imperialism. Historically, white leaders and settlers encouraged friction between Black and Indigenous people throughout North America to diminish the threat of a large uprising, and the Buffalo Soldiers likewise were usually trained to villainize the Indigenous people they encountered rather than empathize with them based on some of their similar experiences. White governments such as that of the United States ultimately exploited both groups throughout the process of frontier expansion; the Buffalo Soldiers fought and displaced Indigenous people for territory that Black people were not usually welcome to live in, a situation that benefited primarily white people.
That said, the Buffalo Soldiers’ mission in the West took myriad forms besides actual fighting, from scouting to construction to providing civilian homesteaders with relief from violence and natural disasters. Maintaining communication lines for physical mail and, later, telegraphs were of particular importance as they were the only connection between East and West at the time. The Buffalo Soldiers also escorted stagecoaches (which one can see as an exhibit inside the museum here) and defended railroads, keeping travel on the frontier as secure as possible for Americans.
Fort Leavenworth’s 10th Cavalry was the first group to receive the “Buffalo Soldier” nickname and is famous for its successes during the Spanish-American War of 1898. It was the 10th Cavalry that protected Teddy Roosevelt and his famed “Rough Riders” during battle, and of the six Black men who received the Medal of Honor in that war, five were from the 10th Cavalry; four of those five had earned the prestigious award after rescuing stranded Cuban and American soldiers during the Battle of Tayacoba. The 10th Cavalry left Fort Leavenworth in 1867 soon after its conception, but a contingent of it returned in 1931 when the War Department divided and reduced the Buffalo Soldier units. Their job was now focused on support roles such as maintenance and cooking in contrast to the combat-centric position they previously occupied. Although the soldiers performed these duties with the same diligence as they would any other work, the reassignment drew suspicion, especially considering the severely segregated state of Fort Leavenworth itself. The newspaper The Call, which highlights Black issues in the Kansas City area, drew attention to how soldiers in the 10th Cavalry could not patronize the same stores, clubs, or even pools on-post as white soldiers among other issues, which prompted a 1938 investigation into Fort Leavenworth’s segregation policies. This investigation did not result in desegregation, but it still exposed some of the legal racism the 10th Cavalry soldiers faced here and resulted in the creation of somewhat improved amenities for Black troops. Off-post, the 10th Cavalry was rather welcomed, particularly because soldiers brought in a consistent source of revenue for local merchants during the Great Depression. The 10th Cavalry left Fort Leavenworth for the final time to resume combat preparation at nearby Fort Riley in 1940 after a substantial farewell ceremony.
Serving as a Buffalo Soldier was one avenue through which Black men could strive for some upward social mobility after the Civil War. In the late 1880s, Buffalo Soldiers made up one-fifth and one-tenth of the U.S. frontier’s cavalry and infantry, respectively, showing that many men took advantage of this opportunity. Education, especially as it was inaccessible to most enslaved people, was of particular importance as many viewed it as the key to achieving racial equality in the U.S. In fact, the idea that educated citizens would make the best soldiers, a value exemplified right here in Fort Leavenworth with the CGSC, stems partly from the educational programs developed for the Buffalo Soldier units. Literacy rates improved drastically with the establishment of chaplain-run Post Schools, which offered day and evening programs for children and adults, and soldiers could now take on clerical duties for their units. However, many soldiers displayed a passion for learning beyond just what their commanding officers encouraged them to complete. The Army offered educational opportunities that Black soldiers could use not only for their careers but for their own self-improvement. The Buffalo Soldiers maintained the lowest rates of desertion and alcoholism in the Army, indicating that morale was quite high despite the isolation that came with being stationed in the West. Aside from schooling, recreational activities were key to keeping soldiers happy on the Frontier. Athletics, especially football for the 10th Cavalry, were extremely popular and the 25th Infantry’s renowned regimental band boasted talented musicians that brought joy to soldiers and civilians alike in the otherwise harsh, secluded environment.
Even as soldiers, the Buffalo Soldiers were forced to work in a segregated environment and subjected to the same discrimination experienced by Black people across the country. One example of this was when Black soldiers were forced to travel in cattle cars instead of passenger cars. This reflects how, even in the Army, Black people were treated as second-class citizens. Although a commanding officer filed a complaint for discrimination after this incident, it resulted in no further action. Low pay and poor living and working conditions also plagued the soldiers, with scouting in dangerous territories seeming preferable to the tiresome life in disintegrating pre-war forts for many soldiers. Even at Fort Leavenworth, the 10th Cavalry was housed in a swampy area (just across from where the Commemorative Area is today) that contributed to fatal cholera and pneumonia outbreaks amongst the troops. Additionally, Black soldiers were held to stricter standards than white soldiers, often receiving harsher punishments for the same infractions or even no infractions at all. Lieutenant Henry Flipper, whose bust is in the Circle of Firsts, was accused of embezzlement and dishonorably discharged for “unbecoming” behavior after he was found not guilty of the previous charge. Furthermore, Black soldiers were not immune to the danger of falling victim to lynch mobs in places like Sturgis, South Dakota near Fort Meade in 1888, especially when officers decided to turn a blind eye to local tensions. Many white civilians living near Army posts were uncomfortable with the presence of Black soldiers and petitioned the government to remove them, blaming the Black soldiers themselves for the lynchings. Fortunately, some commanding officers vouched for their good work and conduct to counteract civilian testimonies against the Buffalo Soldiers. However, this did not eliminate the threat entirely. It also did not change the views of outside officers. Famous figures such as General William Tecumseh Sherman and General George A. Custer looked down on Black troops and refused to work with them.
The Buffalo Soldiers finally began to receive significant recognition in the mid-twentieth century during the Civil Rights Movement. Since then, numerous actions have been taken to increase awareness of these soldiers’ contributions to the Army. The establishment of this commemorative area, publication of books and articles, and production of films have all increased awareness of the Buffalo Soldiers’ contributions to U.S. and Army history. The history of the Buffalo Soldiers at the frontier is closely intertwined with that of Fort Leavenworth as one of the most famous frontier posts. This monument seeks to honor their role in making Fort Leavenworth what it is today. From their founding in 1866 to their disbandment in 1951, it is undeniable that the Buffalo Soldiers forged the path for future Black service members and affirmed their rightful place in U.S. history.
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