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The Unknown Army

Buffalo Soldiers connect kids with Texas history beyond the textbook.

By Sheryl Smith-Rodgers

“So, who were the Buffalo Soldiers?”

Surrounded by schoolkids at Blanco State Park, Luis Padilla, who’s portraying a first sergeant with the U.S. 9th Cavalry, poses the question while rocking back and forth on his heels. He’s “riding” horseback, outfitted in 1870s military jacket, black knee-high boots and a muskrat hat that covers his ears. Beside him, a third-grade girl wearing a too-big military jacket and campaign hat mimics his every move.

Instantly, hands shoot up in the air, and a chorus of young voices shouts out the answer.

“The first professional black soldiers in the U.S. Army!”

Padilla grins and gives his volunteer sidekick a thumbs-up. From beneath her wide-brimmed hat, she grins back.

Chalk up another successful history lesson for the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage and Outreach Program with the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department. In its 20th year, the program seeks to accomplish two main goals: interpret the pivotal role that Buffalo Soldiers played in American history, and encourage people to spend more time outdoors, especially in state parks.

“But we’re not just telling a ‘black’ story,” Padilla, the program supervisor, tells me later. “It’s a ‘we’ story. We’re living historians, not re-enactors, who also talk about vaqueros, Native Americans, Seminole scouts, frontier women and other cultural groups in Texas during the late 1800s.”

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Historical perspective

Throughout the Civil War, thousands of African Americans fought and died for the Union. Yet those same men, who’d proven themselves on the battlefield, returned home to find they were still treated much like slaves. Meanwhile, the nation’s Army, downsized after the war ended in 1865, wasn’t large enough to handle growing tensions on the Western frontier, where Indian wars and other dangers threatened settlers and their families.

Though some people still doubted the combat abilities of black soldiers, the Army needed to beef up its ranks. As an experiment, Congress in July 1866 formed six new regiments made up of black troops led by white officers. (Later, the Army consolidated four infantry units into two.) Ultimately, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments would serve on posts that stretched from Texas to the Dakota territories.

For the first time ever, former slaves and freedmen, most of whom were illiterate, could work as professional soldiers and earn the same monthly $13 that white soldiers received. What’s more, the job came with food, clothing, shelter and a basic education. Recruits signed up in hopes of bettering their lives.

They succeeded, but it was no easy task. The black soldiers faced hostile enemies, extreme weather, infectious diseases, rugged terrain and plenty of prejudice. Often the very people whom they were sent to protect treated them with outright contempt. Still, the troops, even when meagerly fed and supplied, stoically and heroically performed their assigned duties. They escorted stagecoaches and trains, protected mail carriers, scouted out and mapped new regions, fought Indians, constructed forts and bridges, and tracked down bandits and cattle rustlers.

The soldiers endured the harshest of conditions with few complaints. Under fire, they showed little fear, only courage, cool restraint and the fiercest kind of determination. (Desertion rates among black soldiers ranked among the lowest in the Army.) Nothing seemed to be able to rattle the black soldiers in blue wool uniforms. That fighting spirit likely reminded the Indians of their revered buffalo (bison). So did the black men’s dark eyes and hair. As early as 1872, the troopers became known as Buffalo Soldiers.

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Connecting with the past

Ken Pollard, now retired after 30 years with TPWD, won’t forget the day that changed his life in 1990. As a maintenance supervisor in Abilene, he oversaw a western region that included several frontier posts. On a stop at Fort Griffin State Historic Site, Pollard asked why vintage photographs of black men hung on a wall in the visitors center.

“The park manager told me about Buffalo Soldiers,” Pollard says. “In all my years, I’d never heard of them before. That’s when I first connected with them.”

His ties deepened when he dug back and learned that several of his own ancestors had served as Buffalo Soldiers. Soon Pollard joined the Old Fort Griffin Memorial Regiment, which presented Buffalo Soldier programs at schools and special events. He also became involved with Abilene’s Soldiers in Blue Committee, a volunteer group dedicated to retelling the Buffalo Soldier story.

“At the time, a lot of African American history focused on slavery, picking cotton and slaughtering hogs,” Pollard says. “I realized that a part of our history was not being represented in TPWD’s interpretive programs.”

Department officials agreed. In 1995, Pollard transferred to Austin, where he was assigned to develop a new statewide educational program.

“TPWD purchased the copyright from the Soldiers in Blue Committee, and we got to work,” he says.

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For 15 years, Pollard led the department’s Buffalo Soldiers Heritage and Outreach Program, which coordinated and produced living history events for schools and other groups. To ensure accurate portrayals of life on the frontier, he and research historian Vicki Hagen spent hours delving into historical materials to learn what Buffalo Soldiers ate, what they packed and how they spent their leisure time. At events, Pollard wore the dark blue jacket and sky blue trousers of a 9th Cavalry soldier, while Hagen, dressed in long-sleeved blouse and floor-length skirt, depicted a frontier woman.

With time, more volunteers signed up to help. Within TPWD, Pollard successfully recruited staff from other divisions, such as law enforcement, wildlife and state parks, to participate in outreach programs. Statewide, Pollard partnered with Buffalo Soldier groups and community organizations.

“To get the program more in the public eye, we involved as many people as we could,” he says. “Whenever we could, we tied our programs into local history.”

The far-reaching network of volunteers and resources broadened the program’s scope. In 1999, a Buffalo Soldier color guard participated in Gov. George W. Bush’s inauguration parade. That same year, Pollard and Hagen and other Buffalo Soldier historians worked with the 76th Legislature to have July officially designated as Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Month. They also helped to develop the Texas Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Trail, part of a statewide heritage tourism initiative.

In January 2005, Pollard and his staff coordinated the Huff Diary Wagon Train Project, a three-week trek in horse-drawn wagons that retraced a route taken in 1849 by William P. Huff on his way to the California Gold Rush. The hands-on history project involved sixth-graders from Texas and California who made the 650-mile trip and read Huff’s journals along the way.

“It took a year to plan,” Pollard recalls. “For nearly a month, the kids rode in wagons and camped out. We had dust storms, freezing temperatures, sleet and frozen mud. But the trip was an amazing learning experience.”

Whatever project or event Pollard took on, he always added his own special touch.

“I’d ask the kids, ‘What is your gift? What are you good at doing?’” he recalls. “I wanted to instill a sense of pride in themselves, like the Buffalo Soldiers did. I told them that education was crucial for achieving their dreams and bettering their lives.”

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Moving forward

Back at Blanco State Park, a crowd of third-graders has gathered at the canvas tent of Ricky Dolifka, a TPWD outreach assistant who portrays a white officer with the U.S. 9th Cavalry. On a wooden table, he’s laid out a collection of old-time baseballs, mitts and bats.

“We had a lot of time to relax and play games,” Dolifka tells the students. “We learned how to play baseball from officer Abner Doubleday, who’s believed to have invented the game and commanded the 24th Infantry at Fort McKavett.”

After the baseball history lesson, he teaches the kids how to play trap ball, an old English game that uses a soft leathery ball, a wooden paddle and a levered wooden trap. Even the teachers try their hand at stomping the ball into the air, then whacking it with a paddle.

At another tent, the third-graders listen as Clifton Fifer, a retired Kerrville teacher dressed as a Seminole scout, tells a Native American legend about a turtle and demonstrates how Indian shamans used a whip to remove arrows from victims. While Fifer plays a wooden flute, three students accompany him, beating a drum and shaking rattles.

At a third tent, Allen Mack (another TPWD outreach assistant) teaches the kids how to identify wildlife by their hides, scat and tracks.

“Where do you think this poop comes from?” he asks, holding up a rubberized specimen. “A meat eater? Plant eater? Come on, even if you’re wrong, you’ll get a fist bump!”

Giggling, several kids wave their hands in the air and holler an answer. Everyone’s smiling in the small crowd.

“Our programs are about having fun and learning,” Padilla says.

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Like Pollard, Padilla recalls the day his own life took a turn. As a temporary clerk hired in 2006, he was entering data in a computer when Pollard, his supervisor, walked into the office, outfitted in his cavalry uniform.

“I asked why he was dressed like that,” Padilla says. “I’d never heard of a Buffalo Soldier before. Ken tossed a book at me and said, ‘Read this.’”

The historical narrative written by William and Shirley Leckie about Buffalo Soldiers intrigued Padilla. He stayed on another half-year at TPWD and was hired full-time to work with the program. When Pollard assigned him a uniform and a soldier history, Padilla knew he’d found his calling.

“I portray a sergeant with the 9th Cavalry,” Padilla says. “I use my own story as a backdrop. Like me, not all Buffalo Soldiers were from Texas. On the frontier, what they saw was brand new and multicultural to them. I was born in New York and raised as a city boy in Austin, and I come from a mixed background. Plus, I didn’t know anything about the outdoors. I tell kids that the Buffalo Soldiers saw a window of opportunity, and they walked through it. Their life is the same in that they can walk through windows of opportunity, but it’s up to them to take the steps, like I did with this job.”

After Pollard retired in 2010, Padilla stepped up as director.

“We’re taking Ken’s program and adding to it to reach a new generation, especially minorities,” he says. “We use hands-on activities, like fishing, to show kids how the Buffalo Soldiers fished. Then we give them the tools to fish themselves. We use history as an empowering tool to tell kids to get outside, explore and seek adventure, like the Buffalo Soldiers did.”

Selton Williams, a TPWD maintenance mechanic who portrays a soldier with the 9th Cavalry, has volunteered with the Buffalo Soldiers program since 1994.

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“A lot of people don’t know about Buffalo Soldiers,” he says, watching the Blanco students load back up on buses. “The more you can educate them, the more history comes alive — particularly for black kids, so they can better understand their own significance in history.”

Later, Williams, Fifer and other volunteers head home. Not Padilla, Mack and Dolifka. They’re bunking overnight in the canvas tents that they’ve set up at the park. In the evening, they share stories about Buffalo Soldiers with campers who wander over to their encampment and with visitors who come by the following day.

Outfitted as a sergeant, Horace Williams, who serves as president of the Camp Mabry Buffalo Soldiers Company A 9th Cavalry, breaks out some Buffalo Soldier grub — hardtack, beans and brick tea. Across the grounds, Kevin and Sharon Briscoe with the Killeen Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club work a “frontier” photo booth, where visitors can put on a wool jacket and pose on a wooden horse. Cale Carter, a TPWD seasonal employee dressed as an infantry soldier, stands ready to discuss the essentials of outdoor survival, then and now.

“Buffalo Soldiers took pride in themselves,” Padilla reflects. “Their life was hard. They got up early, took care of their horses, battled in unknown places and worked in the heat, never knowing if they’d make it back alive. But they saw their window of opportunity and walked through it. That window of opportunity has passed from Ken to me. Like the Buffalo Soldiers, I want to keep it open for whoever comes behind me.”

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Buffalo Soldiers: Building the West (PDF)

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