CITY LIFE

Published on February 25th, 2015 | by Bryce Smith

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Discovering Buffalo Soldiers

Mr. Danny Glover came to Tacoma on Sunday, January 25th, and I wish it had drawn more kids like me–unaware of the “V8” bump to the head they needed.

The evening began, without our guest of honor, in the second floor assembly space between the Pantages and Theatre on the Square. The small room quickly filled with proud war veterans–three of whom were retired Buffalo Soldiers–and zealous fans eager for the evening to begin. Guests were welcomed to a light bar and free savory buffet as they perused the silent auction prizes, and we awaited the guest of honor for the night’s event — an evening with Danny Glover hosted by the Broadway Center and the Buffalo Soldiers Museum.

Just as people started to get comfortable, all ease was broken. A regal red curtain, hung around three of the room’s four 20-foot walls, revealed a door through which Mr. Glover entered. Though I was by far one of the youngest guests, I still thought it weird that no one else seemed as nervous as I felt.

Mr. Glover made a brief round through the attendees before settling under a “Buffalo Soldiers Museum” banner where he and the uniformed soldiers took individual photos with the fans.

Following the photo session, and before the meat of the presentation began in Theater on the Square, the crowd was so large that the auditorium lights went down before the audience had enough time to situate and take in the place.

The evening’s proceedings were informal and comfortable. Guests were invited to pose questions concerning what excerpt of the film had just been shown, and Dr. Rebekah Mergenthal from Pacific Lutheran University–speaker for the evening’s slideshow presentation–intermittently asked her own.

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“Let soldiers in war be citizens in peace” rang out the opening remarks by Dr. Mergenthal –quoting the motto of the 24th infantry regiment, a “Buffalo Soldier” regiment formed November 1, 1869. Mergenthal, within ten minutes, presented the history of the Buffalo Soldier, marked by definitive photographs of the time. She garnered empathetic groans with facts as she inspired us through history. Facts like how the regiments’ initial pay per soldier was room, board, clothing, plus $13 a month– regular pay post-slavery–and stories of how, in recognition of African-American treatment in the South, Buffalo Soldiers, during their first tour overseas in the Spanish-American War, “served with distinction” to support the cause for equality.

In a preliminary interview with Zach Powers, PLU Media and Content Manager, Mergenthal celebrated the museum for providing an “important lens to explore a broader history.” The brevity with which she spoke reflected her knowledge of and concern for the subject’s obscurity.

Once Glover began,  he talked about his childhood influences that lead him to his 1997 project “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“I remember in the summer of 1960, I was 14 years old… and I went down to the library. And there was a book from the soon to be released film directed by John Ford, “Sergeant Rutledge”… [Rutledge] was almost, like, mythical to me” he said. He went on to remark that the character was not so much a direct influence for opposing racism, but for how to fight against it; exhibiting desegregation is infinitely more definitive than calling for it.

Reflecting on this, Glover goes on to say: “There’s moments when we see throughout this history where we, in a sense, are used as a part of the process of expansionism… And at the same time, we’re caught in this dilemma of race. Of racism. We had to find our way to be respected. To be honored.” Under it all, I feel Buffalo Soldiers fought and served as they did to prove their worthiness of the duty of fighting for one’s country. This is disparate from their implementer’s initial intention, which makes the civil victory all the more sweet.

Despite the snippets of “Buffalo Soldiers” shown in between Glover’s comments, I think most the audience watched Glover watching his own work. He gaped at his 18-year-old junior as if it were a rediscovery.

Mergenthal brought up the inevitable question of the acquiescence with which buffalo soldiers carried out commands, to which Glover replied:

“The 9th and 10th cavalry formed in 1866 and we then went through a 12-year period of construction…if we are to find–take–this next step, post-slavery, there’s a sense that we have to prove ourselves to be Americans. And unfortunately, we’ve got the battleground, of course… So here these men set out there for their first assignment, and their first assignment was not John Wayne’s…From 1866 to, roughly, 1892-93, Buffalo Soldiers took part in every single conflict against Native Americans.”

When asked how he felt about the film’s mixed reviews following its release, he replied with an anecdote: “I didn’t become… really recognizable until I’d done ‘The Color Purple”…and I was living in San Francisco at the time, and [this man] stopped me and he said, ‘you’re the guy that was in that western.’ And I said yeah, yeah. He said, ‘You know what we like about him, man?’ I said, ‘What?’ ‘He knew how to take care of himself,'” to which the audience gave lengthy laudatory applause.

“What makes me happy and proud about the project, and I’m not saying it’s flawless, but we did exactly what we wanted to do. And the idea of having that kind of control is what I think makes me feel so special about this.”

I understood this function was to recognize the Buffalo Soldiers Museum.  Danny Glover had co-produced and lead a film dramatizing the subject matter, which made him an ideal host. I’m embarrassed that I had so juvenile an understanding of the subject matter: “The forgotten story of American History,” as stated by the Buffalo Soldier Museum’s website. And it’s certainly gone unacknowledged by me.

I planned to be enlightened the Wednesday following Mr. Glover with a visit to the museum (its current hours being Wednesdays and Saturdays: 11:00-3:00), however, my hectic and erratic work schedule would inconveniently dismiss that opportunity. Fortunately Executive Director/owner Jackie Jones-Hook welcomes visits by appointment and was happy to have me come by that Friday.

I was taken on a full tour of “The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum”–one of the very, very few in this country–founded by Jones-Hook’s Father, William Jones, who actually served with the 10th Cavalry from 1940-’44.

“He wanted the citizens of Tacoma to know and understand the great contributions [Buffalo Soldiers] made to history.”

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She aims to foster her father’s ambitions by inducting the museum into the public school museum tour circuit. She also hopes to bring basketball legend and historian Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to Tacoma for an event similar to Mr. Glover’s; whereas he made a film, Abdul-Jabbar holds a revered collection of Buffalo Soldier photography–previously exhibited at the Schomberg Center for Research in Black Culture in Harlem, New York.

The house-converted-museum operated via a circular track of distinctly themed rooms, all containing artifacts (some dating back to the times of the first Buffalo Soldiers) and littered with thumbed literature for further reference. Within my 30-minute guided tour, I was aptly informed, compelled to download three new Kindle e-books about first-hand wartime experiences, and encouraged all the more to disseminate this lost history. Widespread racial complacency caused historians and journalists of the time to inadequately preserve the story of an indispensable band of Americans, and although modernization has greenlighted truths of the time to the masses, it hasn’t done enough for people’s concern for it.

These soldiers made indelible contributions to “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” for a nation without reciprocal feeling for them. By way of informing ourselves, let’s honor the Buffalo Soldiers and, as the motto of the 10th Cavalry Regiments asserts, keep “READY AND FORWARD.”

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About the Author

Intrepid and ambitious, Bryce Smith is a Tacoma writer and actor with an insatiable interest in all varieties of experience.



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