Prepared by Carol Williams and Kimo Williams
Black Americans have been involved in our nations military actions as early as the Revolutionary War. However, at the start of the Civil War, even free blacks from the northern states were not allowed to participate. It was not until after the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, that black troops in great numbers were enlisted to serve the Union cause. They were called the Colored Troops.
After the Civil War, Congress passed a bill which reorganized the Army, and as part of this, two black cavalry units (among others) were activated, commanded by white officers. These units were assigned to serve in the American West: They were the Ninth and Tenth US Cavalry. Their primary duty was to fight hostile Indians and to protect the American settlers as they moved West. The Indians named these troops the Buffalo Soldiers, as these men of African descent with their curly hair and dark complexion reminded them of the great buffalo. The term was given with respect and honor, as the buffalo was an essential component in the lives of the Native Americans. The buffalo eventually became a proud symbol of the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and was included on their unit crest.
In 1866, Lt. Francis Moore, (a great-great-uncle of the composers mother-in-law, Dorthy Perkins) was responsible for recruiting soldiers for the 9th US Cavalry. To his office in New Orleans came a varied group of recruits; some were Civil War veterans from the colored troops, but most were former slaves looking for a better way of life. Lt. Moore knew these recruits would need special handling during their transition from civilian life, and made sure they were well taken care of. An entry into his diary in 1866 reads: Two hundred men had already been recruited, and something had to be done to have them cared for. In spite of harsh living conditions, bad food, inferior horses and worn-out equipment, eleven of these Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor for bravery.
Buffalo Soldiers includes narratives from speeches by Abraham Lincoln (given in 1857, responding to the Dred Scott Decision by the Supreme Court), and by General Colin Powell (at the dedication of the Buffalo Soldiers memorial at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas in 1992). The passage by Lincoln is unusually poetic, and, unfortunately, prophetic, as history proves. It would be another hundred years before those hundred keys began to unlock the prison of discrimination. The Civil War ended the institution of slavery, but had little effect on the institution of racism: Only through the collective efforts of individual Americans, black and white, have we been able to begin to create a society of equal participation.
The story of the Buffalo Soldiers is just one dramatic example of this evolution. We celebrate the struggle of these heroes not because we support the nature of their duty: In retrospect, their participation in Americas mission to rid the West of the indigenous Native American tribes parallels the same thought-process as the pre-war governments plan to return the slaves to Africa. They must have been keenly aware that the same racism which denied them their freedom was now using them to deny that freedom to others. Yet, they met oppression with an attitude of pride, rather than self-pity. Now, we acknowledge their superior abilities as well as their devastating obstacles, and recognize that their triumph as soldiers helped to level the field for others to follow. The concluding words of General Powell reinforces the idea that honorable military service has been one way for black Americans to unlock those heavy iron doors Lincoln referred to in 1857. And through music, we hope to suggest that the love of country seems to transcend all burdens, and that even with our tragic history still resolving, we do see ourselves as one nation of Americans.