A new historic marker has gone up in Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester to commemorate the Buffalo Soldiers, an African-American U.S. Army regiment that served there from 1909 to 1913.
That regiment can trace its roots back to 1866, and lore has it that they earned the nickname of "Buffalo Soldiers" from Native Americans, out of respect for their tenacity in battle.
The Vermont Partnership for Fairness and Diversity was part of the group that worked on getting the marker placed. Curtiss Reed, the organization's executive director, spoke to Vermont Edition about the Buffalo Soldiers.
Reception by the Vermont community
"Their arrival here caused some consternation by some in Burlington, which wanted to pull out Jim Crow laws, keep the troops segregated," Reed says. "But fortunately, the city and its citizens would have none of that, given [the] state's strong history on civil rights ...
"It was actually the [Burlington] Free Press that ... opposed the troopers from coming, out of an irrational narrative that black troopers were destructive and they were wild and dangerous. And none of that was true."
Reed says that the Buffalo Soldiers had "an exemplary record" during their time in Vermont, also adding "they were all-around good Burlingtonians."
Reed also mentions that part of the "hysteria" had to do with how the arrival of the Buffalo Soldiers would affect the existing demographics of the area.
"Seven hundred fifty black troopers was going to substantially increase the black population of 25,000 residents," Reed says.
According to Reed, about 1,500 individuals ended up coming to the fort, including troopers, wives, children and others that followed the regiment.
"The apprehension that, 'Oh, all of a sudden we're going to have this blossoming black population that we need to be fearful of,' at least from the Free Press, was totally unfounded and never ever realized," Reed says.
Reed says that Vermont residents did take to the Buffalo Soldiers, citing a story about the regiment and sports.
"The Buffalo Soldiers were great baseball players and basketball players," Reed explains. "And at one point, their summer games in baseball were keeping people from the church.
"And the chaplains and the pastors of the day sort of approached the commanding officer at Fort Ethan Allen and asked if the games could stop so that their parishioners could return to church. The commander at the time said, 'No, this is Sunday and we don't tell our troopers what to do on Sunday.'"
During the winter, Reed says the sports continued with basketball games, as well as horsemanship demonstrations that the public could watch at the fort.
Their role in war efforts
The Buffalo Soldiers fought in multiple wars, Reed explains.
"They distinguish themselves first [at] San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt," Reed says, adding that this regiment also fought in the Philippines and Mexico.
"They left Vermont to go to the U.S.-Mexican border where they were stationed for about 15 [to] 16 years after that, I think," Reed explains. "So they were a good fighting force, and they were known as the 'Fighting 10th.'"
Commemorating the Buffalo Soldiers
In 2009, Reed attended a celebration held in Fort Ethan Allen that descendants of the Buffalo Soldiers attended.
"The sort of over-the-top glowing pride of being associated, of having one of your ancestors who was a Buffalo Soldier, was a real hallmark," Reed says.
Like with the Tuskegee Airmen and other specialized black troops, Reed speaks of there "being a venerable source of pride for African-American families who had members in those branches of the military."
This year, one historic marker has already been placed at Fort Ethan Allen to commemorate the Buffalo Soldiers' service, and a second marker will be added in the spring. Reed says the process was ongoing for a year in terms of communicating the proposal to the state for having the Buffalo Soldiers commemorated with inclusion on the Vermont African-American Heritage Trail.
"There's a growing need, I believe, for Vermonters to know that black history is interwoven with Vermont history," Reed says.
In addition to the Buffalo Soldiers in Vermont, "segregated Civilian Conservation Corps troops came and built the dams in Barre after the 1927 flood," Reed says. "So these are points of information that let Vermonters know that we might be the whitest state in the nation, but we've also been a state where black- or African-Americans have contributed vastly to ... where we are today."
Listen to the full interview above.