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Local Woman Leads Memorial Effort

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By Susan Min

African Americans have served with pride and distinction in every great American war, beginning with the180,000 soldiers, both freed men and runaway slaves, who fought with the Union Army in the Civil War to win their emancipation. More than 30,000 Black soldiers sacrificed their lives for Abraham Lincoln's Union Army in the war that abolished slavery.
Buffalo Soldiers in St. Mary’s, Montana, courtesy of National Archive

Shortly after the Civil War in 1866, Congress passed a piece of legislation that gave Blacks the right to legitimately carry arms and authorized the formation of six all-Black peacetime units, the first of their kind--the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry, and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry regiments, which were later reorganized as the 24th and 25th Infantries.

Notable recruits included Henry O. Flipper, the first African-American officer of the Tenth U.S. Cavalry and one of the first African-American graduates of West Point Naval Academy in 1879, along with fellow African-American West Point classmates John H. Alexander and Charles Young, who were both granted commissions to the ninth U.S. Cavalry.
Members of the 25th Infantry, circa 1883, courtesy of National Archive

In 1866, Cathy Williams, an ex-slave and washwoman, became William Cathy, the first Black female soldier to ever serve the United States army as a Buffalo Soldier.  Banned from service as a woman, Williams furtively served two years from 1866 to 1868 with the 10th unit, before being found out by a medical doctor while undergoing treatment for an illness. Williams was dishonorably discharged.  

Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded the Medal of Honor, the nation's highest military award, during the early Western Campaigns. The Buffalo Soldiers served in other campaigns, including the Spanish American War, the Philippine Insurrection, the Mexican Expedition, World War I and II, and the Korean War.

The 9th and 10th units were disbanded in 1942, but the 24th and 25th infantry regiments remain active. Colin Powell and Kareem Abdul-Jabar are among notable contemporary Buffalo Soldiers.  


Cadet photo of Henry O. Flipper, one of the first African American graduates of West Point
With nary a mention in school textbooks and zero representation in the prolific Western movie canon of the early twentieth century, the Buffalo Soldiers have only recently begun to gain public attention in the last few decades. A few contemporary references appear in pop-culture-the famous song by Bob Marley, "Buffalo Soldier" speaks to their legacy, and a movie called Buffalo Soldiers starring Danny Glover was released in the 1990s. Organizations devoted to the Buffalo Soldiers have cropped up throughout the country, including historical re-enactment groups.

Since early 2006, Yolanda Williams, volunteer chairperson of the Inland Empire Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Organization, has been spearheading efforts to erect a bronze statue in honor of the Buffalo Soldiers in the Inland Empire. 

In line with the organization's mission to "educate and perpetuate the legacy of the Buffalo Soldier," the memorial statue will be a tribute to the Buffalo Soldiers' exploits and heroism, and a reminder to the modern public of the depth of our debt to all veterans of the U.S. armed forces.

The road to the statue's completion has been long and fraught with bureaucratic obstacles-"each step has to be approved, from the look of the statue, to the artist, to the words on the plaque," said Williams, who received federal permission in late 2006 to place the statue at a prominent location at the entrance of the Riverside National Cemetery in Riverside, CA. "But I am so elated with every little win we get."  IEBSHA projects to break ground for the memorial in late 2008. 
Members of the 10th Cavalry who served in the Spanish-American war. Augustus Walley (top row, 2nd from right, with the bandana around his neck), a former slave from Bond Avenue in Reisterstown, MD, won the Congressional Medal of Honor. Courtesy of National Archive and Medalofhonor.com

A private citizen who volunteers her time with IEBSHA, Williams has always been active in her community, and espouses the belief that social change begins with each individual. Without any prior experience in managing a nonprofit org, Williams singlehandedly started IEBSHA back in 2005, pulled by a personal conviction to tell the story of the Buffalo Soldiers and to educate the general public. Williams doesn't consider herself a social activist or a political person, however. "I'm just doing my duty to my community," she said.

Education has always been foremost among Williams' goals for the organization. "So many of our young Black men are in gangs and in jails, destroying our communities, destroying each other, instead of raising up their communities, beautifying them, making them more livable," said Williams, "Our goal is to teach these young people about the costs of their citizenship, and the pride and value in it."

The memorial project began as a personal dream for Williams, a descendent of a Buffalo Soldier-her grandfather, father, and husband all served in the U.S. military. "I have been an army brat all my life, and I have, in a way, inherited this dream from them," said Williams.

The bronze statue, designed by Baxter Miller, a prominent military sculptor based in the IE, will be a life-size figure of a buffalo soldier on a horse. The memorial will include informative panels on the history of the soldiers, including a model diorama of the evolution of the Buffalo Soldiers' uniforms. IEBSHA invites veterans and the general public to contribute original words for the plaque that will accompany the statue.

The 1.5 to 2 million dollar cost of the memorial-funded exclusively by private donation, with no federal funding-remains the biggest challenge for IEBSHA. Several fundraising events--a musical, a Black tie event, a ladies tea, and a buffet breakfast-are slated for Fall. A memorial endowment program has been set up at the Riverside National Cemetery and is now accepting public donations.

Yolonda Williams invites the Inland Empire community to join IEBSHA in memorializing the Buffalo Soldiers by becoming a member or contributing a tax-deductible donation. "We're looking for supporters--the general public and businesses are all welcome, for contributions, sponsorship, or donation of services," said Williams.

The organization conducts meetings, open to the public, every 4th Tuesday at Caesar Chavez library in the city of Perris from 3 to 4 pm.

For more information on IEBSHA and its upcoming events, or to contribute a donation or lyrics to the memorial statue, please contact Yolonda Williams: brocourage@Verizon.net, (951) 657-7088

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