Tempe history: Black soldiers proved to be capable fighters in conflicts with Native Americans and gained a nickname along the way.

During the Civil War nearly 180,000 Blacks (10 percent of the total Union Army) plus 19,000 in the Navy, were engaged in the fight to eliminate slavery — though generally not in combat positions.

Those who did proved to be able soldiers, serving with distinction.

The ink had barely dried on Robert E. Lee’s signature of surrender, ending the nation’s most divisive internal conflict, when Congress authorized the creation of new United States Army regiments.

Before the Civil War, African-American soldiers were not included in the ranks of the U.S. military. The conflict had changed that.

In part, their meritorious service in the war may have been the motivation to create a place for Blacks in the military — albeit segregated.

Establishing African-American units

The Congressional Act of Sept. 21, 1866, established six African-American military units. War veterans, freeman and former slaves were encouraged to enlist for two “Negro Cavalry” and four Infantry divisions.

The new units were established to serve on the frontier protecting rail builders, the increasing numbers of Americans moving west with their livestock, and to aid in establishing new communities.

Black soldiers proved to be capable fighters in conflicts with Native Americans who posed a threat to Westward expansion.

Along the way they gained the name that has endured.

‘Buffalo Solders’

No one is quite sure how the term Buffalo Solider came to be. But it was most certainly given in honor and respect by the Indians they fought.

Some say it was because of their bravery in combat — powerful fighters like the Buffalo. Or it might be their curly hair that reminded the Indians of the Buffalo’s coat.

By the 1880s the Buffalo Soldiers had moved into Arizona and New Mexico to help allay the increasing tensions between the growing numbers of settlers and the warring tribes.

MORE:Arizona Then & Now: Buffalo Soldiers | A buffalo soldier’s long journey to peace?

When the Indian conflicts concluded, the Buffalo Soldiers remained to fight along the border.

Buffalo Soldiers were stationed at Ft. Huachuca from 1892 to the start of World War II.

They fought in the Siege of Naco in 1913, the 1918 Battle of Ambos Nogales, and in skirmishes with Pancho Villa.

One Tempean

According to research by Jared Smith, curator of history at the Tempe History Museum, at least one Tempe resident served as Buffalo Solider.

Theodore Charles Thomas was one of the few Blacks in Tempe when he arrived to open a barbershop in 1906.

So critical to the history of Arizona and the West is the story of the Buffalo Soldier that the Tempe Historical Society invited Dr. Beverley Poellnitz to conclude the 2016-2015 season of Society Lunch Talks with “Buffalo Soldiers of the American Southwest”.

The free event is at 11:30 a.m. next Wednesday, April 12, in the Museum’s Program Room.

As an adjunct faculty member for the Storytelling Institute South Mountain Community College and the Business Institute at Estrella Mountain Community College, Poellnitz is not only a recognized authority on Buffalo Soldiers, but also a terrific storyteller.

Reach historian Jay Mark at [email protected]


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