All-Black cavalry Buffalo Soldiers honored with West Point monument

The Buffalo Soldiers taught horsemanship to an all-white cadet unit for decades in the early 1900s

A famed unit of Black military history was honored on Friday in what many felt was a tribute long overdue.

The all-Black U.S. Army cavalry known as the Buffalo Soldiers were permanently memorialized on West Point grounds with a life-size bronze statue at the U.S. Military Academy.

Known as some of the Army’s top horsemen, the Buffalo Soldiers instructed the all-white Corp of Cadets in vital horsemanship tactics while assigned to West Point’s 9th and 10th Calvary Regiments from 1907 to 1947.

“These men trained cadets who then went on to be leaders in the Army as commissioned officers, and yet they were never ever given their just due,” Command Sgt. Maj. Sa’eed Mustafa told the New York Times. Mustafa’s great-uncle, Sgt. Leon Tatum, also served as a Buffalo Soldier.

Before warfare was mechanized on a large scale, horsemanship was a critical skill in order to be a successful militia. Despite being revered as experts of the craft, the military did not dsegregate until 1948 and Buffalo Soldiers were still subjected to segregated living quarters and menial labor duties.

“It is one of those dichotomies that some of the best soldiers in our military were African American, and at the same time Jim Crowism and ‘separate but equal’ existed,” said retired U.S. Army Col. Krewasky A. Salter executive director of the First Division Museum in Wheaton, Illinois.

“They represented the hope, faith, resiliency and commitment to what African Americans could achieve,” continued Salter, who formerly taught military history at West Point.

A project which began in 2017, the statue was created by sculptor and military veteran Eddie Dixon, funded with over $1 million raised by the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point, which pitched the idea on the basis that it felt the unit’s historic contributions were under-appreciated. 

Per the Times, Dixon said at the unveiling that the statue will provide a “tangible reference point” for forthcoming generations of Black soldiers.

“When I was coming up we had no role models that we could talk to. We didn’t know we had Buffalo Soldiers,” Dixon said. “If we had known about that it would have made a difference.”

WEST POINT, NEW YORK – SEPTEMBER 10: People attend a dedication of a statue honoring Buffalo Soldiers at Buffalo Soldier Field in West Point Military Academy on September 10, 2021 in West Point, New York. A statue created by sculptor Eddie Dixon of a Buffalo Soldier was unveiled today at West Point Military Academy, 114 years after the soldiers arrived at the then segregated academy in order to teach horsemanship to white cadets. The statue, made in the likeness of Sgt. Matthews who is believed to be the last known Buffalo Soldier to serve at West Point, is the first outdoor statue of a Black man at the U.S. Military Academy. (Photo by Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images)

The shining tribute incorporates the plaque that formerly served as a Buffalo Soldier memorial and is sculpted in the likeness of Buffalo Soldier Sgt. Sanders Matthews, depicted sitting atop a stallion in stride. Sgt. Matthews retired in 1962 after 23 years of service and died in 2016.

Granddaughter Aundrea L. Matthews said despite the love Sgt. Matthews had for his job, he would often tell of grueling tasks such as sawing thick iceblocks from freezing-cold lakes for refrigeration, which he recounted in an interview with The West Point Center for Oral History.

“We were the only ones that cut ice for everybody on the post,” Sgt. Matthews said. “No white soldier ever cut ice on the post, always Blacks.”

Jacqueline E. Jackson, daughter of Buffalo Soldier Sgt. Edward Smith who served in the military for over three decades said the cavalry’s critical contributions are underscored by the conditions they persevered through, per the Times. “Everything they did, it’s a testimony to their strength and determination to make things better and to achieve a level of excellence,” Jackson said.

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