Improbable Ambassadors: Black Soldiers

Michael J. Clark
Utah Historical Quarterly, Summer 1978

Although the record is clear, few people know that on the east bench, overlooking Salt Lake City and touching the boundaries of the University of Utah, more than six hundred Black people—soldiers of the United States Twenty-fourth Infantry, wives, children, and others—lived, worked, and attended school for almost four years in one of the most attractive locations in the western United States. Twenty-one graves in the little Fort Douglas cemetery, with weatherworn markers that become less legible each year, serve as quiet reminders that Black people exceeded the geographical boundaries historians have generally assigned them. Two additional graves mark the resting place of Black cavalrymen from the famous Ninth Cavalry stationed at Fort Duchesne, Utah, prior to the turn of the century and at Fort Douglas following the departure of the Twenty-fourth Infantry.

The arrival of the Twenty-fourth Infantry in Salt Lake City more than doubled Utah’s Black population. The Ninth Cavalry, stationed at Fort Duchesne in Uintah County, had 584 Black soldiers, and the Twenty-fourth’s strength was rather constant at 512. One may speculate that Utah’s total Black population, civilian and military, exceeded eighteen hundred in the fall of 1896 and reached twenty-three hundred in 1898 after the Twenty-fourth returned from the Spanish-American War.

Both rumor and fact preceded the arrival of the Twenty-fourth Infantry in Salt Lake City, and some citizens expressed concern, or at least interest, at news appearing in the Salt Lake Tribune and Salt Lake Herald reporting the War Department’s decision to station the Twenty-fourth at Fort Douglas. On September 20, 1896, almost one month before the advance companies of the Twenty-fourth arrived in Salt Lake City, the Tribune, in an editorial entitled “An Unfortunate Change,” voiced attitudes that Black soldiers would ultimately have to confront during their tour of duty in Utah. The editorial pointed out that the residential portion of the city lay between the central city and Fort Douglas. As a result, “colored” soldiers would have to travel on streetcars to and from the post, and this would bring them in direct contact with whites and especially with white women. The editorial argued that there were differences between Black and white soldiers when they were drunk. A Black soldier “will be sure to want to assert himself” when on a car with white ladies. It would be best, the editorial concluded, to lay the facts before the Secretary of War and he might still be induced to make the change and send the colored men to some other station where they would be just as comfortable, where they would not be a source of apprehension and discomfort to the people of a large city like this.

By way of contrast, the Salt Lake Herald editorialized on October 10, 1896, “Glory and Honor to the Sixteenth Infantry! Welcome to the Twenty-fourth Infantry.” The Herald’s welcome indicated that there was no unified view regarding the Black soldiers. Some opposed their coming, others did not. Depending on the source, the issue was considered racial, political (owing, possibly, to the recently fought battles over statehood and the practice of polygamy), or a matter of reward for meritorious service.

William G. Muller, a white officer of the Twenty-fourth, in his unpublished history of the regiment, considered the Salt Lake Tribune’s editorial the most prominent occurrence connected with the unit’s tour of duty in Utah. Although he could not recall the dates the regiment was stationed at Fort Douglas, he did recollect that feelings against the “negro [p. 287] soldiers” were “bitter” and prejudiced. Later, he observed, when the regiment returned to Salt Lake City from Cuba, “it had the hearts of the people.” Muller also remarked that a year after the Twenty-fourth’s arrival the Tribune printed what amounted to an apology to the unit.

Individuals present the story of the Twenty-fourth in a much different way. Solomon (Black Sol) Black, for example, claimed “to have been the youngest soldier in the late war [Civil War],” and said “he was still wearing knee pants when he went in as a drummer boy.” The son of Louis Black, he was born in Rome, Georgia, on August 10, 1854, and enlisted in the Black Forty-fourth Infantry at the age of twelve. One month later the youngster, less than five feet three inches tall, was detailed as a musician and served as a fifer and drummer boy until he was discharged on April 30, 1866. Four years later he enlisted in the Twenty-fourth Infantry and completed six enlistments before retiring on May 1, 1897. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Black served in both the infantry and the cavalry (Tenth). After leaving Salt Lake City, he returned to Texas, married Emily Drake, who was twenty-five years his junior. He died on December 11, 1932, at the age of seventy-eight and was buried in the National Cemetery.

A fellow soldier with a less certain past, and perhaps a good candidate for development as a folk hero, was Thomas W. Taylor, who was born in Freetown, Africa (Sierra Leone), on January 17, 1870. “He is only plain Tommy Taylor to the boys in blue,” wrote Annabel Lee for the San Francisco, “but he is called Prince by his kith and kin, and one day he will be king. And that is why this story is told. It is a true dramatic tale of a royal household.” Taylor claimed to be a Zulu prince whose real name was Jerger Okokudek (“Death-Leaves-One”). According to his story, he left “Kafirland,” won medals from Cambridge University (which he attended with his ten sisters), married Rosella Williams, French daughter of one of the professors, came to the United States, and joined the Twenty-fourth at Fort Barrancas, Florida, to learn the arts of modern war so that he could return to his homeland and free his people. Taylor’s story, while intriguing, raises more questions than it answers. Freetown, for example, is located on the northwest coast of Africa, a considerable distance from the traditional homeland of the Zulus, and the name “Okokudek” tends to be more of Yoruba origin. Taylor’s statement that he enlisted in 1899 does not square with military records that state he enlisted on March 12, 1896. Unfortunately, his military service records will not be available for scrutiny by historians for some time.

Another infantryman, Parker Buford, served thirty years in the Twenty-fourth. He was born in Giles County, Tennessee, January 30, 1842. Buford’s son, James J. Buford, also served in the unit. In 1898 the Buford family lived on the perimeter of Fort Douglas at 333 South Thirteenth East. A number of other Black families lived in the general area. Discharged from the army in 1898, the elder Buford continued to live in Salt Lake City until his death in 1911. He is buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery. His wife, Eliza Elizabeth Buford, lived in Salt Lake City until 1920, when she moved to Pasadena, California, dying there at the age of ninety. Thornton Jackson, also a member of the Twenty-fourth and long-time resident of Salt Lake City, witnessed Mrs. Buford’s military pension application.

Thornton Jackson was a good friend of Sgt. Alfred Rucker, according to Rucker’s daughter Viola Rucker Dorsey, who was born in the Fort Douglas hospital on January 24, 1896. The Rucker family lived on the post, and the children attended the Wasatch School on South Temple. After retirement, Rucker “drove a dobby wagon for the officers’ wives.” The “Lee, Irvine and Atchison families lived close by,” Mrs. Dorsey recalled, and her father “liked Fort Douglas.” He was a “very stern, very noisy” person. When President Warren G. Harding visited Salt Lake City Sergeant Rucker “stepped out and saluted the president during the parade. He was wearing his blue uniform and Harding stopped the parade to meet him.” Viola married George Dorsey, whose father was stationed at Fort Duchesne with the Ninth Cavalry.

Other individuals could be singled out, but suffice it to say that most of the Twenty-fourth Infantry lived in Utah for only a short period of time. Those who made Utah their home raised families, sent their children to school, and planted traditions.

According to newspaper reports, the new residents of Fort Douglas were pleased with their assignment and “gratified at having been transferred from Texas to the promised land.” Members of the unit apparently wanted the people of Salt Lake City to have a good impression of them, for as one member of the regiment stated: “I do not say this from conceit, but you will find our regiment better behaved and disciplined than most of the white soldiers. It is not an easy matter to get 600 men together without there are one or two unruly fellows among them.”

The arrival of the Twenty-fourth was not without its impact upon the city’s Black community. When the soldiers arrived on the Union Pacific, it was reported that “almost every colored resident in the city” met them at the station. There would be greater contact between the fort and the Black citizens of the city in the months to come.

Concern over how the newly arrived soldiers would make use of the diversions the city had to offer was probably great. The city boasted a number of establishments that might appear attractive to the soldier looking for some way to pass the time. One, located “on the east side of Commercial Street, near Second South,” was called the “policy shop” and allegedly offered gambling, food, and liquor. There, according to a newspaper account, “Merchants, street-loungers, youth, prostitutes and even men in the employ of the city contribute their mite in the hope of fabulous winnings.” Yet, the strictness of military discipline and the earnestness of white officers and top sergeants in enforcing it limited the pursuit of pleasure somewhat. According to the Broad Ax:

Military routine at Fort Douglas offered little excitement for the enlisted members of the Twenty-fourth Infantry. While in the Southwest the regiment’s duties had inched “expeditions against the Indians . . . guarding strategic points, building roads, hunting horse thieves, and doing anything else which called for hard work and no fame.” By contrast, the Utah experience included practice marches, attendance at the post school, exercises in the gym during periods of cold weather, work at improving the post’s water system, maintenance of the post garden, janitorial work, clerk duties, work in the post exchange, drills, commissary work, maintenance of post stables, and blacksmithing. From time to time, an enlisted man might have an opportunity for detached service or recruiting and travel, for example, to Fort Logan, Colorado, or to one of the eastern cities.

In addition to his military routine at Fort Douglas, the Black soldier was involved in various societies and clubs, athletics, and other activities. A number of enlisted men belonged to “Noah’s Ark Lodge, G.U.O. of O.F., which is the lodge of the Twenty-fourth Infantry.” Lt. Peter McCann, who before January of 1899 was a first sergeant in the Tenth Cavalry, helped set up the lodge when he served with the Twenty-fourth while it was stationed in New Mexico. In addition to Noah’s Ark Lodge, some soldiers belonged to the Society of Prognosticators, organized while the regiment was stationed at Fort Bayard, New Mexico. Like many of the soldiers’ societies, the Society of Prognosticators “operated under rules known only to the organization. . . .” A less secret society composed of enlisted men was the Christian Endeavor Society. This group met once a week and invited guests to speak on a variety of topics. On one occasion, Miss Nellia Allensworth, daughter of the post chaplain, spoke on “Confidence.” Mr. Wake of Salt Lake City, on another occasion, chose as his topic “Our Missionary Work.” The society regularly invited members of the Allensworth family and Sgt. James M. Dickerson to speak. The Frederick Douglass Memorial Literary Society was also active on the post. It sponsored instrumental solos, lectures, and debates on such topics as: “Resolved, that there is no future for the negro in the United States” (the debate was decided in the affirmative). This society also supported an amateur dramatic club. Enlisted men also joined the Love and Hope Lodge No. 3858, which had ninety-five members. Affiliated with the “Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, a Colored order,” the lodge was founded at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, near the Mexican border. In Salt Lake City the soldiers founded “city lodges of the order” and on occasion participated in events with civilians. W. W. Taylor, editor of The Plain Dealer, and Horace Voss were members of city lodges.

The Williams and Prince Minstrel Company was organized by the men at Fort Douglas and provided entertainment at the post as well as in the city. Dancing was another favorite activity. Enlisted men gave “hops” and invited Black civilians; a dancing school was conducted by Corporal and Mrs. Batie; and the New Year’s holiday in January 1898 provided an occasion for the enlisted men to hold a masquerade ball at the post. Post social life demonstrates the extent to which Black civilians and soldiers mingled and the lengths to which the Black soldier went to improve the quality of his life and that of his fellow soldiers. There was enough activity on the part of enlisted men that the Salt Lake Herald could report, “enlisted men want their own social hall for entertainment and dances and to hold meetings of their secret clubs.”

Athletics were also important to the men. Sports fans from the city followed the Fort Douglas baseball team, the Colored Monarchs, which competed against the Ninth Cavalry’s team from Fort Duchesne and civilian teams from Salt Lake City. The team’s popularity led the Salt Lake City Street Car Company to donate on one occasion ten dollars “to the post baseball fund.” Individual players had their followers in the city, but sometimes, as in the case of James Flowers, “a good athlete and baseball player lacked the necessary qualifications of a soldier.” Baseball “cranks” were disappointed when Flowers was dishonorably discharged from the service.

The reputation of the Twenty-fourth Infantry’s band—heralded by some as the best in the army—reached Salt Lake City before the regiment. The band was as well received as the athletic teams. The Salt Lake Herald reported that members of the band “seem to feel they are a part of this city and it is their duty to do all they can to make matters pleasing.” At least one officer at the post was less pleased than were Salt Lake City citizens about the use of the band. “I am aware,” one first lieutenant lamented in a letter that found its way to the adjutant general’s office, “that a regimental band has other purposes for its existence than the furnishing of music for a post dance once a week.” He obviously wanted the band to play exclusively at the post to prevent “unpleasant mixing of blacks and whites,” apparently at establishments in the city.

A year after the Twenty-fourth Infantry arrived in Utah, the Salt Lake Tribune printed an editorial that represented a change in its view regarding the Black soldiers. When the regiment’s transfer had been announced, the Tribune recalled, the newspaper had complained that Fort Douglas lies above and beyond the most pronounced residence portion of the city and that soldiers would ride on cars, drunk as well as sober, and that an intoxicated colored soldier is more offensive than an intoxicated white soldier.

Admitting that this judgment had proved false, the editorial continued that the soldiers had been well behaved, had “less rowdy characteristics” than any white regiment, and were less addicted to drinking. The editorial represented an achievement for the Twenty-fourth. Relations had been good between the post and the community and, officially, at least, everyone appeared satisfied.

Almost nineteen months after the regiment’s arrival in Utah the routine of post life at Fort Douglas was interrupted by speculation that should it become necessary to send troops to Cuba, the four “colored” regiments would be the first to depart for the war zone. “It is acknowledged,” reported the Denver News, “by men of experience in southern climates that white men from the cool regions of the northern states would fare badly in the treacherous climate of Cuba.” The Colorado paper’s prophecy that Black units would be “given ample opportunity to win glory” was accurate. One month later “both officers and men seemed to be rubbing up a trifle on Spanish for they accosted one another with ‘buenos noches, compadre’ and ‘adios’ was the parting salutation.” As enlisted men and officers prepared to depart and some wives and children prepared to visit relatives in the East, events at the post were reported with regularity and fanfare.

Interest in the movement of the troops was intense throughout the city. It was reported that they would leave on April 19, at 7:30 P.M., but their departure was put off for a day. The delay disappointed thousands of citizens who had prepared to see the regiment off. The Twenty-fourth did leave on April 20, however, and the newspapers estimated that “15,000 to 20,000 people were on and about the depot grounds.” Included in that throng were wives, children, and girl friends who “sat for hours under the trees with their soldier lords and sires.”

As reported in the Salt Lake Tribune the following day, “The element of color seemed entirely eliminated.” An editorial in the Deseret Evening News spoke of the “mighty coincidence” of Blacks freeing Cubans through war, as Blacks were freed themselves, that “will mark another epoch in the tremendous evolution of human society.” Ladies, reported the Salt Lake Tribune, who did not like to ride on streetcars with Black soldiers were, on the preceding day, shaking the hands of these same soldiers.

Members of the Twenty-fourth Infantry distinguished themselves in Cuba. That campaign does not fall within the scope of this study, but it may be important to note that the work done with yellow fever patients had lasting effects. “Out of the 456 men who marched to Siboney, only 24 escaped sickness . . . and of this number, only 198 were able to march out.” As a result, within “the most famous regiment of african blood since Hannibal slaughtered 70,000 Romans,” thirty-six suffered death and many more men were to carry lifelong disabilities resulting from yellow fever.

On September 2, 1898, the Twenty-fourth returned to Fort Douglas amid cheers of their countrymen, and by December the war was officially over. The strength of the command was increased to 958 men, the warm welcome receded, and the routine of the post was quickly resumed. There were differences, however. Approximately half of the enlisted men at the fort were new to Salt Lake City; because of the acceleration in recruitment for the war effort, the average age for soldiers at the fort was probably lower than it had been; and reenlistments, transfers, and discharges increased. In general, the soldiers seemed to exhibit a slightly different attitude, a restlessness.

In early 1899, rumors circulated that the Twenty-fourth would be transferred soon. The rumors proved true, and the men soon took up new assignments in San Francisco, Alaska, Montana, Washington, and Vancouver, British Columbia. Two detachments of twenty-five men each were sent to Sequoia and Yosemite parks in California “for the benefit of the health of the colored men, many of whom are nearly broken down from the effects of Cuban fever.” And in July 1899 four companies of the Twenty-fourth arrived in the Philippines for a three-year tour of duty.

The Twenty-fourth Infantry, departing on two occasions from Utah, first for the Spanish-American War and second for the campaign in the Philippine Islands, may be the most prominent United States Army regiment to serve from the state. The unit has not, however, been regarded as a regiment having close ties with the state. Personal relationships that may have been established during the regiment’s stay at Fort Douglas have been obscured by time, and the Twenty-fourth Infantry, the “Buffalo Soldiers,” remain indistinct in local memory. The fanfare of the unit’s arrival in Salt Lake City, its participation in jubilee celebrations and other state occasions, the baseball games, concerts, and other human dramas struggle to become part of the state’s history. Perhaps this is as it should be. Few of the soldiers made Utah their home, and not many of their descendants live in the Beehive State today.

Nevertheless, members of the Twenty-fourth, perhaps over fifteen hundred different individuals, were significant additions to the Salt Lake City population in both an economic and a social sense. The economic impact of the regiment upon the surrounding community was, of course, a duplication of the contact of prior and subsequent military units. Socially, however, the local community, for the first time in history, experienced the influx of a relatively large and cohesive military group that greatly augmented the already existing Black community. Although the Twenty-fourth Infantry had not been located near a large city for a thirty-year period and Salt Lake City had never had a large Black population, the two sides managed. Generally speaking, suspicion and uncertainty gave way to confidence and resolution, stereotypes to a tenuous familiarity; and with the advent of war, the two worlds met in the camp of self-interest. Black soldiers, members of the Ninth Cavalry and Twenty-fourth Infantry and later, the Twenty-fifth Infantry, became improbable ambassadors. More than two thousand different soldiers carried a like number of versions about their stay in the “Great Basin Kingdom” to the far corners of the United States.