From Chicken Soup for the African American Soul

Buffalo Soldiers

A Letter from Then-Chairman of the Joint
Chiefs of Staff General Colin L. Powell
to Senator Nancy Kassebaum

March 12, 1991

Dear Senator Kassebaum:

I am very grateful you invited me to provide a letter expressing my thoughts about the Buffalo Soldiers. I’m also thankful for your efforts on behalf of those soldiers and especially for introducing in the U.S. Senate the Joint Resolution to designate July 28, 1992, as “Buffalo Soldier Day.”

When I was a brigadier general and assigned to Fort Leavenworth in 1982, I was jogging around the post one day and noticed a couple of gravel alleys that were named “Ninth and Tenth Cavalry Streets.” I wondered if that were all there was to commemorate those great soldiers. I wondered if on one of America’s most historic Army posts, a post where the Tenth Cavalry spent so much of its garrison life, a post in the center of the region where both the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry spent so much of their blood, I wondered if those gravel alleyways were all there was to signify their presence, all there was to commemorate their incredible contribution to the settlement of the American West.

And so I looked around some more. And on the entire post all I could find to commemorate two of the greatest regiments in the Army were those two alleys. That was a situation that I believed had to be changed. So a few of us set in motion a project to honor the Buffalo Soldiers. You, Senator, now co-chair the committee that grew from that project. Your committee oversees the construction of a proper monument to those great soldiers—a monument not simply to honor Buffalo Soldiers: instead, to honor all black soldiers who have served this nation over its long history.

Since 1641 there has never been a time in this country when blacks were unwilling to serve and sacrifice for America. From pre-Revolutionary times through the Revolutionary War, through every one of our wars and on up to the present, black men and women have willingly served and died. But it is also a part of our history that for most of that time blacks served without recognition or reward for the contribution they made for our freedom—for the freedom they did not enjoy here in their own beloved native land. The Buffalo Soldiers are a symbol of one chapter in a proud and glorious history.

To remind me of that history I have a painting that hangs on a wall in my office directly across from my desk. From that painting, Colonel Benjamin H. Grierson, Tenth Cavalry Regimental Commander, Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point, and a troop of Buffalo Soldiers constantly look at me. They remind me of my heritage and of the thousands of African Americans who went before me and who shed their blood and made their sacrifices so that I could be Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. They look at me and make sure that I will never forget the courage and the determination of African Americans who defied all odds to fight for their country, and who wore the uniform of the U.S. Army as proudly and as courageously as any other American who ever wore it.

The legacy of that pride and courage motivates every black soldier, sailor, airman, marine and Coast Guardsman taking part today in Operation Desert Storm, and every black man and woman who helps man the ramparts of freedom around the world from Japan to Panama to Germany. It’s as if a full century had passed in the blink of an eye and Frederick Douglass’s words were suddenly and vividly fulfilled, “Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letters, ‘U.S.’, let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in the United States.” Amen.

Joint Chiefs of Staff General Colin L. Powell

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