Tag Archives: Black History Month

“Grand Old Fort: but alas Manned by Colored Troops…” Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario

When a U.S. Army regiment of African American soldiers arrived at Fort Ontario in the spring of 1908, it was in the wake of a racially-charged incident in Texas that had sparked a national controversy for President Theodore Roosevelt.

What happened at the historic fort in Oswego County during the next three years was part of the long American journey from racially segregated military units to the end of the practice in Korea in 1951.

The nearly three hundred men of the 24th Infantry Regiment arriving at the lakefront community were a unit of “Buffalo Soldiers,” which was the nickname given to segregated units of African American troops formed after the Civil War ended in 1865.

According to popular lore, Native Americans who fought the units used the term either because the soldiers’ dark curly hair resembled a buffalo mane or because the soldiers fought like the fierce Great Plains buffalo.

Just returned from military service in the Philippines, the soldiers of 24th Infantry were coming home to a political controversy still simmering around Buffalo soldiers from the infamous Brownsville Affair less than two years earlier.

At a time of Jim Crow laws, racial prejudice against African American military units remained strong in the U.S., most particularly in the South. After fatal violence in Brownsville, Texas was blamed on the 25th Infantry Regiment of Buffalo Soldiers who had just been stationed there from the Philippines, President Roosevelt had all 167 Black soldiers of the three companies involved summarily discharged, despite protests that evidence did not support the charges. Tellingly, Roosevelt did not discharge the unit’s white officers, who testified that all their soldiers were in barracks at the time of the incident.

That event was still fresh in the summer of 1907, when the U.S. Army announced it was stationing Buffalo soldiers east of the Mississippi for the first time by bringing the 24th to Fort Ontario. The unit found itself in a political firestorm, with some local residents and political leaders objecting to the move.

During the early 20th century, the situation for Black soldiers in the U.S. Army was deteriorating rapidly.  Four decades after their formation, the Buffalo Soldiers were no longer needed far from the general population to fight against Native Americans in the west. Their overseas service in Spanish-American War (1898), the Boxer Rebellion in China (1899-1901) and the Philippine-American War (1899-1902) was at end as well.

Buffalo Soldiers on duty in Cuba during the Spanish-American War. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army)

A newspaper account describes Congressional efforts to disband all African American military units after the end of the Spanish-American War and in the wake of the Brownsville Affair. (Cleveland Enterprise, Jan. 4, 1907)

So, as these African American U.S. Army regulars returned to garrison life in the United States, the proponents of segregation and domination were pursuing their racist goals more fervently than ever. The Ku Klux Klan was approaching its pinnacle of strength and numbers, racist members of Congress tried to purge the four Buffalo Soldier regiments from the regular army, and in some states black National Guard regiments were eliminated and others relegated to labor duties.

Mindful of the professional pride, discipline, and assertiveness of African American soldiers, and perhaps of their access to weapons, white civilians in the mid-west and south vehemently objected to them being posted near their communities.

At Brownsville where Jim Crow laws were enforced, the black soldiers of the 1st Battalion, 25th U.S. Infantry Regiment immediately encountered racial discrimination, physical abuse, and threats from local businesses, civilians, and customs collectors.  After being accused of going on a midnight shooting spree on Aug. 12-13, 1906 that left a civilian bartender dead, the entire regiment was dismissed by President Roosevelt over numerous objections that the accusations may have been unjust and racially motivated by the townspeople.

Roosevelt’s reaction to Brownsville shocked his Black civilian constituency and the Constitution League, a national interracial civil-rights organization, which along with many whites decried his action. But the decision stood until 1972, when the Army reinvestigated and reversed Roosevelt.

A 1906 political poster criticizes President Theodore Roosevelt for his mass discharge of the Buffalo Soldiers after the factually-disputed Brownsville Affair. (Photo Credit – U.S. Library of Congress)

President Roosevelt’s decision on the Buffalo Soldiers after Brownsville drew criticism from African American religious leaders at a time when they were reliable Republican political allies. Syracuse Post Standard, June 10, 1907

Perhaps seeking a northern posting for other returning Buffalo soldiers as a way of cooling racial tensions after Brownsville, the U.S. War Department announced in the summer of 1907 that when the 24th Infantry left the Philippines, it was being assigned to Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks in nearby Sackets Harbor in upstate New York.

Earlier, in rejecting a Texas senator’s demand to reassign Black troops before they arrived at Fort Brown, Secretary of War William H. Taft (who later became President) wrote that “sometimes communities which objected to the coming of colored soldiers, have, on account of their good behavior, entirely changed their view and commended them to the War Department.”  Taft added: “The fact is that a certain amount of race prejudice between white and black seems to have become almost universal throughout the country, and no matter where colored troops are sent there are always some who make objections to their coming.”

Before the Civil War, Oswego had been a hotbed of the abolitionist movement and active in the Underground Railroad, which was a a vast network of churches, safe houses, and community sites in New York and other states to help emancipate enslaved people reach freedom. The Oswego region later sent thousands of men to fight with the Union Army.  After the war, Oswego’s representatives in Congress were strong supporters of Reconstruction and civil rights for former slaves.

However, Taft’s observation that racial prejudice prevailed throughout the nation sadly rang true even in abolitionist Oswego. When news of the 24th coming reached the North Country, it prompted hysterical fears by some of disorder and lawlessness. 

A July 10, 1907 article in the Evening Times-Republican, of Marshalltown, Iowa, outlines the political opposition to the stationing of the Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ontario in Oswego.

The fallout from the Brownsville Affair still occupied public attention when plans were announced to send the 24th Infantry Regiment to Oswego. The Scranton Tribune, Sept. 13, 1907.


Some residents sent petitions to the War Department and appealed to their Congressman, Charles Knapp, from Lowville, Lewis County, and State Republican Committee Representative and Oswego banker John T. Mott, who were both close friends of Roosevelt. Local newspapers paid closed attention to the firestorm.

Congressman Knapp didn’t file an official protest but instead attempted to have the white 9th U.S. Infantry substituted for the Black 24th.  He claimed motivation from the 9th having previously been garrisoned at Fort Ontario and Madison Barracks and containing many locally recruited soldiers whose families wanted them near home.


A headline in the Buffalo Morning Express, Sept. 13, 1907 questions why Black soldiers who fight for the U.S. are met with protests at home.

Having Knapp, Mott and local citizens object to the black soldiers drew fiery criticism from the national press and civil rights advocates, as well bitter resentment from Assistant Secretary of War Robert Shaw Oliver, an Albany resident buried in Albany Rural Cemetery. The apparent hypocrisy also drew the delight of southern racists.  But Oliver angrily declared that the “War Department knows no color line…” and sent the 24th to Oswego and Sackets Harbor as planned.

A article plays up the hypocrisy of Northern resistance to the presence of “colored” troops. July 11, 1907, The Daily Palladium, Oswego.

By fall, Shaw had settled the matter. The 24th was coming to Oswego, as these newspaper accounts of the time made plain.


In late March 1908, as the black troops arrived at Oswego, community leaders and the press had taken a wait-and-see attitude.  Little notice of the 24th’s arrival appeared in newspapers, but Oswego’s Daily Palladium newspaper reported that some restauranteurs discussed raising the price of food and drink to keep out Black troops; others said that they would maintain regular prices provided the troops conducted themselves decently.

For their part the 24th reacted to initial hostility with quiet professional pride and dignity; they quickly became active and beneficial members of the Oswego community.

First to benefit were the tailor shops who received orders to replace clothing lost when the 24th’s stored baggage was destroyed in the San Francisco earthquake of 1906. The men had arrived with literally all the tropical climate clothing from the Philippines on their backs or in knapsacks. The 24th spent their pay and participated in community activities, ceremonies, parades, sporting events, veteran’s funerals, and the post orchestra performed regularly in the city.

This penny postcard (shown below) is an iconic artifact in the collection of Fort Ontario State Historic Site.  It coldly documents racism in the early 20th century U.S. Army officer corps.  Postmarked August 24, 1911, after the Buffalo soldiers had been in Oswego for several years, an unidentified colonel addressed it to a sergeant at the recruiting station in Trenton, N.J.  He wrote of Fort Ontario:   `Grand Old Fort but alas:   Manned by “Colored Troops” for which as you know I have no use. Well & happy, leave for VT. Friday.  Report for duty Sept. 6th. Absence of two ? mos.  Hope you are well.  Colonel.’  


The “Colonel” who wrote this was likely on leave visiting white officer friends at Fort Ontario and traveling to see others at Fort Ethan Allan, Vermont, garrisoned by black troopers of the 10th U.S. Cavalry Regiment who had arrived a year after the 24th arrived at Oswego.

This officer reflected a belief held by some commissioned officers who avoided assignment to black regiments, transferred out at the first opportunity, and refused promotions to such units. Some officers urged the united be eliminated or relegated to menial manual service. Many in the army believed that only southern whites knew how to command Black troops, and discouraged, harassed, and sought to drive out the few Blacks who sought to become or became commissioned officers.

Yet the Buffalo Soldier Regiments also attracted white commissioned officers without racist beliefs who were proud to serve in them.

By November 1911, the 24th was reassigned to the Philippines for a third time, with Fort Ontario and the community having each played its role in dealing with the contentious issue of racial segregation in the U.S. military at the turn of the 20th century.

While not without its tensions, Oswego managed to avoid the extreme displays of Jim Crow racism that had stained Brownsville with blood and led the 24th to be based in the north to prevent a possible repeat of it.

In Oswego, initial hysteria against the unit disappeared as white citizens fears towards the Black soldiers went unrealized.  The soldiers conducted themselves as gentlemen and were courteous towards civilians, but unlike white troops they were forced to prove themselves beyond any doubt before being trusted.

As Secretary of War Taft observed before the Brownsville Affair, once some communities gave black troops a chance, they praised and commended them to the War Department. After a uneasy and rocky start, Oswego became one of those communities.

In this colorized July 1908 postcard, the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion, 24th Infantry Regiment appear in full-dress for either inspection or parade at Fort Ontario. White officers are on horseback in the front, with other officers on foot at the rear and sides, while the Black enlisted me are on foot in double ranks. All are wearing white gloves. Another colorized postcard from July 1908 (below) shows the 2nd Battalion encamped in tents on the grounds as the post orchestra plays and spectators line the banks


For some of the Buffalo soldiers, Fort Ontario was their final post. One of the four members of the 24th Infantry buried at the fort is Sgt. Juneious Caldwell, a Kentucky native who had enlisted in 1901. He served in the Philippines, where he contracted a tropical disease that took his life at age 26 in July 1908 shortly after the unit’s return from the Pacific.

The marble headstone at the grave of Sgt. Juneious Caldwell at Fort Ontario State Historic Site.

Learn more about the history of the 24th Infantry Regiment in this 1983 report by L. Albert Scipio II, a U.S. Army officer and a faculty member at at Howard University, the Tuskegee Institute, University of Minnesota, Cairo University, University of Puerto Rico, and University of Pittsburgh. Scipio’s father was a member of the 24th from 1915 to 1942.


Cover Photo- Members of the 24th Infantry Regiment in the Philippines in 1902. (Photo Credit – U.S. Army) All other images NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Paul A. Lear, Historic Site Manager, Fort Ontario State Historic Site

Black History Month In New York State Parks

There is a rich heritage of New York history all around us to explore during Black History Month this February.

While the stories of civil rights icon Martin Luther King, Jr., his march at Selma, Alabama, and 19th century abolitionist Fredrick Douglass are well known, these people and places represent only a small part of our common cultural landscape.

Some of this fascinating African American history is closer to home, right here in New York State. This year, how about delving into New York’s own aspects of Black history by learning more about our own unique people and places?

Using the state’s parks, historic sites, the historic preservation agency, and I LOVE NY’s Path Through History and blog, you can find nearly four hundred years of interesting stories effortlessly, on such topics as the our state’s role in the the Civil Rights movement and the Underground Railroad, a network a network of secret routes and safe houses established in the United States during the early to mid-19th century, and used by enslaved African-Americans to escape into free states and Canada.

Under Governor Cuomo’s “Our Whole History” Initiative, which aims to broaden interpretations at state historic sites, Parks this year will designate Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site as the first state historic site dedicated to the 400-year experience of African Americans in New York.

The Westchester County former Colonial estate was once home to enslaved Africans who labored there and exhibitions at the site will be expanded to include further interpretation of that enslavement, the Underground Railroad abolitionist effort, emancipation, the Great Migration and the Civil Rights movement.

Philipse Manor Hall State Historic Site will become the state’s first historic site dedicated to interpreting the 400-year history of African Americans in New York State.

In the U.S., Black History Month traces its origins to 1915 and the national 50th anniversary emancipation celebration in Chicago, where African American historian, author and journalist Carter G. Woodson staged a history exhibit.  In1926, Woodson selected the second week in February for Negro History Week as a nationwide event. It grew into a month-long celebration and was federally recognized by President Gerald Ford in 1976 during the U.S. Bicentennial.

To learn more about Dr. Woodson’s life and work, and his founding of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH), visit https://asalh.org.

Figuring out where to begin on such a historical journey in New York may seem challenging, but here are some ideas to get you started. We hope you enjoy your step into the extraordinary history of Africans and their descendants.

Niagara Falls State Park, 332 Prospect St., Niagara Falls, USA: On Feb. 13, the falls will be illuminated in red, black and green (colors of the Pan-African flag) starting at 6 p.m., for a 15-minute period at the top of the hour continuing through 11 p.m.

Pan-African flag (Photo credit – Wikipedia Commons)

Shirley Chisholm State Park, 950 Fountain Ave., or 1750 Pennsylvania Ave., Brooklyn: Named in honor of Shirley Chisholm, a Brooklyn-born trailblazer who was the first African American Congresswoman, as well as the first woman and African American to run for President. As 507 acres, this amazing park leads you into the life of Ms. Chisholm, and also into the wonderful world of environmental justice. Sitting on a reclaimed landfilled, the paths and views of Jamaica Bay can refresh your spirit while introducing you to one of New York’s most noted Black politicians.


Walkway Over the Hudson State Historic Park, 87 Haviland Road, Highland: Although many people think Sojourner Truth was from the South, this former enslaved woman, abolitionist and suffragette was actually born and raised in Ulster County and grew up speaking Dutch. In August of 2020, a bronze statue of her was unveiled at the main entrance of Walkway Over the Hudson State Park in Highland. Learn more about her life, and about Vinnie Bagwell, the African American sculptor who made the statue, here.

Sojourner Truth statue in Walkway Over the Hudson State Park.

Jones Beach Energy & Nature Center, 2400 Ocean Parkway, Wantagh: The newly opened Center will be offering several programs during the month of February, including an exhibit of Black History related posters, including Heroes of the Great Outdoors shown below. The center is also hosting socially-distanced showings of  No Time To Waste: The Urgent Mission of Betty Reid Soskin. The film shares the story of an amazing 99-year old National Parks Ranger’s inspiring life, work, and urgent mission to restore critical missing African American chapters of America’s story.  The center is also hosting free online screenings of this film from Feb. 11 to 15. Registration is available here.


Marsha P. Johnson State Park, 90 Kent Ave., Brooklyn: Renamed for a transgender African American woman and dynamic pioneer who advocated for the LGBTQ+ and HIV/AIDS communities, this seven-acre park in Brooklyn offers a river front view of Manhattan and an opportunity to relax in a place where everyone is welcome.

Note: the park is undergoing extensive renovations including the installation of public art honoring Marsha P. Johnson and the LGBTQ+ community. Some areas of the park will be temporarily limited during construction to be completed June 2021. The north section of the park will remain accessible through neighboring Bushwick Inlet Park.


Old Fort Niagara State Historic Site, Youngstown: A Feb. 6 tour highlighting African American military service at post from the 18th through the 20th centuries, including the story of formerly enslaved Richard Pierpoint, who served during the American Revolution. The tour will also address the history of the 24th Infantry Regiment, a unit of African American “Buffalo Soldiers” raised after the Civil War. Tour size is limited to 20 persons, and preregistration is required by contacting Erika Schrader at 716-745-7611, ext. 221, or eschrader@oldfortniagara.org.

Clermont State Historic Site, 1 Clermont Ave., Germantown: A free walking tour at 2 p.m. Feb. 21 on the role of the Livingston family, as well as their enslaved people and tenants on their estate, during the Revolutionary War.

National Purple Heart Hall of Honor, 374 Temple Hill Road, Route 300, New Windsor: The mission of the newly reopened National Purple Heart Hall of Honor is to collect, preserve, and share the stories of all Purple Heart recipients. There and online you can learn about our brave service men and service women including men like Ensign Jesse L. Brown, the first African American naval aviator during the Korean War. You can also learn about registering a Purple Heart recipient for the Roll of Honor.

U.S. Naval aviator Jesse L. Brown

New York also has many sites of African American history on the State and National Register of Historic Places, including:

Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest & Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS), Sag Harbor, Suffolk County: The Sag Harbor Hills, Azurest, and Ninevah Subdivisions (SANS) Historic District, is a mid-twentieth century African American beach community on Long Island that has and continues to serve as a retreat created by and for families of color. Famous individuals who summered at SANS included Langston Hughes and Lena Horne. The district’s stewards are the recipients of a 2019 NYS Historic Preservation Award.

Stephen & Harriet Myers Residence, Albany, Albany County: The Stephen and Harriet Myers Residence was a headquarters for Underground Railroad activity in the Capital Region in the mid-1850s, as documented by a Vigilance Committee flier that has survived from that period with additional historic records. Today the site is operated by the Underground Railroad History Project of the Capital Region as a historic site where the community can learn about the Underground Railroad, the first integrated Civil Rights movement in the United States, and its relevance to today. This site is the recipient of a 2015 NYS Historic Preservation Award and was also featured in the “We Are NY” series. and the Underground Railroad Education Center

James Baldwin Residence, Manhattan (Harlem), New York County: Prominent author and activist James Baldwin (1924-1987) lived in this building during his last decades, 1965-1987. Baldwin made profound and enduring contributions to American literature and social history, addressing the major questions America faced in those decades. Recently, portions of Manhattan park were renamed after James Baldwin to further honor his legacy. His former home is featured in the New York City LGBT sites project.

John W. Jones Museum, Elmira, Chemung County: The John W. Jones House in Elmira is listed in the State and National Registers of Historic Places and is now a museum open to the public. John W. Jones became an active agent in the Underground Railroad in 1851 and continued to help enslaved individuals escape to freedom for many years. The museum explores Mr. Jones’ community involvement and his relationship with his contemporaries, as well as the location’s function as the only Underground Railroad station between Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and St. Catharines, Ontario Canada.

Colored Musicians Club, 145 Broadway, Buffalo: Formed in 1917, the Colored Musicians Club was one of the oldest continually operating African-American musicians’ clubs in the country as well an office for Buffalo Local 533, an early African-American union of musicians. These organizations were part of the response to racism and segregation in Buffalo’s musical community. The Colored Musicians Club was home to performances by such notable artists as Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole, Miles Davis and Cab Calloway.

Storefront of the Colored Musicians Club in Buffalo.


Given the need for social distancing amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, NYS Parks also has an array of virtual and online events and information. Here are a few examples:

John Jay Homestead State Historic Site, Katonah: A Zoom lecture on the history of enslavement in this prominent Colonial-era family starts 7 p.m. Feb. 24. Registration available at www.johnjayhomestead.org The website also includes virtual exhibits, school programs and tours to explore the Jay family’s history as enslavers, and the dedication of later generations of Jays to the abolitionist cause.

Olana State Historic Site, Hudson: A webinar on the life of 19th century African American and Ojibwe sculptor Mary Edmonia Lewis, presented by University of New Mexico professor Kirsten Buick. Starting 6 p.m. Feb. 24, access to this event requires paid membership in The Olana Partnership available at www.olana.org/membership.

Mary Edmonia Lewis, from the book Child of the Fire, by author Kirsten Buick.

Jay Heritage Center, Rye: A Zoom lecture by Dr. Gretchen Sorin, director of Cooperstown Graduate Program in Museum Studies, on her new book, “Driving While Black: African American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights” will be held 7 p.m. Feb. 11. Registration is available here.

Clermont State Historic Site, Germantown: A Facebook Live event starts 2 p.m. Feb. 20 hosted by comic artist Emily Ree on how the Red Scare of the 1950s led to blacklisting in the comic book industry, which at the time supported a diverse workforce of people of color and women.

Schuyler Mansion State Historic Site, Albany: In 1793 a good portion of the City of Albany burned down. Three enslaved Africans were accused of setting the blaze. In this fictionized drama based on historic evidence, see how the community of enslaved and free, Africans and Europeans interacted during this tense time in a legal system where the enslaved had little voice. Here is a guide to The Accused: Slavery and the Albany Fire of 1793.

Facebook posts on African American related items from Parks’ historic sites are also available, including:

Fort Montgomery State Historic Site, Fort Montgomery: This post offers a glimpse into the life of Benjamin Lattimore, one of the few known African American soldiers to fight in this 1777 Revolutionary War battle in the Mohawk Valley.

Fort Ontario State Historic Site, Oswego: This post describes the World War II training of Harlem Hellfighters, the segregated African American 15th New York National Guard Regiment who were stationed at the fort.

Formerly the 15th NYNG Infantry Regiment, the unit was activated into federal service and began training as the 369th Coast Anti-Aircraft Artillery Regiment at Fort Ontario in January 1941. This occurred after FDR federalized the National Guard in preparation for WWII. It was the first opportunity for blacks to serve in a technical role in the U.S. Armed Forces, a milestone in the Civil Rights movement. The regiment is now the 369th Sustainment Brigade with an armory on 5th Avenue in New York City.

Shown below is the 369th depicted in a promotion for the Netherland Dairy of Oswego which supplied the 2,000-man garrison with milk. It appeared in the May 28, 1941 issue of the Post Script, the regiment’s newspaper while stationed at Fort Ontario until September 1941.


And finally, the New York State Parks Blog also has recent posts on African American historical items, including the Dutch colonial-era African American holiday of Pinkster, 19th century abolitionist Sojourner Truth and her life in the Hudson Valley, the 19th century emancipation holiday of Juneteenth which last year became an official state holiday, and the role of African American leadership in the Civilian Conservation Corps in New York State during the Great Depression.

So, take advantage of these many opportunities to learn about the history of people and places that form a more complete story of New York State.

African American members of the Civilian Conservation Corps work on a project in New York State during the Great Depression.

Cover Shot: African American Cemetery in Montgomery, Orange County, believed to hold graves of about 100 people, mainly slaves brought to the region in the mid-18th cemetery. (Photo Credit – Lavada Nahon) All other photos from NYS Parks unless otherwise noted.

Post by Lavada Nahon, Interpreter of African American History, Bureau of Historic Sites, NYS Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation