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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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