Partly in grudging acknowledgment of the brave service provided by 200,000 black soldiers in the Union Army during the Civil War, in 1866 the federal government created the first all-black infantry and cavalry regiments to serve in the Western United States. Even “Radical” Republicans were not fully immune from the white supremacist ideas of the era, and the law establishing these segregated units required them to be led by white officers. These units primarily served in the American West where, as historian Monroe Lee Billington notes, “they guarded wagon trains, stagecoaches, and railroads taking Americans to the frontier. They aided local law enforcement officers to round up cattle rustlers and other outlaws. In addition, they built roads, strung telegraph wire and performed other perfunctory duties that aided the movement of the nation westward . . .” While African Americans in the South and the East suffered confinement to the lowest rung in the nation’s racial hierarchy, in the West they formed part of a conquering army that suppressed Native American resistance and paved the way for white and black seizure of Indian lands.
With African Americans composing 10 percent of soldiers serving from the end of the Civil War to the Spanish American War in 1898, black fighters played a highly visible role in the “Indian Wars.” Native Americans reportedly dubbed these men “Buffalo Soldiers,” perhaps because Indians reportedly thought the hair and skin color of African Americans resembled that of buffalo, or because many of the soldiers wore buffalo skin robes in the wintertime, or because of their respect for both the buffalo and for African Americans as fighters. Most black soldiers served in Texas and Kansas, as well as in the Oklahoma, Arizona and New Mexico territories. The African American Ninth Cavalry played a key role in defeating the forces of Chief Victorio, a Warm Springs, New Mexico, Apache leader, in a war that lasted from 1876 to 1880.
African American troops often suffered as the U.S. Army placed them in the uncomfortable role of restraining white settlers intent on illegally taking Indian land and serving as strikebreakers. After its victory over Apache leaders Victorio and Nana in New Mexico, commanders dispatched the Ninth Cavalry for the job of restraining white “boomers” from crossing the Kansas border and taking land illegally in Oklahoma, action that often resulted in violence between black soldiers and would-be settlers. In more than fifty cases, beginning in the late 1870s and continuing until the start of the 20th century, railroad and mine owners and other powerful Western business owners exploited black soldiers to replace striking white workers. The army also dispatched black military units to quell violence in the previously mentioned Lincoln County War in New Mexico.
Sadly for the black servicemen in the West, an anti-military mood gripped the country after the Civil War and soldiers in the late 19th century did not enjoy the respect accorded their wartime predecessors, a problem intensified by racism, according to Monroe Billington. “ . . . [T]his postwar army was composed primarily of lower-class urban workers, European immigrants, and African Americans – people for whom other Americans often expressed contempt,” Billington wrote.
African Americans frequently endured hostility from the whites they encountered. When whites murdered black soldiers, as often as not authorities looked the other way. Meanwhile, local law enforcement often harassed black soldiers, arresting them on trumped-up charges, beating and killing them, or sentencing them to lengthy sentences for the most minimum of offenses.
Meanwhile, the Army discriminated against black men. In spite of their often-acknowledged bravery, black soldiers received only four percent of the Medals of Honor awarded in the period between the end of the Civil War and the Spanish American War. The Army promoted no African American enlisted man to the rank of officer in that time period, though no military rules prohibited such an action. Only twenty-two Africans received appointments to the West Point military academy in the late 19th century, and only three could overcome the racism at that institution and graduate. Military records also note repeated instances of black soldiers denigrated by their officers with racial slurs.
Black soldiers were not alone in being used as strikebreakers by ruthless businessmen west of the Missouri. In 1891 in Washington state, African American civilians, excluded from unions and needing decent-paying jobs, arrived under the protection of Pinkerton guards in Newcastle, near Seattle, to serve as replacement workers at coalmines owned by the Oregon Improvement Company. White workers had gone on strike against the OIC, which subjected its employees to long hours in unsafe conditions and housed them in “company towns” where the OIC served as landlord. Miners received wages not in cash but in company “scrip” redeemable only in OIC-owned stores. White workers attempted to affiliate with the Knights of Labor, an effort that led the company to bring in African American replacement workers from Iowa, Illinois, Indiana and Missouri.
One group of white workers assembled in Pierce County near Seattle and resolved that “we will no longer submit to the introduction of the negro race among us, and that we cannot and will not recognize the negro as worthy of association with us; neither will we submit to any association with them in any manner whatsoever.” Some white labor leaders believed that black workers were naïve dupes of the mining company and expressed the hope that once they realized how bad conditions were at the OIC mines they would leave. In fact, leaving was almost impossible for most of the imported miners who were too poor to return home and who, in any case, were closely monitored by OIC guards told to prevent their escape.
Regardless, most black replacement workers had rational reasons for staying. “Part of the reason was economic self interest,” labor historian Robert A. Campbell wrote. “They were trying to earn a living, support their families and live a respectable life in a society that did its best to perpetuate their former status as slaves. Their opportunities were limited and they had to take advantage of those that were available.” If white workers demanded class solidarity from their marginalized black peers, they proved incapable of maintaining it themselves. White miners started returning to their jobs by late June. In any case, the Knights’ virulent racism had fatally undermined their cause and allowed the OIC to split the work force along racial lines.
Michael Phillips has authored the following:
White Metropolis: Race, Ethnicity and Religion in Dallas, Texas, 1841-2001 (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2006)
(with Patrick L. Cox) The House Will Come to Order: How the Texas Speaker Became a Power in State and National Politics. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 2010)
“Why Is Big Tex Still a White Cowboy? Race, Gender, and the ‘Other Texans’” in Walter Buenger and Arnoldo de León, eds., Beyond Texas Through Time: Breaking Away From Past Interpretations (College Station: Texas A&M Press, 2011)
“The Current is Stronger’: Images of Racial Oppression and Resistance in North Texas Black Art During the 1920s and 1930s ” in Bruce A. Glasrud and Cary D. Wintz, eds., The Harlem Renaissance in the West: The New Negroes’ Western Experience (New York: Routledge, Taylor and Francis Group, 2011)
“Dallas, 1989-2011,” in Richardson Dilworth, ed. Cities in American Political History (Washington, D.C.: CQ Press, 2011)
(With John Anthony Moretta, Keith J. Volonto, Austin Allen, Doug Cantrell and Norwood Andrews), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips. eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume I. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Keith J. Volanto), Keith J. Volonto and Michael Phillips, eds., The American Challenge: A New History of the United States, Volume II. (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2012).
(With John Anthony Moretta and Carl J. Luna), Imperial Presidents: The Rise of Executive Power from Roosevelt to Obama (Wheaton, Il.: Abigail Press, 2013).
“Texan by Color: The Racialization of the Lone Star State,” in David Cullen and Kyle Wilkison, eds., The Radical Origins of the Texas Right (College Station: University of Texas Press, 2013).
He is currently collaborating, with longtime journalist Betsy Friauf, on a history of African American culture, politics and black intellectuals in the Lone Star State called God Carved in Night: Black Intellectuals in Texas and the World They Made.