After the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, many Black men enlisted in the military as a way to earn income and respect in U.S. society. Despite facing many barriers within the military, Black soldiers fought in many wars and conflicts, both at home and abroad. A new documentary from Vancouver-based filmmaker Dru Holley explores the complicated legacy of Black soldiers, particularly their role participating in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. We talk to Holley about “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts,” which airs on OPB TV Monday, June 12.
This transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: This is Think Out Loud on OPB. I’m Dave Miller. We end today with the story of Buffalo Soldiers – members of all-Black regiments who fought for the U.S. in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The Vancouver-based filmmaker Dru Holley explored the complicated legacy of these men with the focus on the role they played in the subjugation of Indigenous peoples. His film is called “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts.” It airs tonight at nine on OPB TV, and Dru Holley joins me now. Welcome and congratulations.
Dru Holley: Hi, Dave. Thank you for having me here, thank you.
Miller: Thanks very much for joining us. A historian points out early in your film that large numbers of Black soldiers served in the Revolutionary War, in the War of 1812, in the Civil War. But you focus on the time that follows. What started happening in 1866, after the Civil War?
Holley: Yeah, 1866 there was the Reorganization Act by Congress and then that act, not only were the Black Regiments established, but also the Native Scouts were established at that time too. So that gave Black men the opportunity to serve in the United States army.
Miller: Slavery had technically been abolished. But what were the life circumstances for Black Americans in the South or in the North for that matter?
Holley: So, you know, there’s different...they were former sharecroppers, right? Sons and daughters of former sharecroppers getting an opportunity to make 13 bucks an hour, more than they ever had or their fathers or grandfathers ever had. So, this was an opportunity for them.
Miller: What was the opportunity? What was the promise to would-be Back soldiers?
Holley: What was the promise? Well, I would say the promise was citizenship and equal rights, right? The promise was to be of honor, right? To serve in the United States army. The promise was to be citizens.
Miller: I want to listen to a clip from the movie. This is the Writer and Curator Anthony Powell:
[Movie Clip]: ‘When I was a kid, I was very, very lucky to have my grandfather who had been a Buffalo soldier. His name was Samuel Nathaniel Waller. He joined the army in 1887 and retired in 1927. He died in 1979 at 105. I asked him one time, I said, respectfully, “How come you served this Racist country for 40 years?” And my Grandfather told me something that took me a while to appreciate. He said the army gave him the only part of the American dream that the nation would let him share.’
Where were these soldiers sent in the 1870s, 1880s?
Holley: They were sent to the Wild West. This was as America was trying to expand westward, and they were basically border patrol. So they were sent west.
Miller: Ryan Booth, who is an Upper Skagit Tribe member, and a historian, says in your documentary that this amounted to total war. Can you describe what these soldiers, Black and white were asked to do?
Holley: In our film, “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts,” we take a hard look at complexities of histories like race, class, power and colonialism. Well, all along, we want to tell a true story, right? The film is supposed to be entertaining, but most importantly, educational. The best way to honor our Native American brothers and sisters as well as the Buffalo Soldiers is to tell a true story, right? And then that by acknowledging that the Buffalo Soldiers were involved in the suppression of our Native American brothers and sisters.
Miller: What are the different theories even just for where this phrase ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ came from?
Holley: You know, a lot of it is theory. And we had in the film, we have all the historians kind of tell us their version of where the name came from. And I guess to sum it all and put it all together, these Native American people who hadn’t seen these Black men before. They’ve seen these darker skin. They’re seeing their hair, they’re seeing the way that they fight and battle. And they have very great admiration for the Buffalo. They were their life source. So, I think it was a term of honor, but either way the Buffalo Soldiers held that name with honor.
Miller: Oh, so that name became a name that Black soldiers embraced?
Miller: I want to play another clip. This comes from Darrell Millner, a PSU [Portland State University] historian who our listeners may remember from a number of appearances on Think Out Loud. And he’s interviewed in your documentary as well. This is part of what he has to say:
[Movie Clip]: ‘We look back and we see two populations of color. So we assume there would be some kind of potential alliance. The Buffalo Soldiers did not look at the Native Americans and see another quote, “colored population;” they saw a designated enemy.’
I’m curious how you, as a filmmaker, reckon with what Darrell Millner, there, is saying?
Holley: First and foremost, my good friend Darrell Millner, who I love to death, is sick right now and he couldn’t make our show this morning. So I want to tell him to get well soon if he’s listening right now, and that, I’m prayin’ for you… and yeah, and he’s just a great teacher and a true legend himself.
I think it was very early on in this film, I set out to make an inspirational film about the Buffalo Soldiers. But very early on, I didn’t know much about the history prior to making this film and learning about the participation in the Indian wars was something that was hard…to understand how to tell the story with that element, with that involved. But, again, we want to tell a true story.
Early on in the film, we show Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. And we expand that image out and you see the Buffalo Soldiers and you’ll hear all about how the Buffalo Soldiers were the ones who actually conquered San Juan Hill. And in this film, we want to expand that lens out, and show viewers that history isn’t as, excuse the term, ‘black and white,’ as we’ve been told. These stories are complex and they’re real, right?
So again, the best way to honor our Buffalo Soldiers and our Native American brothers and sisters is to make sure that we’re telling the truth, right? We’re expanding that lens, we’re looking at the complexities and we’re opening it up [to] conversation.
Miller: How were these Black regiments treated by white officers?
Holley: Just like with the name of the film – ‘fighting on two fronts,’ not only were they fighting for America, they were also fighting against America, right? And dealing with the civil rights that they had to deal with, that we currently battle today. So they were very much fighting on two fronts. They were fighting for their rights, but they’re also fighting for America.
Miller: You could have made an entire documentary just about one person who’s featured in your movie, a pioneering Black officer named Charles Young...
Miller: Can you give us a sense for some of the highlights of his extraordinary life, starting I think with what he endured as an officer-in-training at West Point?
Holley: Yeah, throughout every Black History month we’re told about our stereotypical cast and all due respect to those. But Charles Young is a hero that we don’t know about and that is perhaps left out. Charles Young was the third Black graduate of West Point. Charles Young is the first Black Brigadier General, retroactively. He should have received that honor a long time ago, but he received it in 2021. Charles Young was like our first national park superintendent. Yeah, and Charles Young was also like one of the first army commanders who used machine guns in their campaign. So like he was an innovator for sure.
Miller: Oh, right. There’s a moment where we found out that he used it to provide cover in a way that apparently hadn’t been done before and then became standard. He also played a role in Liberia. What was he doing there?
Holley: Yeah, he was attaché in Liberia for the army. So he was helping the Liberian force kind of learn American military tactics in Liberia. And Liberia is also very interesting, right? It was established by former slaves. And back in the 1820s, they left America and were sent back to Africa, per se, and established this country.
Miller: You focus mainly on men who served in these all-Black regiments, because that’s what it was. But you do also tell us the story of one extraordinary woman as well. Can you tell us about Cathay Williams or William Cathay?
Holley: Cathay Williams or William Cathay, at first I thought her story was a myth. But we were able to find definitive answers for who she was, [in] documentation. We weren’t able to find any images of her. So we relied on our amazing creative director, Iana, who is extraordinary. She designed the look of Cathay Williams, since we didn’t have any other way to depict her.
Moses Williams, who’s buried right down the street from me here in Vancouver, at the Post Cemetery, I pass his grave every day on the way to the highway. Moses Williams was that connective tissue that took us through the West, right? And then, took us through the Indian Wars at the beginning of that Buffalo Soldier story. Charles Young’s story took us through the turn of the century. And as America headed across the Pacific to establish their empire in the Philippines and Puerto Rico and so on and so forth.
Cathay Williams’ story didn’t necessarily fit into the narrative, but her story was so important that we couldn’t leave that on the cutting room floor.
Miller: And what was the story?
Holley: Oh Cathay Williams, she changed her name to William Cathay, disguised herself as a man, and served in the army until she was found out during a surgery. At first, she got in there over a clearly superficial exam, right? They didn’t check them. When she was continuously having health issues and they had to perform surgery on her and that’s when they found out she was a woman. She was dishonorably discharged and died in Trinidad, Colorado.
Miller: You talked about in a sense, the expansion, the beginning of the American empire. I mean, both westward, the taking over Indigenous lands in this continent, but also, going say, for example, to the Philippines in the same time or by the turn of the 20th century. Can you describe the debate among Black Americans about the Philippine American war?
Holley: Yeah. I think just like today, Black people, we all have our difference of opinions on things, right? And I think that was very much the debate at that time. We’re not a monolith with one voice. And inside our community, we’re gonna have a difference of opinion. And some [people], Ida B Wells included, wondered why are we, as African Americans, going to fight these other people of the same hue and tone as us for this country that it clearly doesn’t care about our civil rights. And there was other articles in newspapers that had the complete opposite – that it doesn’t matter, the skin tone, we fight for America, period. So that was just [a] difference of opinions at the time.
Miller: How did that play out among Black soldiers?
Holley: You know, one of the stories that I didn’t get to dive into very deep was the story of David Fagen, right? And I found his story so compelling. And due to what we were trying to tell in this hourlong documentary, we couldn’t go down too many storylines. But this was an American soldier who defected to the Filipino army and rose to be captain. And I found this story completely compelling,
Miller: How much credit were Buffalo Soldiers given for their many achievements?
Holley: I wouldn’t say a lot of them received ‘Medal of Honors,’ especially during the Civil War. And Moses Williams was one that kept his Medal of Honor. He’s Oregon’s first African American Medal of Honor recipient, and he received it at Fort Stevens and a lot of them kept their Medal of Honor. And as we know, throughout history, or throughout time, we’ve forgotten about this story, I’m not sure why, because there hasn’t been much taught about it in our schools. So I hope this film is a catalyst and a resource for educators to continue to use it.
Miller: Can you tell us what happened in Brownsville, Texas in the summer of 1906?
Holley: Yeah. To make a long story short, in Brownsville, Texas, some Black Soldiers were accused of shooting a civilian. Teddy Roosevelt, dishonorably discharged like 100 soldiers, which was later found out that this story wasn’t true. And every other soldier was dead except Dorsey Willis who received a $25,000 check for back pay, for that action.
Miller: You talked earlier about the promise of signing up to be a citizen, to actually have equal protection under the law. How much was that promise kept? I mean, did serving in the army provide a path to a better life?
Holley: Yeah. I would think so. And just like it is today, for folks who don’t have the opportunities to go to college or don’t have the opportunities to leave, you know, Southern Mississippi or their hometown, the army is a pathway out of that. So they didn’t receive what America promised, right? That was an opportunity for them either way.
Miller: What did you learn about a group called Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle – a group that meets to this day?
Holley: Buffalo Soldiers in Seattle are my muses, along with my daughter. In 2018, I was volunteering for the Langston Hughes Foundation and they was having a Juneteenth Celebration and this was 2018, and Juneteenth wasn’t very well attended and it almost felt like people had forgotten about the Juneteenth. So they wanted to record a kind of a promotional video because that’s what I was used to doing, going out and recording promo videos, music videos and things like that.
While I was going to the festival and was gonna capture footage, I brought my six year old daughter with me. While I was capturing footage, she checked out the festival after a while. I heard her say, ‘Ooh, horsies!’ When I looked up, I seen this all-Black regiment straight out of the 19th century, galloping up the hill on horseback and it felt like they were in slow motion and she was like, ‘Who are they, Daddy?’ And I hate to use her voice. She sounds way cuter than me.
Miller: You’re making her sound pretty cute.
Holley: ‘Who are they, Daddy?’ And I was stumped. I was like, who are these guys? And I think it was the Bob Marley song that eventually came to me and I said, ‘I think those are the Buffalo Soldiers.’ And I’m not sure why I connected the two together.
Then her next follow up question is, ‘Who are the Buffalo Soldiers?’ And after doing some research, I couldn’t find a lot of information out there... definitely Wikipedia and a couple video clips on YouTube.
So being the filmmaker that I am, my first thought is I’m gonna do a promo video for the Buffalo Soldiers of Seattle, right? I think what they’re doing is great, but I didn’t want my kid or our youth to kind of have the same feeling that I did and not know who these gentlemen were. So I decided to make this documentary.
Miller: How did making this story impact you personally? We just have about a minute left.
Holley: Oh, I had to grow so much during this process, right? This was four years in the making. I mean, a lot of sleepless nights, a lot of hearing ‘No.’ I heard ‘No,’ like I don’t know, maybe 1,000 times, to maybe the 20 times I heard, ‘Yes.’ And those numbers aren’t necessarily true or exact, but building a thick skin, learning how to properly produce a show, a movie, a feature, I was able to translate those skills over to my company now, as Blackball Films. We work all over Portland for different clients like Travel Portland, Albina Vision Trust, as well as Multnomah County.
Miller: Dru Holley, thanks very much.
Holley: Thank you, David.
Miller: Dru Holley is a filmmaker. You can see his film, “Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts” tonight at nine on OPB TV.
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