Event celebrates Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Ethan Allen

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(Host) In July of 1909, the Tenth Cavalry arrived at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester. The regiment was made up of 750 African American men, known as "Buffalo Soldiers."

The regiment’s name is thought to have been created by Native Americans, who said there were physical similarities between the troops on horseback and a herd of buffalo. 

This week descendants and scholars have gathered for a centennial celebration of the Buffalo Soldiers who served in Vermont. 

VPR’s Sarah Ashworth has more.

(Ashworth) Bee McCollum has lived in Winooski her entire life.  She lives in the same house that her grandfather, Sergeant Willis Hatcher, did.  Hatcher was one of the 10th Cavalry soldiers who arrived at Fort Ethan Allen in 1909.  McCollum never met her grandfather, but stories of his life were passed down to her.

(McCollum) "My mother wanted us to know about the history, and one of the things we had, I don’t know where we got it, was a 10th Cavalry banner, and she also had books, like his drill maneuver books that she kept and showed us, and then she had one about the history.  It was definitely a great source of pride.  My mother actually gave us emblems and things from his uniform."

(Ashworth) While in Vermont, the soldiers practiced maneuvers, marched, and traveled to Virginia to participate in military exercises.  In 1913, when the regiment left for a new assignment in Arizona, several soldiers, like Willis Hatcher, stayed behind and helped form a tight-knit African American community in Winooski and Burlington.  Sergeant Silas Johnson was also one of those soldiers.  And, his grandson, Reg Wells, says he heard many tales of adventure from his grandfather’s service.

(Wells) "You know, he had been in the Philippines, had been in Cuba, had been on the Mexican border in Arizona, and that they had traveled through some pretty racist territories in the United States, and when they came here, it was like heaven."

(Ashworth) But it wasn’t quite like heaven at first.  When word spread that an African American regiment would be moving into Vermont, many residents reacted by protesting their arrival.  Texas A&M History Professor David Work has studied the Buffalo Soldiers’ time in Vermont, and says even area newspapers condemned their arrival. 

(Work) "Clearly a lot of Vermonters felt trepidation, uncertainty over the arrival of all of these black soldiers.  One editor said they would pose a menace, that they would be dangerous to the community, and some people called for the creation of Jim Crow street cars, segregation by law, and such things."

(Ashworth) In the early 1900s Vermont had a black population of a little more than 800 people.  When members of the 10th Cavalry arrived with their families and camp followers, they numbered at least 1500, and created a dramatic change in Vermont’s demographics.  For descendant Bee McCollum, these changes helped open up opportunities for her generation.

(McCollum) "Basically, where we came from in the past was very important because our grandparents provided us with the opportunity to get the education, and just to be proud of who we are, and that’s one of the legacies my grandfather has given us."

(Ashworth) McCollum is just one of the many descendants who have gathered in the state this week for lectures, exhibits and gatherings, all in celebration of the troops who arrived one hundred years ago. 

For VPR News, I’m Sarah Ashworth. 

(Host) Later today, Fort Ethan Allen will host a Living History day with a parade and tours throughout the Fort.

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