Buffalo Soldiers rallies have become a ‘family reunion’ for their attendees

The former restaurant on the first floor of the Holiday Inn & Suites in downtown Missoula, Montana, took on a different twist Thursday night. The Buffalo Soldiers jackets and casual outfits were replaced with fancy dresses, sport coats and a few western suspender shirts similar to those worn by John Wayne in “The Searchers”.

It was the tea party for those attending the Buffalo Soldiers Iron Riders Gathering commemorating the 125th anniversary of the Iron Riders’ 1,900-mile bike ride from Missoula to St. Louis. Since Monday, attendees have taken tours, heard presentations, attended a baseball game and even been invited to a film festival.

But this week’s gathering, and the previous 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association Annual Reunion, are much more than those aspects of the event.

“It’s like a family reunion,” said Leanna Rogers, the association’s assistant treasurer and member of the Far North Carolina chapter. “We develop a bond with each other. If you’re in their town…they offer to show you anything, take you out to eat, offer you accommodation. That’s what they do. It’s like an extended family. We try to treat ourselves that way.

Rogers, who retired from the North Carolina Army National Guard in 2005, was a founding member of the Greater North Carolina Founding Members Association, although she did not “no idea who the Buffalo Soldiers were,” she said. “I guess I was running out of history. I came to the first meeting and met all these wonderful soldiers who had great stories to tell. They were talking about such interesting things, and I wanted to continue being a part of it, giving back and keeping the story alive.

During high team, revelers had appetizers, played games, and everyone shared something about themselves. Each participant also received a gift bag. And, of course, there was tea.

As for the idea of ​​hosting such an event, Rogers said the idea originated at the association’s 2016 meeting which also honored the Buffalo Soldiers’ 150th anniversary.

“We wanted to do something different,” she said. “We have a Junior Buffalo Soldiers Corps, and we try to have something to raise funds for our young people. We thought of doing a high tea because we wanted people to put on (fancy) clothes – nothing you had to go out and buy – and we told the ladies to wear hats. The bigger the better.

“They started to really like it, so every year they were like, ‘Are you going for some tea?’ So we do that, and we give them little presents. We have different themes every year. And the funds that we generate from our high tea, we donate to our Junior Buffalo Soldier group. We have a youth summit. (every year) and we have that money to be able to help with that.”

Earlier today, the Buffalo Soldiers were the subject of a film festival at Missoula’s The Roxy Theater. Attendees watched the screening of the short film “Buffalo Soldiers: The Beginning,” as well as the documentaries “Following the Lieutenant” and “Bicycle Corps: America’s Black Army on Wheels.”

After the screening, viewers had the opportunity to ask questions of William Byers, retired US Air Force military policeman, owner of Explorer Studios and producer of the first film; and Eric Westrom, who directed “Following the Lieutenant.”

Westrom’s documentary highlights the Iron Riders’ 1,900-mile trek from Missoula to St. Louis and said he felt the story needed to be told after it was “so underrated,” he said. he declares. But the documentary didn’t stop there, instead sharing the sad end of some soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment. After the Spanish–American War, 167 soldiers from the 25th were assigned to Fort Brown in Brownsville, Texas, where race relations were already charged.

Around midnight on August 13, 1906, several shots were fired in the city, killing a white man. Although white officers stationed at the fort testified that all 25th soldiers were in their barracks, the mayor and other townspeople said they saw them firing in the streets. Without any legitimate evidence against the black soldiers, President Teddy Roosevelt—who had fought alongside 25h members during the Spanish–American War—gave the 167 soldiers a dishonorable discharge, stripping them of their salaries, pensions, and military honors. It is considered Roosevelt’s worst mistake during his presidency; in 1972, the U.S. government reversed the decision and awarded the last two living 25th soldiers $25,000 each.

Westrom said he could not, in good conscience, omit this part of what was otherwise an inspiring and uplifting story. “I feel like there’s an obligation,” he said. “You have to show what happened no matter what, even if it’s something horrible like Brownsville and the aftermath of Roosevelt turning his back on all those soldiers and everything they spent their life defending this country. It was, for me, just a huge slap in the face. As a filmmaker, and even as a journalist, you have to present this.

Byers spoke about cinema and the importance of the subject, but also took time to praise Missoula and its people. “I am so honored to be in your community supporting African American history (and) our heritage for 125 years,” he said.

It was music to the ears of Emily Rolston, Co-Chair of the Gathering Planning Committee and Director of Group Sales for Destination Missoula. “It makes me feel wonderful,” she said. “Two other people said they just felt the Missoula community was so welcoming. We’ve heard that over the years in Missoula, and I want it to stick.

Rolston, who attended Iron Riders events throughout the week, said the city’s connection to the 25th Cavalry plays a role in the community rolling out the welcome mats for the Buffalo Soldiers and their guests.

“I grew up here, and there are so many pieces of this history that I learned myself, and I think a lot of people in our community are learning,” Rolston said. “But there are certainly those who know the history and see the Buffalo Soldiers jackets and know it.”

The Iron Riders rally travels to Wallace, Idaho on June 17 for tours and the dedication of the Buffalo Soldiers Monument. It returns to Missoula on June 18 for more tours and presentations before wrapping up Sunday with a June 19 celebration.

Sara H. Byrd