BROWNSVILLE — The romantic concept of the Buffalo Soldiers has never been fully described in the Valley.
So explains Dr. Tony Zavaleta in his research article titled “Colored Death.”
The retired anthropology professor for UTB/TSC writes little is known about the presence of African American soldiers in the Lower Rio Grande Valley during the years 1848 to the 1860s. Although they were present on both sides of the border, their lives remain largely in the historical shadows.
African Americans have been a part of all the major wars in America dating back to the Revolutionary War. But a 1795 law prohibited them from being soldiers in the U.S. armed forces. It wasn’t until the Militia Act of 1862 that they were allowed to fight in the Civil War as American soldiers defending the Union.
It was when Gen. Zachary Taylor marched down the Gulf Coast and arrived on the Rio Grande in 1846 with African American soldiers to fight in the Mexican-American War that marked the beginning of the African American military experience here, which encompassed 60 years.
Zavaleta writes by 1864 all military posts along the border had been taken from the Confederates and secured by black troops under the command of Col. Henry Day.
He writes 75 percent of the federal troops, approximately 1,415, were black. And many of them never returned home.
He writes conditions for African American soldiers in the years after the Civil War led to discrimination and mistreatment in the growing communities where they were stationed.
Zavaleta, currently a member of the Texas Southmost College Board of Trustees with strong ties to Brownsville’s history, began researching black troops after he was urged to constantly question Brownsville history because of unjust accusations against his great, great-grandfather Juan Cortina of being a bandit.
In his article he writes of the thousands of forgotten black soldiers who marched off to Texas from their homes in the North. Zavaleta found many of those soldiers lost their lives in battle but so many more succumbed to disease. And he writes of a grim revelation that more than 1,500 of those soldiers were buried in a mass grave marked “unknown” in Alexandria, Louisiana.
And even though the Buffalo Soldiers had proven themselves to be the best trained and most heroic units in the U.S. Army between the years of 1886 and the turn of the century, it would not save them from their dismissal from the armed services because of the Brownsville Raid.
One month after winning a major battle at San Juan Hill in Cuba, the 25th Regiment was stationed at Fort Brown. The fear of Brownsville whites triggered what would become known as the Brownsville Raid, which led to the mass dismissal of black troops from the Army.
He also writes of a national cemetery where the Fort Brown hotel used to be.
“After the Brownsville Raid the good people of Brownsville had decided they did not want African Americans buried here,” Zavaleta said. “I’m a Brownsville native and I’ve lived here all my life and we used to have a national cemetery and people don’t know about that.”
He said the remains were all dug up by a contractor and thrown into the mass grave in Louisiana.
According to Zavaleta, there were so many deaths in 1860 that they were burying African American soldiers every day. They died of malaria and yellow fever. They had hand-me-down uniforms and broken rifles and lived out in a swamp.
“We had a national cemetery and it was something the community should honor, but the leadership of the Brownsville community had it removed,” he said.
“We knew exactly who they were and we have the records of their name, rank and hometown,” Zavaleta said. “That was adding insult in how they were treated.
“We just know they went to Brownsville and never came back,” Zavaleta said.” It’s a blemish in our history and most people don’t know about it.”
He said Brownsville was a Confederate town and they were very hostile to the North and African Americans.
“The true heroes of San Juan Hill were the African American soldiers under the command of Theodore Roosevelt,” Zavaleta said. “President Roosevelt knew these soldiers personally.”
The Spanish were defeated and Theodore Roosevelt went on to become president of the United States after the Battle of San Juan Hill.
“Brownsville residents were incensed that Buffalo Soldiers were being stationed in Brownsville and they didn’t want them here,” he said.
The Brownsville Raid involved a group of men who painted their faces black and used ragtag rifles to shoot up the town. At least one person was killed.
“The Brownsville Raid is such a horrible and negative event,” Zavaleta said. “When you Google it, it doesn’t come up.”
“We know now that all the black soldiers were accounted for. No black soldier left the post that night, none left and they are all there and they checked their weapons and the Brownville people insisted they be removed,” Zavaleta said. “And within a couple of days they were shipped out, and to make matters worse they were all dishonorably discharged.
“Here are men who were heroes and supported the president and drummed out of the service and lost their pensions. But finally it was historically declared that the Brownsville Raid was perpetrated to remove African American men from Brownsville.”