There's no denying the role that the black regiments played in white settlement of the west and Native American removal during the American Indian Wars. They had to make some difficult choices not unlike the choice black policemen have to make in today's society.
Soldiers in the all-black regiments fought in the American Indian Wars, protected white settlements and built and patrolled infrastructure that paved the way west for more white settlers.
The role black soldiers played in this westward expansion — into lands inhabited by indigenous peoples, many forcibly displaced in the end — is complicated and controversial.
Some believe it is paradoxical that black soldiers, many of them former slaves who had endured oppression and racism, fought against another marginalized population.
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To understand the role of buffalo soldiers in this chapter of history, Dr. Darrell Millner, professor emeritus at Portland State University, says one must consider the difficult circumstances black men faced in the era after the Civil War, when many had just been freed from slavery.
“They owned no property, they had recently been property themselves,” said Millner. “They had no money, they had no educational talents or skills … They were surrounded by the same people who had been their former masters, who had very negative opinions about the new circumstances. They had no protections from the law.
“Although it seems sort of incongruous that a former slave population would help to impose the sort of controls and circumstances on another colored population in the country in that next generation, unfortunately sometimes serving in the military was the best option for especially a young black man.”
In his book “In Search of the Racial Frontier,” Dr. Quintard Taylor, professor emeritus of history at the University of Washington, explains that in addition to protecting white settlers, the buffalo soldiers protected other inhabitants. They defended Chickasaw and Cherokee and Creek farmers from Comanche or Kiowa raids, and even defended indigenous tribes from white people. In 1879, the 10th Cavalry Regiment protected a Kiowa village from white Texas Rangers, and in 1887, the 9th Cavalry Regiment protected Utes from Colorado militiamen.
Still, Millner said, one should resist the temptation to minimize the complex role of segregated black regiments in Western history. “History is not always clean, sometimes it can be very messy and confusing, because that’s the way, unfortunately, life is sometimes,” he said.
As an example of this, Millner cited the complicated roles that some black Americans find themselves in today.
“In modern American society, often black people have to make very difficult choices,” Millner said. “The thing that jumps to mind in present circumstances as an example is black men who want to become policemen in the context of all the hostility between the police community and the black community.
“Life is not always simple and straightforward and logical and reasonable. More likely it’s often complicated and contradictory.”