In July of 1909, 750 African-American men known as Buffalo soldiers arrived at Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester, Vt., near the small city of Burlington. Greater Burlington had a population of 25,000. Of those, only 117 people were black.
In addition, the Buffalo soldiers brought with them their wives, children and camp followers, which increased the number of African Americans to about 1,500 in the Burlington area.
Historian David Work called it ‘demographic shock.’
And despite Vermont’s reputation for racial tolerance, Burlington offered a decidedly mixed welcome to the Buffalo soldiers.
Buffalo soldiers were all-black units – except for officers – formed after the Civil War. The 10th Cavalry Regiment was one of six regiments, later reduced to four.
Native Americans on the frontier gave them their name. Acccording to various sources, their curly hair reminded the Indians of the fur on top of the buffalo heads. The soldiers took the name as a compliment.
The 10th trained as a combat unit and fought in the Indian wars in the West, the Philippine-American War and the Spanish-American War. During the latter they had charged up San Juan Hill with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders. Buffalo soldiers in general had a reputation for discipline and valor.
The 10th cavalry spent 1907-1909 in the Philippines, and returned to New York City by ship. Cheering crowds of New Yorkers, both black and white, greeted the Buffalo soldiers, even giving them a ticker tape parade
But soon enough they got a taste of the treatment that white Americans doled out to the Buffalo soldiers when stationed throughout the South and West.
The Brownsville affair of 1906 tainted all Buffalo soldiers. The 25th Infantry Regiment, a black unit, was stationed in the segregated town of Brownsville, Texas. When a white bartender was shot and killed, the townspeople blamed the soldiers. Though their commanding officer swore they’d been inside the barracks all night, white residents planted evidence against them.
President Theodore Roosevelt ordered all 167 men of the regiment dishonorably discharged. They weren’t exonerated until 1972.
The 10th Cavalry Regiment began to arrive in Colchester on July 28, 1909, replacing an all-white unit at the fort.
The Rutland Daily Herald editor called them a ‘menace.’ The editor of the Burlington Free Press wrote of objections to the presence of such a large body of African Americans. Several racial incidents marred their first arrivals. One bank refused to cash a pay vouchers. Some white people left restaurants when the soldiers entered, and some even insisted on segregating the trolley cars.
Other newspapers in both the north and south took note of the animosity toward the soldiers.
That sparked a backlash among other Burlington-area residents, who wanted to maintain Vermont’s reputation for tolerance. Burlington had been a hotbed of abolitionism, and Vermont had outlawed slavery during its 14 years as a republic.
The president of the streetcar company refused to segregate the cars because the famous Tenth would cause no trouble, he said. A white army officer said he expected the Tenth Cavalry to give the people of Burlington a lesson in patriotism.
In the end, the Buffalo soldiers won over the city. The Bennington Evening Banner reported the 10th proved ‘a happy surprise.’
“They haven’t shot up the town yet, they don’t mob the trolley cars and are civil and courteous to both men and women,” reported the newspaper.
David Work described the 10th as ‘experienced, disciplined, relatively well education, professional soldiers…with tremendous unit pride.’
Eventually Vermonters recognized those qualities.
A local club held a dinner dance for the noncommissioned officers. The city also gave them a big send off when they left for New York to conduct maneuvers.
For the soldiers, the four-year stay in Vermont was luxurious compared to the frontier or the tropics. They had an indoor riding hall, warm barracks and wholesome food. They could even attend college. It was way better than building their own barracks, eating military field rations and suffering tropical fevers—not to mention combat. They also had plenty of time to play baseball in the summer and basketball in the winter.
Their baseball team played the University of Vermont and St. Michael’s to large crowds. They lost narrowly to a professional Negro League team, the Cuban Stars.
In addition to sports, the Buffalo soldiers provided plenty of entertainment to the people of Burlington. They let the public watch their daily mounted drills at the fort. The ban played public concerts and they even raised money for the public library. Once a week they held a parade. They also staged a production of the Merchant of Venice, and in the winter held a Wild West Show in the riding hall. The soldiers even sponsored a public showing of a boxing film about Joe Gans-Battling Nelson.
In 1913, the Buffalo soldiers transferred to Fort Huachuca in Arizona because of rising tensions along the Mexican border.
They left behind a small African-American community in Burlington, one that would later appear in The Negro Motorist Green Book. Some settled in Winooski and actively supported the Winooski Methodist Episcopal Church.
The 10th stayed in Arizona for 18 years. Then in 1931, the government disbanded the Buffalo soldiers’ units.
In 2009, descendants of the Tenth Cavalry Regiment commemorated the 100th anniversary of their arrival in Vermont with a museum display, a concert and a celebration. With thanks to The Buffalo Soldiers in Vermont, 1909–1913, by David Work from the Vermont History Journal. This story was updated in 2021.