Conyers resident Derrick Davis is president of the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta, and has been a member of the group for two decades. (Special Photo: Sue Ann Kuhn-Smith)
CONYERS — Growing up just north of New York City in the 1930s, Harold Cole said he didn’t experience any negative treatment as a black person. His parents never talked about differences between races, much less segregation or racism.
It wasn’t until he entered the military in 1942 that the division became apparent. At 17, Cole joined the U.S. Army, and when it came time for him to walk to his barracks, he and the other black soldiers walked one way and the white soldiers the other.
“That was really a low blow to me,” said Cole.
Cole served in the 9th Calvary regiment, known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the primary option for black soldiers at the time. He remained devoted to his job in the military and served for 20 years, ending his career in the Air Force.
“We were Americans, we had the same ambitions as the white man,” said Cole.
Today, Cole, 89, is a member of the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta, a historical organization that strives to educate people about how black soldiers served in the U.S. military, during and after the Civil War, and up until World War II, in units set apart from white soldiers.
“The purpose is to show every person that there were black soldiers and what they went through, with racism and coming out of slavery,” said Newton County resident Tony Grier, a member of the chapter since 1996.
Over 200,000 black soldiers fought in the Civil War, but it wasn’t until after the war in 1866 that Congress adopted legislation to create peace-time all-black infantry and cavalry units. The units first began serving by accompanying groups of settlers as they traveled West to protect them from attacks by American Indian, the very group that gave the Buffalo soldiers their name.
The Indians observed the soldiers’ dark skin, curly hair and fierce fighting ability and dubbed them “Buffalo Soldiers.”
“They took the name with honor,” said Derrick Davis, Rockdale resident and president of the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta.
The 35-member Greater Atlanta Chapter, part of a larger national organization — the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association — meets the second Saturday of each month in Newton County, and members hail from Rockdale, Newton, DeKalb and surrounding counties.
The Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta visit schools, colleges, churches and civic groups where they present programs including riding demonstrations and cavalry drills.
They also ride in parades and attend Armed Forces Day celebrations in communities where they set up encampments with displays of artifacts and provide verbal historical presentations.
Davis, who learned to ride horses as a child in Fort Wayne, Ind., and is currently a trainer for the Atlanta Police Department’s Mounted Patrol Division, first learned about the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta when he worked as an officer for the APD’s Mounted Division in 1989.
He said his passion for history, combined with his love of horses, compelled him to join the group. Understanding more about the accomplishments of the Buffalo Soldiers inspired him stay on.
“The story (of the Buffalo Soldiers) wasn’t being told and I got a chance to meet some of the original Buffalo Soldiers and learned about the racism they faced and it tugged on my heart strings,” said Davis. “I wanted to learn more and I wanted to carry on the legacy and tell the story.”
In addition to battles with American Indians, the Buffalo Soldiers also fought in Cuba during the Spanish-American War, in a punitive expedition against Pancho Villa in Mexico in 1916 and served guard duty on the Mexican border, in the Philippines and in Hawaii during World War I.
In 1944, the 9th and 10th cavalry units were decommissioned, effectively ending the Buffalo Soldiers’ service. President Harry Truman ordered desegregation of the military in 1948, with the last all-black units coming to a close in the early 1950s.
In 1966, the Buffalo Soldiers historical group formed to bring awareness to the black soldier contribution over the century.
Newton County resident Tommy China said he joined the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta in 1990.
“We’re here to inspire people of all races and to educate people that there were men of color who fought for everybody after slavery,” said China.
To learn more, visit the Buffalo Soldiers of Greater Atlanta on Facebook and Twitter.