Being Different: Stories of Utah Minorities

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9781560851509: Being Different: Stories of Utah Minorities

Ethnic studies can be full of surprises, pathos, and nostalgia, in Utah as elsewhere. In this anthology, fourteen gifted historians consider such issues as the collision of white settlers and Shoshones in northern Utah and the initial trouble with Salt Lake City residents when all-black troops were garrisoned at Forts Douglas and Duchesne.

The Mormon immigration was primarily of Yankee and British stock. Less advertised is the fact that it also included a sizeable number of Scandinavians who lent a distinctive, Old World flavor to the Sanpete area and by Polynesians who adapted their unique culture to the harsh realities of Skull Valley.

Peoples of other religions and nationalities followed with similarly colorful, energetic cultural contributions: the Italians and Greeks of Carbon and Emery Counties and the first Mexicans in and around Salt Lake City. There were short-lived colonizing efforts by Jewish settlers in central Utah and Japanese in Wasatch County.

In writing about and memorializing significant events surrounding immigrants’ lives and the day-to-day perseverance of pioneers of all nationalities, the fourteen contributors to this anthology offer fascinating details and unforgettable stories.

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About the Author:

Stanford J. Layton, former managing editor of the Utah Historical Quarterly, is a visiting professor of history at Weber State University. He is the author of To No Privileged Class: The Rationalization of Homesteading and Rural Life in the Early Twentieth Century, a contributor to the Utah History Encyclopedia and Worth Their Salt: Notable but Often Unnoted Women of Utah, and editor of the Favorite Readings from the Utah Historical Quarterly series.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Improbable Ambassadors
Black Soldiers at Fort Douglas,
1869-99

Michael J. Clark

Although the record is clear, few people know that on the east bench, overlooking Salt Lake City and touching the boundaries of the University of Utah, more than 600 black people lived, worked, and attended school for almost four years in one of the most attractive locations in the western United States. These were the soldiers of the United States Twenty-fourth Infantry, their wives, children, and others. There are twenty-one graves in the little Fort Douglas cemetery with weather-worn markers that become less legible each year, that serve as quiet reminders that black people exceeded the geographical boundaries historians have generally assigned them. Two additional graves mark the resting place of black servicemen from the famous Ninth Cavalry stationed at Fort Duchesne, Utah, prior to the turn of the twentieth century and at Fort Douglas following the departure of the Twenty-fourth.

Although black army regiments were stationed throughout the west for almost a century after the Civil War, knowledge that they were a regular and integral part of the military is not widespread.1 During the Civil War black units served throughout the southwest; and after 1866 members of the Twenty-fourth and Twenty-fifth infantries and Ninth and Tenth cavalries served as far north as Vancouver, British Columbia, as far west as the Presidio in San Francisco, and as far south as Mexico. Black men in uniform and their wives and children were prominent at Fort Bayard, New Mexico; Fort Grant, Arizona; Fort Logan, Colorado; Fort Missoula, Montana; Fort Davis, Texas; and other posts. In some cases they augmented comparatively small black civilian populations in these areas.

The dearth of sources pertaining to the army’s black rank-and-file and the considerable difficulties involved in uncovering information may account for the limited attention given black enlisted men. Additionally, officers and cavalry units have been considered more attractive subjects for writers and historians. This does not mean that black units and their men have gone entirely unobserved. Their critics appear to have been more vocal, if not more numerous, than their eulogizers. As late as 1900, black soldiers continued to be characterized as “illiterate,” “lazy,” “a drinker,” “a gambler,” “set apart by nature,” “a natural horseman,” and inconsequential in the development of the west.2 Subsequent discussions by historians have challenged these characterizations, but a definitive study is yet to be undertaken.

In attempting to delineate more precisely the presence of the Twenty-fourth Infantry in Utah, my examination of local newspapers and army records for that period raised several questions that warranted further investigation: Why was the Twenty-fourth stationed in Utah? What impact did it have upon Salt Lake City? What was it like to be a black soldier during this period? Where did the men come from? How did their presence affect the development of Salt Lake City’s black community and its historical presence in Utah? Were there any long-term effects of the regiment’s presence?

During early September 1896, word circulated among military posts that the adjutant general was considering a plan to relocate several regiments. Although details were not fully known, some soldiers welcomed new duty assignments and others wanted to remain where they were. Civilians, too, worried about the pending change. In Salt Lake City the Sixteenth Infantry, a white unit, grudgingly prepared to leave Fort Douglas for Boise Barracks and Fort Sherman in Idaho and Fort Spokane in Washington. According to a local newspaper report, the unit’s football and baseball teams were greatly disappointed because they had hoped to win championships in Utah.3 While younger soldiers were probably concerned about leaving girlfriends, older soldiers faced the prospect of moving families and household effects. A group of Salt Lake City residents, after attending a dance at Fort Douglas, “went home happy and expressed sorrow at its being the last dance they would attend at the post for several years.”4

The Fifteenth Infantry, as luck would have it, was transferred from Illinois to forts in the southwest that had been garrisoned by the Twenty-fourth. These posts in New Mexico and Arizona had reputations for being “hell holes.” Members of the Fifteenth were probably convinced that they were being punished. On the other hand, members of the Twenty-fourth seem to have been happy with the regiment scramble and felt that, after thirty years, the unit was getting the kind of duty station it deserved. At that point in time, all four of the army’s so-called black units, each with white officers, were stationed in the west.5

The arrival of the Twenty-fourth more than doubled Utah’s black population. The Ninth Cavalry, stationed at Fort Duchesne in Uintah County, had 584 black soldiers, and the Twenty-fourth’s strength was rather constant at 512. With Fort Douglas’s proximity to the city, wives and children were able to accompany the Twenty-fourth to Utah. The state’s total black population, civilian and military, hovered around 1,800 in the fall of 1896 and reached 2,300 in 1898 after the Twenty-fourth returned from the Spanish-American War.

The arrival of the infantry was preceded by both rumor and fact. People expressed interest and some concern at the Salt Lake Tribune‘s and Salt Lake Herald‘s reports of the War Department’s decision to move the Twenty-fourth to Fort Douglas.6 On September 20, 1896, almost one month before the advance companies arrived, the Tribune, in an editorial entitled “An Unfortunate Change,” voiced the kind of reluctance that black soldiers would ultimately have to confront during their tour of duty in Utah. The paper reflected on the close ties between the city and members of the Sixteenth Infantry and implied that such relationships would be impossible with the Twenty-fourth. It noted that because the city’s residential areas lay between the business district and Fort Douglas, “colored” soldiers would have to travel on streetcars to and from the post, and this would bring them into direct contact with whites, especially white women. The editorial argued that when drunk, a black soldier “will be sure to want to assert himself” on a car with white ladies. It would be best, it concluded, to lay the facts before the Secretary of War in case “he might still be induced to make the change and send the colored men to some other station where they would be just as comfortable, where they would not be a source of apprehension and discomfort to the people of a large city like this.”7

Following the editorial lead, Utah senator Frank J. Cannon met with Secretary of War Daniel S. Lamont and asked that some regiment other than the Twenty-fourth be sent to Fort Douglas. According to the Deseret News, at least a part of Senator Cannon’s appeal had to do with the undesirability of locating “a colored regiment” in the immediate neighborhood of the University of Utah. The secretary was sympathetic to Cannon’s appeal, but “found it impossible to change the order.”8 The Herald reflected what was on the minds of many when it reported: “Some people say that there is a good deal of politics mixed up in the move.”9 Julius F. Taylor, the black editor of Broad Ax, noted that Secretary Lamont was a Democrat and for that reason would not withdraw the transfer order.10 Contrary to such speculation, it appears that politics played no significant part in the Secretary of War’s decision.

In addition to criticizing Senator Cannon for trying to prevent the move, Taylor was critical of the Tribune for being the only newspaper in Salt Lake City to raise “any sort of objection.” Taylor charged the Tribune with being “the accepted organ of the Republican party.”11 By way of contrast, the Herald editorialized on October 10: “Glory and Honor to the Sixteenth Infantry! Welcome to the Twenty-fourth Infantry,” indicating that there was no unified view. Some were opposed, others not. Depending on the source, the issue was considered racial, political (owing, possibly, to the recently fought battles over statehood and polygamy), or a matter of reward for meritorious service.

William G. Muller, a white officer in the Twenty-fourth who wrote an unpublished history, considered the Tribune‘s editorial to be the most prominent objection to the unit’s tour of duty. Although he could not recall the dates the regiment was stationed at Fort Douglas, he did not recollect that the city’s feelings against the “negro soldiers” were “bitter” and prejudiced. Later he observed that when the regiment returned from Cuba, “it had the hearts of the people.”12 Muller remarked that a year after the Twenty-fourth’s arrival, the Tribune printed what amounted to an apology.

Morale may have been an important factor in relocating the Twenty-fourth. During the thirty years it was stationed in the southwestern territories, repeated requests had been made for more desirable duty. In January 1895 it became more specific, asking for a “station near a large city.” George W. Murray, apparently a civilian supporter of the Twenty-fourth, in a memorandum to the Secretary of War, offered key points for consideration: (1) the difference in treatment between black and white units; (2) “every unit in the infantry regiment in the Army has had or now have, a station near a large city except the Twenty-fourth”; and (3) “depression and demoralization results from service too long in the wilderness.”13 Murray’s memorandum was received in the Adjutant General’s office on February 7 and was submitted to Lt. Gen. J. M. Scholfield in command of the army. He suggested that “this regiment be given a northern station if it is found practicable to do so.”14

No immediate action followed this recommendation, but on January 22, 1896, Col. J. Ford Kent, commanding officer of the Twenty-fourth, added to what must have been an increasingly unified voice. Writing from the regiment’s headquarters at Fort Bayard, Kent asked for a “good station” and announced that “a natural feeling prevails that it is on account of their color that the regiment is debarred from the better locations.”15 He noted that General Scholfield, by then “the late Commanding General,” had endorsed a move on February 15, 1895, and when he inspected Kent’s post in May he had told him that “it had been decided, in the event of a possibility in changes in the station, that the 24th Infantry should be sent to Fort Douglas.”16 Several more months passed before the final decision was made.

In September 1896 the Herald reported: “Colored Men Will Come.”17 The response was primarily one of surprise, for the change had not been expected until spring. The city came alive with talk of the pending arrival of the “Colored Gentlemen” from forts Bayard and Huachuca.18 The uncharitable Tribune editorial of September 20 was followed three days later by an article, “Capt. Hoffman’s View,” which reflected favorably upon the Twenty-fourth Infantry. William Hoffman, apparently a resident of Salt Lake City, said he was acquainted with the regiment and that its members were “well-behaved.” “The men will keep to their own race,” he said, and “we generally will know only the officers and their families.” After his own regiment, the Eleventh, the “Twenty-fourth is my very first choice,” he wrote. Although he did not discuss how he became acquainted with the Twenty-fourth, his views moderated the more impetuous concerns about the prospect of uniformed black soldiers on the city’s streets. Captain Hoffman concluded “that there is no chance whatever that the War Department order will be changed.” If his belief in the army’s intractability and Senator Cannon’s “Vain Attempt to Have Them Sent Elsewhere”19 did not convince people, the debarkation at the train station “of about 100 colored women and a number of dark sports who follow the regiment from post to post” did.20 Fifty enlisted men were married and brought their families with them. 21 It is difficult to estimate how many children and other civilians arrived in connection with the unit. Most families lived on or near the post.

The soldiers themselves had widely varying backgrounds. Solomon (“Black Sol”) Black claimed “to have been the youngest soldier in the late war [Civil War]” and said “he was still wearing knee pants when he went in as a drummer boy.”22 The son of Louis Black, he was born in Rome, Georgia, on August 10, 1854, and enlisted in the negro Forty-fourth Infantry at the age of twelve. One month later the youngster, less than five feet three inches tall, was detailed as a musician and served as a fifer and drummer boy until he was discharged on April 30, 1866. Four years later he enlisted in the Twenty-fourth Infantry and completed six enlistments before retiring on May 1, 1897. Like many of his fellow soldiers, Black served in both the infantry and the cavalry (Tenth). After leaving Salt Lake he returned to Texas, married Emily Drake who was twenty-five years his junior, and died on December 11, 1932, at the age of seventy-eight. He was buried in the National Cemetery.23

A fellow soldier with a less certain past but one that made him a good candidate for folk hero status was Thomas W. Taylor, born in Freetown, Africa (Sierra Leone), on January 17, 1870.24 “He is only plain Tommy Taylor to the boys in blue,” wrote Annabel Lee for the San Francisco Call, “but he is called Prince by his kith and kin, and one day he will be king. And that is why this story is told. It is a true dramatic tale of a royal household.” Taylor claimed to be a Zulu prince whose real name was Jerger Okokudek (“Death-Leaves-One”). According to his account he left “Kafirland” and won medals from Cambridge University, which he attended with his ten sisters, and married Rosella Williams, French daughter of a professor. He then came to the United States and joined the Twenty-fourth at Fort Barrancas, Florida, to learn the art of modern war so he could return to his homeland to free his people.25 Taylor’s story, while intriguing, raises questions. Freetown is located on the northwest coast of Africa, a considerable distance from the traditional homeland of the Zulus, and the name “Okokudek” hints at Yoruba origin. Taylor’s statement that he enlisted in 1899 does not square with military records that have him enlisting on March 12, 1896. Unfortunately his full service record will not be available for scrutiny for some time.

Another infantryman, Parker Buford, served thirty years in the Twenty-fourth. He was born in Giles County, Tennessee, January 30, 1842. His son, James J. Buford, also served in the unit. In 1898 the family lived on the perimeter of Fort Douglas at 333 South 1300 East. A number of other black families lived in the general area.26 Discharged from the army in 1898, the elder Buford continued to live in Salt Lake until his death in 1911. He is buried in the Fort Douglas cemetery. His wife Eliza Elizabeth lived in Salt Lake until 1920 when she moved to Pasadena, California, dying there at the age of ninety. Thornton Ja...

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