Updated: Aug 13, 2021
Prior to President Harry S. Truman’s desegregation of the armed forces in 1948, African American troops served their country within segregated units. During the 19th century black troopers serving in the American West were dubbed Buffalo Soldiers by the tribes they often fought. As federal soldiers, they were utilized by the United States government to subdue groups at odds with the interests of many powerful and domineering American Industries such as mining, steel, and railroads.
The Coeur d’ Alene mining disputes of 1892 and 1899 represent such instances, moments where the government intentionally used African American soldiers to suppress militant unions, collectives of white men with a history of exclusionary practices towards black labor. The involvement of black troops to suppress the mining unions led to an increase in hostility towards the government and black troops.
Conversely, when sent to fight the great fires of 1910 in North Idaho, Buffalo Soldiers proved themselves heroes to the local population by digging fire prevention trenches, saving citizens, rescuing property, and maintaining order. These two crises exhibit the amazing amount of patience possessed by many Buffalo Soldiers in addition to their great physical abilities, coolness under pressure, and their tremendous courage. In proving their worth as soldiers they added to the Buffalo Soldiers’ status as a potent symbol of African American heroism and strength. This image proved strong enough to begin to discredit and erode many of the archaic beliefs held by numerous white Americans professing the inferiority of black men and women.
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