Mark Bushnell is a Vermont journalist and historian. He is the author of “Hidden History of Vermont” and “It Happened in Vermont.”
During the summer of 1909, the state’s African American population was about to triple. That wasn’t hard. At the time, Vermont was home to about 800 Black residents. That changed when the 750 members of the Army’s 10th Cavalry Regiment, nicknamed the “buffalo soldiers,” were sent to Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester to begin a four-year tour of duty. Accompanying them were a similar number of wives and children, as well as various camp followers.
If there was anywhere in the North that might be expected to welcome an influx of African Americans, it was Vermont. The state was the first to outlaw slavery in its constitution and was home to many ardent abolitionists in the years leading up to the Civil War, which was still recent history, having ended only 44 years before.
But the greeting from many in Vermont’s establishment was hardly warm. The Burlington Free Press editorialized that if the officials who assigned Black troops to Vermont thought that there would be “no objection to the presence of so large a body of negroes, they were in error.” The Rutland Herald suggested that the soldiers do their drinking on the base to spare the Burlington area the “menace” of black troops visiting the city’s taverns. Others suggested that the city’s streetcars be segregated.
The racist response brought unflattering national attention to the state. The New York Times called Vermonters’ concerns “foolish, and … unpatriotic and unworthy.” The Boston Traveler wrote that Vermonters were acting “not unlike their southern brethren.” Southern newspapers had a field day, pointing out the tarnish on Vermont’s gleaming image of tolerance. The New Orleans Times Democrat found the situation deliciously ironic, claiming that sanctimonious Vermonters had come to their senses and accepted racial segregation as the best policy.
You wouldn’t know it from the bigoted reactions of some Vermonters, but the 10th Cavalry arrived in the state with an excellent record, even if some of the missions it was assigned supported the United States’ era of imperialistic landgrabs. The regiment had become known as the “Fighting Tenth Cavalry” after its men bravely charged up San Juan Hill in Cuba with Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders during the Spanish-American War. They had helped put down a revolt in the Philippines against American control of the island nation, patrolled the Mexican border and served in Nebraska, fighting battles with Indians and easing the way for whites to settle the Plains.
Competing theories exist for how the regiment’s soldiers became known as “buffalo soldiers.” The most commonly accepted is that the nickname was bestowed by Native Americans, who revered the buffalo’s strength and bravery and saw those traits in the men of the 10th.
White fear of African American troops was heightened by the much-publicized “Brownsville Affair,” which had occurred three years earlier in Texas, according to historian David Work, who wrote about the buffalo soldiers’ time in Vermont for the journal Vermont History. White residents of Brownsville expressed fears when an African American infantry regiment was stationed in town. One night after the troops arrived, someone fired a rifle in the streets of Brownsville, killing a white man and wounding another. Many in the white community blamed the soldiers, even though white commanders said all their men were in their barracks at the time of the incident. Teddy Roosevelt, who by then had become president, interceded in the case. When the soldiers maintained their innocence, Roosevelt assumed that meant they were conspiring to protect the guilty and ordered 167 of the men discharged without honor.
While some Vermonters vocally opposed the arrival of Black troops, other prominent residents defended the troops. “There is no color line in our laws,” wrote former Burlington mayor Lucius Bigelow in a letter to the Free Press, “and there will be no color line in our (street) cars.” No “manly Vermonter” could support segregation, he wrote, adding that the members of the regiment were “gallant, courteous and kindly men.” Elias Lyman, president of the city’s streetcar company, echoed Bigelow’s sentiments, declaring that no segregation would occur on his watch.
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The faith that Lyman, Bigelow and others put in the soldiers proved well placed. Newspaper headlines trumpeted the lack of incidents after the troops arrived, underscoring how worried some in the local community were. “Military Discipline Is Kept Up Without A Break,” reported the Burlington Daily News, which apparently surprised the editors. The Bennington Evening Banner said as much, calling the behavior of the 10th a “happy surprise,” noting that the troops “haven’t shot up the town yet, they don’t mob the trolley cars and are civil and courteous to both men and women.”
In his Vermont History article, Work said that while no segregation was put into law or ordinance, a de facto segregation existed, with some establishments refusing to serve Black soldiers and other saloon keepers only serving them in separate bars. Black-owned businesses sprang up to serve the soldiers. These business owners were some of the “camp followers” who arrived in Vermont with the troops.
Black soldiers socialized mostly with each other, spending time on the base holding sporting events, organizing a rodeo and performing Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” for family members.
Despite the discrimination they faced, members of the 10th also invited the general public to attend concerts and to watch their regular mounted drills and parades. Members of the 10th even formed a baseball team that played local White clubs before large crowds. The local white community reciprocated by inviting noncommissioned officers to a dinner and dance that was also attended by Burlington’s mayor and a former Vermont governor.
The Rutland Daily Herald noted that the 10th Cavalry had been dispatched to Vermont to replace a white regiment and editorialized that “the state of Vermont made a good exchange when the hoodlum white [soldiers] . . . were replaced by negro cavalrymen.”
In 1910, when the regiment marched out of Burlington to participate in training maneuvers in New York, local residents and businesses decorated their properties with flags and people turned out in droves to wave to the soldiers.
During the four years the buffalo soldiers served at Fort Ethan Allen, Vermonters began to see that their fears of the unknown had been misplaced. Familiarity had bred respect.