Jamaican reggae singer Bob Marley popularized the song “Buffalo Soldier” released in 1983. He equated the tune to the Black struggle for survival. But not everyone knows the true origin of the name “Buffalo Soldier.”
Following the U.S. Civil War, regiments of Buffalo Soldiers served on the western frontier protecting settlers. Congress passed legislation in 1866 allowing African Americans to enlist in the country’s regular peacetime military. There were two regiments of the all-Black troops — the 9th and 10th Cavalries.
Native Americans thought African American hair felt and looked like a buffalo pelt and so called the troops “Buffalo Soldiers.” The troops proudly embraced the name because they knew about the fierce bravery and fighting spirit of the American buffalo. Charles Snargrass, Sr., a former Buffalo Soldier, said, “We were called the Buffalo Soldiers because people didn’t know what else to call us.”
Snargrass, a WWII Buffalo Soldier and veteran of the 9th Cavalry, was born in St. Joseph, Missouri. At 18, he joined the military on March 18, 1941 in Ft. Riley, Kansas and served overseas as a clerk and staff sergeant from 1942 to 1943.
“We went overseas but didn’t have anything to do with the firing of the guns or any of that,” said Snargrass. “We carried the guns for the warriors, but we weren’t in the actual war.” He was honorably discharged from the Army. Like many other Buffalo Soldiers, Snargrass was also a porter for eight years on the North Pacific Railroad.
Snargrass told MSR that the soldiers’ job at that time was to police the camp, transport materials, and guard the people in the compounds. “When I came along, they were getting ready to disband the Buffalo Soldiers,” he recalled. “We had to know about the radios; we had to take care of the horses and make sure they were put back into the stables.”
The Buffalo Soldiers were there to relieve the White soldiers who were manning the fort. Those officers had started Yellowstone Lodge #88, a Masonic Lodge at the time restricted to White men only. It ceased to operate at the Fort as its members moved to Williston.
When asked if he experienced prejudice or racism, Snargrass said it was present but not among fellow patrons and coworkers. “We were already segregated, so we didn’t have any confrontation. There was nothing but Black soldiers in my unit.”
At its height, there were some 280 Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Buford. Marsha Snargrass-Carter, daughter of Charles Snargass, Sr., told us how last year Snargrass and fellow Masons honored the history of Fort Buford and the Buffalo Soldiers in North Dakota. “Jim Dolan created a metal horse sculpture, a replica of the horse the solders rode on, called ‘Our Work is Done.’”
The ceremony held funeral honors for the 280 Buffalo Soldiers at Fort Buford. Snargrass accepted an American flag on behalf of his fallen comrades. “This monument was dedicated to the Buffalo Soldiers,” said Snargrass. “We always had the horses and the wagons. We helped the troops get across safely.”
Snargrass is also a grand secretary of the Prince Hall Masonic Lodge in Minnesota, the oldest independent Masonic Grand Lodge established in Minnesota. It was formed in 1853.
After leaving the military in 1963, Snargrass opened a shoe repair shop on 38th Street and Fourth Avenue in South Minneapolis. It operated for 12 years and is now a local barbershop. “My friend Sam encouraged me to do it,” Snargrass recalled. “I went to school and I bought Sam’s business, [as he was] retiring because he was sick.”
Snargrass held several other jobs after the military. He was a member of Teamsters Local 320 and a bus driver for the Inver Grove Heights School District. He held jobs at the Hubert Humphrey Metrodome and at the Minneapolis Public Housing Authority. “I always held two jobs.”
Snargrass is one of the few remaining 9th Calvary veterans in the U.S. “It was an experience. I’m glad it’s over with now, but it’s an experience I’m glad I had, an experience people [in the service today] will never experience what we went through.”
Ivan Phifer welcomes reader responses to email@example.com.