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Buffalo Soldiers service in all arenas

During the Surry Countians Continuing the Dream Event this year, we took the time to honor local Buffalo Soldiers from our community who have served their country. For those of you who may have missed out, allow me to fill you in.

Let’s start from the beginning. Who were the Buffalo Soldiers? African American men have fought in every American war, but it was the Civil War that changed how they served.

Because the Civil War took such a toll on military numbers as we fought amongst ourselves, it was obvious the military needed more trained men to fight. On July 28, 1866, the Army Reorganization Act authorized several new units, including two cavalry units (9th and 10th) and what became two infantry units (24th and 25th) comprised of African American men. More thn half of the “Civil War Colored Troops” signed on, and for the first time, African Americans were considered regular troops.

These units were primarily assembled to help rebuild the country after the war as well as assist in westward expansion in the United States. It is believed that Native Americans from Plains tribes are the ones who gave “Buffalo Soldiers” their name, but the exact reason for the name isn’t known. The soldier’s curly hair, which resembled a buffalo’s coat, or their fierce combat style, are the most popular guesses today, according to most historians.

There are records of gentlemen throughout North Carolina who served in the infantry and cavalry during this time. African-American men were the early protectors of national parks as well as rangers.

Because of their heroism, some Buffalo Soldiers were able to get better jobs, own property, and gain access to higher education. At the same time, some Buffalo Soldiers were lynched upon returning, truly not receiving a hero’s welcome home.

Buffalo Soldiers would go on to serve in the Spanish-American War, the Philippine-American War, and, of course, World War I. Once America joined in on World War I, two volunteer units comprised of African-Americans were formed: the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions. In total, 350,000 African Americans served in the war, including James Henry Taylor, who received medals of decoration as well as a Victory Medal and grew up here.

Another local man who served was Robert “Bob” Hughes Sr., who was born in Pilot Mountain and graduated from the school later known as J.J. Jones High School. He served from 1917–1918 as a Buffalo Soldier and saw the front lines in France. He also continued his legacy of service through his three sons, all of whom would serve as Buffalo Soldiers in World War II.

The oldest son, Walter William “Bill” Bell Hughes, graduated from J.J. Jones High and was accepted into the Agriculture and Technical College of North Carolina along with his youngest brother Robert, but they would be drafted before they could attend.

Instead, Walter went on to serve in the 365th Infantry (92nd Division) from November 1942 through April 1947. He was stationed at various locations and saw roughly six months of combat in Italy in 1945–1946, where he worked as a mechanic, fixing anything from tanks and jeeps to airplanes. Remarking on his time on the front line, he said, “I’m lucky to be alive; I got shot up like a rabbit.” He was honorably discharged with the rank of corporal following his service, and he returned home to Pilot Mountain.

The next son, James Katers “JK” Hughes, was drafted into the army in 1943, and he was notable for being posted in Okinawa, Japan. Throughout his service, he earned honors as a Riffle Marksman and Carbine TSWG Caliber.45 Expert. He even achieved the rank of Motor Sergeant before he was honorably discharged in 1947.

The third son, Robert Hughes II, unlike his brothers, was assigned to the Navy. He was drafted in 1944 and became a munitions soldier, working in transportation in California before moving on to helping load the ships with munitions. He was then promoted to the dangerous job of crane operator, and recalled, “The workers were told some of the munitions were duds and some were live, but we did not know which ones.” He was honorably discharged as well with the rank of Seaman 1st Class and returned home in 1946.

The Hughes family of Surry County aren’t the only Buffalo Soldiers from the area; brothers John and Fred Lovell served in WWII, as did five brothers born in Stokes County (Paul, Harrison, Louis, Edward, and Aaron Reynolds). These are just a few of the people from our own community who have served.

Buffalo soldiers came to an end in 1951 amidst the Korean War after President Truman issued executive order 9981, ending segregation in the military, but their history continues to live on. These soldiers have not only helped the United States become a vast nation and ultimately a global superpower, but they have also helped make our communities what they are today.

Cassandra Johnson is the programs and education director at the Mount Airy Museum of Regional History and loves to encourage others to find the history in the little day to day aspects of their lives from what roads we drive to work or to shopping.



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