Living History: Black Civil War soldiers frightened some Utahns
The billboard that welcomed visitors to my boyhood California beach community said, "Tan Your Hide in Oceanside" and I vividly recall my American Fork relatives visiting to darken their pasty Utah hides in the early '60s.
My cousins were certainly eager for the sun and surf of the Pacific Ocean, but on the way to the beach their faces were pressed against the car windows, witnessing another wonder. I looked but couldn't tell what it was that so grabbed their attention. When asked, one explained, "There are negroes!"
It was true. Oceanside was hard by Camp Pendleton and the integrated military meant a significant black presence in the city. On the other hand,Â American Fork and most of Utah was, and still is, largely monochromatic.
Though mostly forgotten, Salt Lake once boasted a relatively large black community, and for the same reason Oceanside had one: the military.
In 1896, the 24th Infantry was assigned to Fort Douglas on Salt Lake City's east bench. Made up of "Buffalo Soldiers," so-called because the soldier's hair reminded Indians of theÂ Plains bison, "colored" regiments with white officers had been a feature of the U.S. Army since the Civil War.Â
Some locals were alarmed at black soldiers in the valley. The Salt Lake Tribune said in an editorial that white women taking the streetcar would be at risk from black soldiers, who, because of their nature when drunk, couldn't restrain themselves. The Secretary of War, the editorial said, should be informed.Â
U.S. Sen. Frank Cannon, R-Utah, did just that, but the secretary refused to move the troops.Â
The men of the 24th Infantry, who had served their nation bravely and loyally, didn't appreciate the blatant racism manifest in the editorial.
A private responded by writingÂ that his fellow soldiers "object to being classed as lawless barbarians. We were men before we were soldiers," and suggested that Salt Lakers treat them as such.
Another soldier reassured the locals that, "you will find our regiment better behaved and disciplined than most of the white soldiers," though he also admitted that, "It is not an easy matter to get 600 men together without there being one or two unruly fellows among them."
Counting the arriving soldiers' wives and children, Utah more than doubled its black population. The families' new community was on 1300 East, just west of the University of Utah.Â
The soldiers brought with them their societies, clubs, sports and pastimes. They fielded a popular baseball team called the Colored Monarchs that played local teams. The 24th Infantry Band felt a special calling to be ambassadors of good will to the white community and was soon in demand in the city, to the chagrin of at least one white officer who didn't approve of the races mixing in social settings.
For the jubilee anniversary of Pioneer Day, the appropriately named 24th provided a "thrilling exhibition of horsemanship" on the parade ground at Fort Douglas.
And yet, they keenly felt their alienation from the larger community. The Frederick Douglass Memorial Literary Society sponsored a debate on the topic, "Resolved, That There is No Future for the Negro in the United States." The debate decided in favor of giving their nation a chance.Â
After only 19 months in Utah, the 24th Infantry was sent off to Cuba and the Spanish-American War, and the whole city turned out to express its good will. The once-hostile Salt Lake Tribune reported that "the element of color seemed entirely eliminated."
It was also reported that the ladies who had previously not wanted to ride the streetcars with black soldiers willingly shook their hands.Â
The 24th went on to acquit itself well in Cuba, though it suffered shocking rates of yellow fever, which often meant lifelong debility and suffering for veterans.
It briefly returned to Fort Douglas after the war, but the two postings left little long-term impact on Salt Lake. White Mormon, and black American, culture wouldn't really take the measure of each other for another half century.Â
Pat Bagley is the editorial cartoonist for The Salt Lake Tribune.
Sources: "Black Soldiers at Fort Douglas, 1896-99" by Michael J. Clark, Utah Historical Quarterly Summer 1978.
Will Bagley, "Buffalo Soldiers Served in Utah With Distinction," The Salt Lake Tribune. Aug. 19, 2001.
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