Slayton: Buffalo soldiers in Vt.

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(HOST) An event coming up this weekend will commemorate a little-known episode in Vermont history that – according to commentator Tom Slayton – tested racial tolerance in the Green Mountains.  

(SLAYTON) We like to think of Vermont as open and tolerant, a friendly place where people of all races and backgrounds are welcomed. But since Vermont is inhabited by human beings, the unfortunate truth is that intolerance and prejudice exist here, as they exist everywhere.

Most Vermonters remember the Irasburg Affair, about 30 years ago, when a black minister was harassed by a group of young racist thugs. But hardly any Vermonters alive today would remember the Buffalo Soldiers – a regiment of black soldiers, Indian fighters, who touched a racist nerve when they were stationed in Vermont in 1909.

The discrimination they encountered – and the way it was resolved – are instructive, even today, 100 years later.

They were called "Buffalo Soldiers" by the tribes of Plains Indians they fought against because of their bravery and tenacity – and because the Indians thought their tightly curled hair resembled that of the buffalo. Their unit – the 10th Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army – had been assigned to Fort Ethan Allen in Colchester as a kind of rest stop after several years of combat on the American plains and in the Spanish-American War.

But that meant little to nervous and provincial Vermonters who had little experience with black people and irrationally feared what the influx of 750 black men might mean.

There were editorials against the men in local papers, and despite Burlington’s history as a center of abolitionist sentiment before the Civil War, a bitter debate broke out amongst the supposedly enlightened residents about the need for segregated facilities, especially "Jim Crow" streetcars.

Southerners found the fact that Vermonters were proposing segregation delightfully ironic. New York and Boston newspapers published scathing editorials. The Boston Traveler wrote that Vermonters were acting "not unlike their southern brethren."

However, strong civic leadership and the honorable behavior of the Buffalo Soldiers themselves soon turned the situation around. "There is no color line in our laws," wrote former Burlington Mayor Lucius Bigelow, "and there will be no color line in our (street) cars."  No Jim Crow cars were established.

By the time the men left Fort Ethan Allen in 1913, things had quieted down. Despite some incidents of discrimination, the Buffalo Soldiers had avoided any serious clashes with the civilian population, and an aura of good will had developed between the soldiers and Vermonters.

In fact, some of the Buffalo Soldiers came back to Vermont to live in Winooski after their tour of duty was up. So the story has a reasonably happy ending – though, sadly, racism can still be found in the Green Mountains, and Vermonters need to guard continually against the lingering traces of discrimination here.

Although their service was ignored for many years, the Buffalo Soldiers are now beginning to receive some of the recognition they deserve. On Saturday, August 1,  Fort Ethan Allen’s Living History Day will honor the regiment with lectures, exhibits, and at 11 a.m., a parade of veterans of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry.

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