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White soldiers used black child for target practice during grim chapter in Tampa's history

Buffalo Soldiers bide their time in Tampa while awaiting deployment to Cuba during the Spanish-American War in 1898. Unaccustomed to it when they served in the American West, the troops faced racism here. [Tampa Bay History Center]
Published Jun. 21, 2018

TAMPA

he African-American military troops known as the Buffalo Soldiers stopped in Tampa 120 years ago while on their way to help free Cuba from the rule of an oppressive Spain.

But their time spent in Tampa served as a reminder of their own oppression. White-owned businesses would not serve them. White residents would not respect them. And 120 years ago, on June 6, 1898, when white soldiers used a black child for target practice, a riot erupted.

The Buffalo Soldiers are memorialized locally through a krewe that bears their name and takes part in parades like Gasparilla.

And a historic marker honoring the Buffalo Soldiers' presence in Tampa is located on the corner of East Columbus Drive and North Central Avenue.

It mentions a "serious clash between the black and white troops" but does not provide the details.

"It's one of these ugly moments we cannot forget is part of our story," said Fred Hearns, a historian of Tampa's African-American history. "Shooting at a black kid for target practice. Think about it. People supported that once."

Before the Spanish-American War, the black troops of the 24th and 25th Infantry and the 9th and the 10th Cavalry were primarily deployed out west to protect settlers from the American Indians being forcibly displaced.

Historians say the American Indians then named these African-Americans "Buffalo Soldiers" because they fought like the sturdy beasts.

"They moved straight ahead and pounded," Hearns said. "And their hair was compared to wool by Native Americans. It reminded them of buffalo hair."

The Cuban War of Independence against Spain began in 1895.

Then, on April 25, 1898, the United States declared war on Spain. Domestically, Cuba's conflict was renamed the Spanish-American War.

Because Tampa was the closest port to Cuba, troops gathered here throughout May to embark for the island in June.

The Buffalo Soldiers were met with mixed reactions when they arrived.

"The black community turned out in the street and played music and celebrated," said Andrew Huse, a librarian with the University of South Florida Special Collections Department.

"The whites were not as happy with the idea of armed black soldiers. The whites even appealed to the governor to send a militia to defend the community from the black soldiers."

Such treatment was not the norm for the Buffalo Soldiers.

"There was no Jim Crow out west," Huse said. "If there was a color line, it was not well defined in places like Wyoming or mining camps in Colorado."

What's more, he added, the Buffalo Soldiers were more experienced than many of their white counterparts.

"They chafed under the weight of Jim Crow," said Rodney Kite-Powell, curator of the Tampa Bay History Center. "Their purpose was to defend our country, but they were defending a country allowing these rules."

It came to a head on June 6, the night before troops left for Cuba.

"A lot of soldiers had the same idea — go out and drink," USF's Huse said.

A white soldier from Ohio grabbed an African-American toddler wearing a loose-fitting pajama gown. Holding the little boy upside down, the soldier announced a contest: Anyone who could shoot a hole through the child's sleeve would be considered the top marksman.

The target was hit; the child was unharmed.

Still, when news of the incident reached the Buffalo Soldiers, that "was the last straw," Kite-Powell said. "Pent-up anger from segregation was released."

Guns blazing, soldiers with the Buffalo Soldiers forced themselves into saloons, restaurants and brothels, shutting down business.

"It turned into complete bedlam," Huse said. "White soldiers started trashing saloons, too. Both started taking liquor by force. This went on all night" until a volunteer regiment from Georgia calmed the riot.

Still, 27 of the Buffalo Soldiers were hurt too badly to sail for Cuba.

Those who did make it to the war fought valiantly.

Serving alongside the 1st Volunteer Cavalry, also known as the Rough Riders, the Buffalo Soldiers were instrumental in taking San Juan Hill. This was considered key to bringing the war to an end Aug. 13, 1898.

"They were heroes," historian Hearns said. "And they deserved to be treated like heroes."

Contact Paul Guzzo at pguzzo@tampabay.com. Follow @PGuzzoTimes.

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