Members of the 9th and 10th Cavalry of the Buffalo Soldiers present the flags at the beginning of Saturday morning’s ceremony at Buffalo Soldier Hill. (Freedom Newspapers: Kevin Wilson)
Kevin Wilson: Freedom Newspapers
LINGO — It took Oscar Robinson 14 years to get to mile marker 46 on Texas Highway 114. It took him just a few seconds to realize he’d come to the right place.
The mile marker is in southern Roosevelt County, about 18 miles west of Morton, Texas, and parallel to a hill that rises maybe 50 feet above the prairie. For generations, the landmark, which marked the end of an 1877 mission for a troop of black soldiers, has been known to locals as “Nigger Hill.”
About 150 people black and white, New Mexican and Texan, gathered with Robinson on Saturday to celebrate a new name — “Buffalo Soldier Hill” — along with the history of black soldiers in America’s military. A historical marker was approved earlier this year with the new name.
“It’s not a beautiful hill, but it is a beautiful hill when you look at it again,” Robinson said to the audience.
An hour prior to his speech, Robinson was searching the area for a proper ceremonial site. Robinson said when he stood near the mile marker sign, he saw a pair of deer, sitting calmly next to a tree, with the hill right behind it. That sight was all the evidence Robinson needed.
In a Portales coffee shop in 1990, Robinson first heard the story of a group of black soldiers — Troop A of the U.S. Tenth Cavalry — that was trying to force a band of Kwahada Comanche warriors back to their Oklahoma reservation.
The mission failed in July of 1877, ending at the foot of the hill as night fell. The next day, the soldiers gave up the chase and went in search of water. Historians estimate about 20 black soldiers died in the 55-mile pursuit.
Robinson, Eastern New Mexico University’s director of personnel, came back to his office upset — not with the story he’d heard, but that history books had labeled the hill “Nigger Hill,” a term many in the area continue to use.
“My people in the county have been relegated to the worst terminology anyone can think of,” Robinson recalled telling a coworker. “This is a multicultural community and any derogatory term about this multicultural community is not acceptable.”
Robinson and others decided to change the name of the hill, but could never make serious progress until a book by Paul Carlson — “Buffalo Soldier Tragedy of 1877” — came out last year and brought new attention to the landmark.
On April 15, after years of research, Robinson received notice from the New Mexico Cultural Properties Review Committee that a historical marker for Buffalo Soldier Hill had been approved for the hill’s site east of Lingo.
With the name change came an outpouring of support on Saturday. Arthur Embers had never heard the story of the hill and only heard about the ceremony a few days ago, but had no hesitation to make the four-hour drive from Vernon, Texas.
“It really does us good to find out another part of history,” said Embers, who is part of the Tenth Cavalry of Buffalo Soldiers out of Vernon.
The event also brought Eric Strong, a Lubbock resident who took part in a 1978 re-enactment at the hill.
“They gave us a police escort and the whole town came out,” Strong remembered with a smile. Strong is now part of a movement to create a national monument to tell the story of the black soldier of the old west.
Strong said he is hoping to create another re-enactment at the hill, this time with celebrities involved.
“We have to do another just for the fact that the name of the hill has been changed,” Strong said, “and just to show what can happen when people work together.”
Robinson said he’s not yet finished with efforts to focus attention on the hill and those associated with its history.
“We have visions to create a state park in the area, maybe a roadside spot right here,” he said. “We have some visions (for) this place, but we’ll have to talk with the state highway department.”