BIRMINGHAM, Alabama — Birmingham convention officials are hoping to make a splash with the descendants of the original Buffalo Soldiers, who are holding their national convention in the Magic City this week for the first time.
About 500 members of the group, including some from as far away as Germany, arrived at the Sheraton Birmingham for festivities that conclude Saturday with a parade featuring members dressed in replica Buffalo Soldier uniforms riding on horseback through downtown Birmingham.
Jim Smither, president of the Greater Birmingham Convention Visitors Bureau, said the event is allowing city and business leaders to introduce the group to a side they’ve never seen before. Convention officials have often said their biggest challenge attracting many groups is dispelling their images of 1960s racial unrest in Birmingham.
“It’s always a pleasure to introduce a new gathering such as the Buffalo Soldiers to Birmingham,” Smither said. “They’re impressed with our culinary scene, the beauty of the city, and especially the hospitality of the people. So many of the Buffalo Soldiers are having this agreeable introduction to Birmingham for the first time.”
The Buffalo Soldiers date back to 1866, when Congress authorized the formation of two regiments of cavalry soldiers made up of black men, many of them former slaves. The 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments conducted campaigns with the U.S. military against American Indian tribes on the Western Frontier for more than two decades in the late 1800s, including skirmishes against great Indian chiefs such as Geronimo.
Warren Burke, the Alabama chapter president, said the group’s famous name was given by Indians. The Cheyenne Indians said the black soldiers curly hair, dark skin and fierce fighting style reminded Native Americans of their sacred buffaloes.
Burke said the Alabama chapter had a difficult time at first convincing some skeptics to host the national convention in Birmingham. “Some of the older members only remembered Birmingham as ‘Bombingham,’” Burke said. “One 83-year-old asked, ‘Is the police chief white or black? If white, is he like Bull Connor? (the racist former police commissioner in Birmingham who ordered fire-hoses turned on marching black children in the 1960s).”
Burke said having the Buffalo Soldiers convention in Birmingham has been a boost for local businesses. Many of the 500 attendees brought spouses, children and grandchildren. While in town, they’ll be eating in Birmingham area restaurants and spending money in local shopping centers.
“We’re not a big group, but we are taking up nearly 700 room nights in the Sheraton Birmingham,” Burke said.
Since they’ve been here, Burke said, the group has been blown away by the new face of Birmingham. On Friday, the Buffalo Soldiers group will visit the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute. Among the events this week are children’s activities educating young folks about the group.
John Bell, a retired soldier and father of Birmingham Mayor William Bell, also will be named an honorary member of the Buffalo Soldiers, Burke said.
Burke hopes Saturday’s Buffalo Soldier parade on horseback educates Birmingham residents about the valuable role of the Buffalo Soldiers whose regiments also built roads and forts, installed telegraph lines and helped protect settlers in stagecoaches and mail runs from outlaws and Indians.
Burke said future black soldiers who served in segregated armies were also referred to as Buffalo Soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers and their relatives carried on the legacy of the group, and in 1967 the first annual reunion was held in Fort Riley, Kan., to mark the 101st anniversary of the group.
Burke, a veterinarian from Eutaw in Greene County, was among six people who formed the Alabama Chapter No. 1 in Alabaster in 2007. He said as original Buffalo Soldiers and their family members died off, membership was opened up to anyone who supports the legacy and ideals of the group.
Black soldiers and veterans can become full members, while those like Burke who aren’t in the military or descendants of Buffalo soldiers can become associate members. Burke said his group meets monthly at the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute.
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