On the eve of the Spanish-American War (1898), African Americans lived as second-class citizens. During the Jim Crow era, they lived separately from white Southerners, using facilities that were anything but equal. While war presented hardship, suffering, and strife, for African American men, it also presented an opportunity. Participating in one of America’s wars was an opportunity for African Americans to prove that they were just as patriotic as their white countrymen, and thus deserved the same rights. This line of reasoning was not new; similar motives had encouraged African American participation in the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and the Civil War. However, these were domestic wars fought by Americans on American soil in order to defend the union. The Spanish-American War was fought by Americans on foreign soil in order to expand the union.

African American soldiers sought another goal aside from American victory in battle. In the army, all soldiers fought and died for their country—regardless of their color or creed. African American soldiers thought that while fighting against injustice abroad, they could also fight against injustice at home. This concept resurfaced yet again during World War II’s Double-V Campaign.

After the Spanish-American War, the courage and bravery displayed by African American soldiers was widely recognized—albeit begrudgingly by some. However, despite their best efforts, African Americans in the United States were not given their rights as a result of their exemplary performance in the war. Furthermore, their successes in the war helped to export the very racism they fought against to the far reaches of America’s fledgling empire.

Background: Race in late 19th century America 

In 1898, the wounds of the Civil War (1861-1865) were still fresh, and Reconstruction had only made those wounds deeper. The Spanish-American War was an opportunity for Americans to unite against a common enemy—Spain. Historian Amy Kaplan posits that in order to reunite North and South, “the Spanish-American War had to collapse and undo the thirty-year history separating the two conflicts by waging an ideological battle against Reconstruction.”  That battle would include dismantling the progress made by African Americans since the abolition of slavery.

The late 1800’s were the heyday of “Scientific Racism”—a pseudoscience that allowed the aforementioned cycle of racism to continue unabated in the United States by offering supposed justification for the superiority of Caucasian peoples. This “science” was based on evidence such as phrenology—the study of head shape to determine intelligence. Images such as the one shown here suggested a close link between peoples of African descent and apes. This reinforced the idea that people with African ancestry were unintelligent, uncivilized, and essentially less human. These theories had justified slavery by suggesting that peoples of African descent needed to be looked after by whites, and could no less be left to their own devices in a civilized society than a chimpanzee. Even after the abolition of slavery, it helped to forge a paternalist discourse that whites were meant to dominate blacks since they could not take care of themselves—much like a father would take care of his son. This paternalist discourse was easily transferred to the new U.S. Empire after the Spanish-American war.

When the Spanish-American War began, many African Americans were only a generation removed from slavery. Most were granted their freedom by the Emancipation Proclamation (1863), and that freedom was maintained by a Union victory in the Civil War (1861-1865). But, the end of slavery did not mean the end of oppression.

Many whites still believed, with the help of Scientific Racism, that peoples of African descent were inherently inferior—even if new laws said otherwise.

The Fourteenth Amendment (1868) stated:

“No State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law, nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

But, Jim Crow laws had created a segregated nation in which free black Americans were repeatedly and consistently disenfranchised. In 1896, just two years before the Spanish-American War, the famous Plessy v. Fergusondecision was handed down by the United States Supreme Court. The decision upheld Jim Crow laws that required segregation in the use of public facilities. In Plessy, the Supreme Court pronounced that separate facilities in and of themselves did not constitute a denial of Fourteenth Amendment rights. It upheld state laws that required segregation on the grounds that rights were not violated as long as facilities were separate, but equal. As most know, they were anything but.

Drinking at "Colored" water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA.
Drinking at “Colored” water cooler in streetcar terminal, Oklahoma City, Oklahoma. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA.
At the segregated bus station in Durham, North Carolina. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA.
At the segregated bus station in Durham, North Carolina. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, DC 20540 USA.


African Americans were almost universally disenfranchised through property laws, grandfather clauses, and literacy tests. They were unable to obtain suitable education or employment. They were often unable to rent or purchase satisfactory housing. On top of this, there was the constant fear of attack by racist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan who were notorious for lynching. Ida B. Wells, an outspoken opponent of lynching, wrote, “The real purpose of these savage demonstrations is to teach the Negro that in the South he has no rights that the law will enforce.”  In the United States, African Americans lived as second-class citizens if they were allowed to live at all.

The Birth of the “Buffalo Soldiers”

Contrary to popular belief, not all free black American stayed in the South as sharecroppers. Many became soldiers and found that the army was an arena in which African Americans could operate on a more level playing field. After the Civil War, Congress passed an “Act to increase and fix the military peace establishment of the United States.” (1866). This act provided for the establishment of regiments of segregated, colored soldiers that would operate separately from the rest of the army.

Section 3 stated “that to the six regiments of cavalry now in service, there shall be added four regiments, two of which shall be composed of colored men.”—these became the Ninth and Tenth Cavalry.

Section 4 stated that forty-five regiments of infantry would be provided for by this act, “four regiments of which shall be composed of colored men.”—these became the Twenty-Fourth and Twenty-Fifth Infantry.

Since the Civil War, most African American soldiers had been relegated to fighting against Native Americans out West. This, in some ways, was a “win-win” situation for the United States. Fighting the fierce, painstakingly slow battle to subdue Native American populations in the harsh West was not a task that other soldiers envied. The African American soldiers that the government would never want representing the U.S. to European powers, for example, were perfectly suited to this task. The U.S. pitted the lowest segments of American society against one another—ensuring that white hegemony was not challenged by either population. African American soldiers’ service in these Indian Wars earned them the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers,” which soon extended to all African American soldiers.

An African American Corporal, in the 9th Cavalry in Denver. Snow covers the ground. 1890.
An African American Corporal, in the 9th Cavalry in Denver. Snow covers the ground. 1890.


Although they served out West, “in a climate more severe for troops than any in the United States,” the Buffalo Soldiers were extremely successful in their efforts to subdue the Native American population. As their main source of protection, the soldiers had established a good rapport with the white pioneers out West. They were unprepared for the blatant racism they would encounter in the South when called upon to serve their country in the Spanish-American War.

Debating Participation: Buffalo Soldiers Fighting for the U.S.

President McKinley sent the USS Maine to Havana in late 1897 in order to protect American citizens and interests in the face of rising unrest in Cuba. On February 15, 1898, the Maine exploded and sank in Havana harbor, resulting in the deaths of 266 Americans, including two African American men. The cause of the explosion was not known (nor is it known today), but it was not hard for the newspapers to sell it to the public as a Spanish attack. Although McKinley was reluctant, eventually he gave in to the repeated cries of the press: “Remember the Maine! To Hell with Spain!”

While whites wrote songs such as “The Darkey Volunteer” and “The Black K.P.’s” which praised “those brave black knights who are so bold” and “proud plumed darkies looking fine,” many in the black community were not so thrilled about African American participation in the Spanish-American War. The Washington Bee wrote “The negro has no reason to fight for Cuba’s independence. He is opposed at home.” The editors believed that African Americans should not fight for a country that denied their people rights every day.

Despite a strong anti-war contingency, many African American soldiers wanted to participate in the war. George Prioleau, U.S. Army Chaplain of the Ninth Cavalry said, “The men are anxious to go. The country will then hear and know of their bravery. The American Negro is always ready and willing to take up arms to fight and lay down his life in defense of his country’s honor.”  Another soldier said, “We left our homes, wives, mothers, sisters and friends to break down that infernal prejudice and to have a page in history ascribed to us.” That page in history would presumably give African Americans the rights and respect they were not able to enjoy.

But, there was what the Richmond Dispatch called “A Burning Question”: whether black regiments would have black or white officers. The same paternalist thinking that had justified black enslavement informed military decisions concerning officers. Many felt that African American soldiers were just not capable of handling the responsibilities of an officer position. A regular army lieutenant said of African American soldiers, “They are all right physically, of course, most of them are illiterate and they know nothing about military tactics, but with good officers and careful training they ought to fight well.”  The Los Angeles Heraldpointed out that if African American soldiers were officers of African American regiments, then “the question of how the officers’ mess would be arranged when there were white and colored officers in the same regiment came up.”  Jim Crow dictated that blacks and whites shouldn’t eat together, and the army wasn’t sure if it was ready to end that practice. The Herald concluded that “The negro needs to be fed well, they say, to make a good fighter, and there is some doubt whether colored troops will follow one of their own race as well as they would a white officer.”

In response, many African Americans advocated a “No officers, no fight!” policy. The Washington Bee published an open letter to President McKinley decrying his administration’s policy that prohibited an African American soldier from holding a position higher than a lieutenant. The Bee stated: “Now, Mr. President, we are neither aggressive nor impudent, we have respectfully and firmly asked for recognition as citizens of a common country, nothing more. We want it.” They continued, “Call a halt now Mr. President, establish the practice of your departments upon the fine basis of equal and exact justice to all before it is too late or the day must come for unavailing regret.”  There would be political ramifications if McKinley, as a Republican president, did not keep his promises about being a friend to African Americans—even Southern Democrats were picking up on it. The largest error to come out of this policy, however, would be to reduce the number of African American volunteers: “Throw down the bars, open up the positions, and the Negro will flow into the army as a flood. Keep up the color line you have established and they will trickle in as now, only those driven by necessity to take a half loaf or be utterly without bread.” The Army was an opportunity for completely disenfranchised blacks to gain more than they would at home, but as the Bee put it, soon the Army would only recruit those who cannot get a “half loaf.” Any who could get more would have no need for the Army.

Buffalo Soldiers in the South

When the 24th Infantry left Salt Lake City, residents lined the streets to see the soldiers off. In Missoula, Montana the whole town came to bid the soldiers of the 10th Cavalry farewell. On April 15, 1898, they arrived in Chickamauga, GA. At Chickamauga Park, they were greeted with surprise and wonder. According to Sergeant-Major Frank Pullen, thousands visited from nearby Chattanooga daily: “Many of them had never seen a colored soldier. The behavior of the men was such that even the most prejudiced could find no fault.” But, this peaceful interest did not last for long. Pullen and the other men found that others in the South did not welcome them with interest or curiosity: “But in Georgia, outside of the Park, it mattered not if we were soldiers of the United States, and going to fight for the honor of our country and the freedom of an oppressed and starving people, we were ‘niggers,’ as they called us, and treated us with contempt.”

Most Southern whites did not care about the service these men had given to the U.S. Army in the West, nor did they care about what they would do in Cuba. The local whites prohibited African American soldiers from eating, shopping, or intermingling in white society in any way. Indeed, the soldiers were not just barred from “white-only” establishments, they were victims of harassment and violence. It was so bad that one African American lieutenant said, “If I owned both Macon, Georgia, and hell, I would rent Macon and live in hell.”

Things were not much better for African American troops in Tampa, Florida, the staging point for the invasion. On June 6, 1898, drunken white Ohio volunteers seized a local African American child and held a cruel contest. The winner was the man who could shoot a bullet through the child’s sleeve. The child was unhurt, but the event enraged African American soldiers. They stormed Tampa, taking special care to cause damage to those establishments that had denied them service. After the fact, the Atlanta Constitution wrote, “There was no need to send Negro troops to Cuba. Now, to send them after this event is criminal.”

Deeds of Valor in Cuba 

In 1899, historian Edward A. Johnson wrote, “History records the Negro as the first man to fall in three wars of America—Crispus Attucks in the Boston Massacre, March 5, 1770; an unknown Negro in Baltimore when the Federal troops were mobbed in that city en route to the front, and Elijah B. Tunnell, of Accomac county, Virginia, who fell simultaneously with or a second before Ensign Bagley, of the torpedo boat Winslow, in the harbor of Cardenas May 11, 1898, in the Spanish-American War.”  Tunnell’s legs were blown off by a shell: “Turning to those about him he asked, “Did we win in the fight boys?’ The reply was, ‘Yes.’ He said, ‘Then I die happy.’”  This was the first of many noble sacrifices made by African American soldiers in the Spanish American War.

Liberators of Cuba, soldiers of the 10th Cavalry after the Spanish-American War.
Liberators of Cuba, soldiers of the 10th Cavalry after the Spanish-American War.


Frank W. Pullen, Jr., a Sergeant-Major of the 25th U.S. Infantry, recalled two instances of bravery on the part of African American soldiers in Cuba.

On the first day of the invasion of Cuba, the 25th infantry led the march. The order in which troops marched was shuffled as regiments would halt for rest and then resume. Eventually Theodore Roosevelt’s famed Rough Riders led the march. They were the victims of a surprise attack that resulted in the Battle of Las Guasimas.

On the battleground of Las Guasimas - Americans going to the front, from p. 378 of Harper's Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Vol. II, published by Harper and Brothers in 1899. Taken 1898.
On the battleground of Las Guasimas – Americans going to the front, from p. 378 of Harper’s Pictorial History of the War with Spain, Vol. II, published by Harper and Brothers in 1899. Taken 1898.


Pullen recalled: “They could not advance, and dare not retreat, having been caught in a sunken place in the road, with a barbed wire fence on one side and a precipitous hill on the other.”  Roosevelt’s Rough Riders were trapped until the 10th Cavalry came to the rescue: “Little thought the Spaniards that these ‘smoked yankees’ were so formidable. Perhaps they thought to stop these black boys by their relentless fire, but those boys knew no stop.”  Pullen contended that the 10th Cavalry gave the Rough Riders safe passage and defeated the Spanish in this skirmish.

Pullen was saddened by the fact that the noble actions of African American soldiers were not well-documented:

“The names of Captain A.M. Capron, Jr., and Sergeant Hamilton Fish, Jr., of the Rough Riders, who were killed in this battle, have been immortalized, while that of Corporal Brown, 10th Cavalry, who manned the Hotchkiss gun in this fight, without which the American loss in killed and wounded would no doubt have been counted by hundreds, and who was killed by the side of his gun, is unknown by the public.

After the war, a Southern man stated:

“If it had not been for the Negro Cavalry the Rough Riders would have been exterminated. I am not a Negro lover. My father fought with Mosby’s Rangers (43rd Battalion, Virginia Cavalry, Confederate Army), and I was born in the South, but the Negroes saved that fight, and the day will come when General Shafter will give them credit for their bravery.

Sergeant-Major Pullen’s second memory comes from El Caney. Other soldiers had warned Pullen and his men, the 25th infantry, “Boys, there is no use to go up there, you cannot see a thing; they are slaughtering our men!” But, the 25th infantry plowed ahead—without orders from their white officers. In response to the accusation that African American soldiers were incapable of being officers, Pullen wrote, “Brigadier Generals, Colonels, Lieutenant-Colonels, Majors, etc., were not needed at the time the 25th Infantry made the charge on El Caney, and those officers simply watched the battle from convenient points, as Lieutenants and enlisted men made the charge alone.”

On the same day that the 25th Infantry helped take El Caney, American troops charged San Juan Hill. History has portrayed this as the shining moment of glory for Roosevelt and his Rough Riders.

But, recent scholarship has challenged the “Teddy-centric view,” as military historian Frank N. Schubert called it in his article “Buffalo Soldiers at San Juan Hill.” But while he refuses to give Roosevelt all the credit, Schubert also warns against new claims that Buffalo Soldiers were entirely responsible for the victory. He concluded that the effort was a shared one, “with black and white regulars and Rough Riders fighting side by side and with one group sometimes indistinguishable from the others.”
One African American soldier, however, did distinguish himself from the others. Sergeant George Berry was the color guard for the 10th Cavalry. The History of the 10th Cavalry reads, “About half way up the slope the colors of the Third were seen to stop and fall, the color bearer sinking to the ground, shot through the body; Sergeant George Berry, color bearer of the Tenth, dashed over to where the colors lay, raised them high, and waving both flags, planted them on the crest side by side.” The writer posits that it “is no doubt the only instance in our military history where the colors of one regiment were carried to the final objective by a member of a rival regiment.”

Cleveland Moffitt, a white man writing for Leslie’s Weekly described it as follows: “Some white man had left it there, many white men had let it stay there, but Berry, an African American man, saw it fluttering in shame and paused in his running long enough to catch it up and lift it high overhead beside his own banner.” He concluded, “There are some hundreds of little things like this that we might as well bear in mind, we white men, the next time we start to decry the Negro!”

Giving Credit Where Is Due

After the war, many African American soldiers were rewarded for their efforts and deeds of valor in Cuba. But, very soon after that, people began to rewrite history.  Sergeant-Major Pullen denounced the 12th Infantry for taking credit for the victory at El Caney: “Thus, by using the authority given him by his shoulder straps, this officer took for his regiment that which had been won by the hearts’ blood of some of the bravest, though black, soldiers of Shafter’s army.”

Teddy Roosevelt was one of the main rewriters of the history of the Spanish-American War. He was willing to give some credit to the Buffalo Soldiers when he said, “I would be the last man to say anything against the Afro-American soldier, because I know of his bravery and his character. He saved my life at Santiago, and I have had occasion to say so in many articles and speeches. The Rough Riders were in a bad position when the Ninth and Tenth cavalry came rushing up the hill carrying everything before them.”  But, beyond that he refused to give credit where credit was due. While other accounts claim that the 10th Cavalry played an integral role in the capture of San Juan and Kettle hills (with Sergeant Berry triumphantly carrying the colors), Roosevelt claimed that the African American soldiers had tried to flee the battle, and were forced back by Teddy at gunpoint.

Even the publicity photographs used reveal that history was already in the process of being rewritten.

"Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the top of the hill which they captured, Battle of San Juan." US Army victors on Kettle Hill about July 3, 1898 after the battle of "San Juan Hill(s)." Left to right is 3rd US Cavalry, 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Col. Theodore Roosevelt center) and 10th US Cavalry. This photo is often shown cropping out all but the 1st Vol Cav and TR. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.
“Colonel Roosevelt and his Rough Riders at the top of the hill which they captured, Battle of San Juan.” US Army victors on Kettle Hill about July 3, 1898 after the battle of “San Juan Hill(s).” Left to right is 3rd US Cavalry, 1st Volunteer Cavalry (Col. Theodore Roosevelt center) and 10th US Cavalry. This photo is often shown cropping out all but the 1st Vol Cav and TR. Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division Washington, D.C. 20540 USA.


This photograph, which was much more widely used, only shows Roosevelt and the Rough Riders atop San Juan Hill.

This photograph helped to write the history that Roosevelt and his men alone were responsible for the victory that day—and that they certainly were not helped by a regiment of African American soldiers. Roosevelt’s desire to underplay the role of African American soldiers was not only driven by a desire for personal glory. The idea of African American men in uniform, or “black in blue,” as Amy Kaplan calls it, was terrifying to many white Americans: “The specter of armed African American soldiers may threaten betrayal of the United States empire through the realignment with outside forces or may challenge the internal coherence of that empire by demanding participation and representation as equals.”  If credit were given to African American soldiers for their deeds, it would open the door to rewards such as equal rights, which would not only undermine the domestic racial order, but the entire basis of American empire. Kaplan writes, “Black in blue raises the white fear that the imperial war meant to heal the rifts of the Civil War may continue to heighten that conflict by recasting it as a global race war.”

Sadly, the great deeds of African American soldiers, whether hidden or well-known, were not enough to eliminate the paternalist thinking in many. Roosevelt, despite his kind words about their service, still thought “colored soldiers were of no avail without white officers; that when the white commissioned officers are killed or disabled, colored non-commissioned officers could not be depended upon to keep up a charge already begun.” Sergeant Presley Holliday of the Tenth Cavalry begged to differ. In response to Roosevelt’s remarks, he posited that Roosevelt must have been unaware that of the four officers of the 10th Cavalry, one was killed and another was seriously injured. He must not have known that in lieu of this, the African American first sergeants “led them triumphantly to the front.” Roosevelt must also have been unaware of the fact that at Las Guasimas and at San Juan Hill, most of troop B of the 10th Cavalry “was separated from its commanding officer by accidents of battle and was led to the front by its first sergeant.”

Holliday fiercely proclaimed:

“I will say that when our soldiers, who can and will write history, sever their connections with the Regular Army, and thus release themselves from their voluntary status of military lockjaw, and tell us what they saw, those who now preach that the Negro is not fit to exercise command over troops, and will go no further than he is led by white officers, will see in print held up for public gaze, much to their chagrin, tales of those Cuban battles that have never been told outside the tent and barrack room, tales that it will not be agreeable for some of them to hear. The public will then learn that not every troop or company of colored soldiers who took part in the assaults on San Juan Hill or El Caney was led or urged forward by its white officer.

General Thomas J. Morgan, a white man, did speak out in favor of African American officers. He claimed, rather simply, that “so long as we draw no race line of distinction as against Germans or Irishmen, and institute no test of religion, politics or culture, we ought not to erect any artificial barrier of color. If the Negroes are competent they should be commissioned. If they are incompetent they should not be trusted with the grave responsibilities attached to official position. I believe they are competent.”

Bringing Racism to the Empire

The justifications for the Spanish-American War (and thus the beginning of American Empire), were based on high and mighty ideals such as freedom, equality, democracy, and justice—concepts that African Americans scarcely encountered in their everyday lives in the United States. It seems counterintuitive that Americans could wage such a war without destabilizing the racial power structure within the borders of the United States. But, the justifications for empire did not undermine racism at home. On the contrary, the justifications for empire and the justifications for racism tended to reinforce each other as the United States began its colonial mission.

The paternalist discourse that justified white superiority in the United States began to emerge in new U.S. territories. Just as dark-skinned people in the United States needed whites to look after them, so did dark-skinned peoples in Cuba and the Philippines. But, paternalism (as the experience of African Americans in the United States had clearly demonstrated), was not all about the love and support a father gives. Paternalism allowed “an assertion of authority, superiority, and control expressed in the metaphor of a father’s relationship with his children”. In Taking Haiti, historian Mary Renda argues that paternalism was a “cultural vehicle” for violence, allowing Americans to act out not just “paternal care and guidance,” but also “paternal authority and discipline.”  Supporters of slavery often felt that peoples of African descent needed to be disciplined and kept in their place by white masters. They believed that dark-skinned peoples were not responsible enough to be masters of their own bodies. It was not difficult for them to assume that dark-skinned peoples in the new U.S. Empire were not fit for self-rule and needed the same kind of discipline and guidance.

In the midst of all this, African American soldiers tried to negotiate a contradiction. Many believed that war presented an opportunity to prove their worth as Americans and as people. But, they found that their sacrifices in Cuba did not improve their condition. Furthermore, the situation changed drastically when Buffalo Soldiers were sent to the Philippines.The similarities between the ways African Americans and Filipinos were treated by white Americans was striking—white soldiers even used the word “nigger” freely to describe both African Americans and Filipinos. It did not take long for African American soldiers to see that the plight of the Filipinos was not unlike their own. Some, like David Fagen, even defected to the Filipino army.

African American soldiers had believed that stories of valor and bravery could improve their condition. Danish-American journalist Jacob A. Riis wrote in the Outlook: “It was one of the unexpected things in this campaign that seems destined to set so many things right that out of it should come the appreciation of the colored soldier as man and brother by those even who so lately fought to keep him a chattel.”  But, did it work? Did American whites really see African Americans differently after the war? In a word—no. Jim Crow did not die out because of the courage and patriotism the Buffalo Soldiers displayed during the Spanish-American War. Not only did their participation not have the intended result, it had an unintended consequence. When people like Teddy Roosevelt rewrote the history of the Spanish-American War, they underplayed the role that African American soldiers played in the war, but they also allowed for racism to be established in the new empire. Amy Kaplan argues that “while confronting and subordinating African Americans within the national body, Roosevelt was simultaneously making a place for newly colonized subjects in the disembodied American empire”  In the Spanish-American War, while fighting to prove themselves worthy of the same rights as whites in America, African American soldiers unknowingly helped to export the racism they had known all their lives to the territories of the new American empire.

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