History Focus: All About The Buffalo Soldiers During The Philippine-American War
In many ways, the documentary film project A Crisis of Conscience: Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippine-American War, produced by a Black American filmmaker, Mark Harris, and the Hollywood actor Danny Glover, echoes the fundamental issues that spurred the Black Lives Matter movement: equal justice, an abiding belief in the ideals America represents and upholding the dignity and humanity of every person.
Harris and Glover, who have been working on their labour of love for the past five years, also wanted to bring attention to a little known chapter in both American and Philippine history, which takes place during the Philippine-American war that begun in 1899 and ended in 1903. Their documentary was the subject of a recent webinar at Manila House.
It centres on the Buffalo Soldiers who were shipped off to the Philippines in 1899, only to be appalled by the atrocities they witnessed. For them, this resembled the racism that they themselves faced, and a significant number of them deserted the US Army to fight alongside the Philippine revolutionaries.
The Philippine-American was an aberrant war, to begin with: the Philippine Revolutionary Government, under Aguinaldo, had already declared independence against the colonial Spanish government on June 12, 1898, less than two months after the staged Spanish-American War which resulted in the Philippines and Cuba being ceded to the nascent imperial power, the United States.
The Philippine battle cry for independence was largely ignored and treated like a nuisance, even, when the Treaty of Paris was signed between Spain and America that December. The sale price of the entire Philippine archipelago to the United States was US$20 million. Aguinaldo, understandably outraged, prepared for war. The US Army was just as prepared to get its new recalcitrant subjects in line.
As Danny Glover narrated in the film’s trailer, a contingent of 7,000 Black American soldiers were sent to the country after the US Army began to suffer massive defeats against the Philippine forces led by General Emilio Aguinaldo.
Unused to the tropics, many of its soldiers fell prey to malaria and dysentery, and it was decided that African-American soldiers might be less susceptible to tropical diseases, presumably because they were dark-skinned and used to disease in general.
Going to the Philippines to fight for their country, America, was an act of hope for the Buffalo Soldiers. According to Rik Penn, a recently retired National Parks Ranger who appears in the film, “There was always the hope amongst African-American civilians and politicians that by giving a blood sacrifice to the country, this will somehow raise your stature, give you a greater standing, and recognition among the other white civilians. That somehow, this will show them, this will be the thing that will cause that surge of brotherhood, that they will rise above all this racism and be accepted as full class citizens.”
Alas, it would be many wars and many casualties later before the sacrifices Black soldiers had made for the American cause would be properly honoured, and it could be argued, against the backdrop of the Black Lives Matter movement, that they still do not enjoy all the rights and privileges enshrined in the Constitution.
Having suffered from oppression themselves, these soldiers were not blind to the injustice they saw when they prepared to go to battle against the Filipinos.
As Harris noted, “Upon arriving in this quagmire of a war in the Philippines, Black soldiers saw enemy combatants who were not only dark like themselves, but who were also fighting against the same white oppression, in this instance in the form of the American military, as they, the black soldiers had experienced in the US: bigotry, lynchings, economic privations, etc. Even though these soldiers were far from home, a great degree of racial bigotry existed. White soldiers referred to both the Buffalo soldiers and the native Filipinos as n_____s. [What made] things even more confusing for these black soldiers was the fact that the Filipinos liked them and treated them well. One local Filipino man was quoted as saying, referring to the Buffalo Soldiers, ‘they are very much like ourselves, only larger.’”
One soldier related a conversation with a young Filipino boy, who had said, “Why does the American Negro come to fight us? We are a friend to him and had not done anything to him... Why don’t you fight those people in America who burn negroes and make a beast of you?”
This presented a moral crisis for the Black soldier. Not for every soldier, but for the hundreds that felt they could not remain silent. One of them, Patrick Mason from the 24th Infantry wrote, “I have not had any fighting to do since I’ve been here. And I don’t care to do any. I feel sorry for these people, and all that has come under the control of the United States. The first thing in the morning is the n____, and the last thing at night is the n____. You have no idea of the way these people are treated here.”
As historian and author Anthony L. Powell explained it, the Buffalo Soldiers realised “they weren’t talking about ‘we’ American monkeys, but they were talking about these ones in the Philippines—they took it to heart. Not everyone deserted, but those that deserted did something that was purely in my opinion an American trait: freedom and liberty. That is what they were all about”. Among these Buffalo Soldiers there were the Black soldiers who had escaped and settled down and married Filipinas, started families and thrived, free at last. There were Black soldiers that were hunted down and killed by the furious US Army bent on retribution, And there were soldiers that disappeared, such as that of the famous deserter, David Fagan, who had a bounty on his head. Fagan was particularly irksome to the Ameri- can soldiers, as he would appear from time to time and taunt them, but he eluded capture. He was reportedly beheaded, a decomposing head shown to the US Army as proof, but in truth, his remains were never found.
Another elusive deserter was John Calloway, who had, like Fagan, married a Filipina. He was wanted in the US, and was generally believed to have died there and buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. But a little-known fact that only recently came to light was that he was laid to rest right here in Manila, in the North Cemetery.
The history of the Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines is more than just a tale of war and desertion but of true brotherhood and bonding. Both the Black soldiers and the Filipinos who welcomed them shared enduring friendships, such as that of Tomas Consunji, who worked for the US Government, and Calloway. The letters they exchanged unearthed the depth of their regard for each other. Then there are the love stories. The romance between Ernest Stokes and Maria Bunag, his first wife, who passed away in 1917, and his subsequent courtship of and marriage to the much younger Roberta Dungca, is the subject of a memoir by Stokes’ granddaughter, Evangeline Canonizado Buell, titled Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride. Stokes had endeared himself to many Filipinos, immersing himself in the various communities and learning to speak several dialects including Kapampangan, Ilocano, Tagalog and Bisaya in the process.
A Crisis of Conscience: Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippine-American War is still in production, but Harris and his team have assembled a unique collection of voices —historians, academics and authorities on the subject, as well as real-life descendants of the Buffalo Soldiers to tell the stories of valour and friendship from well over a hundred years ago. These are stories that highlight the shared bond between Black Americans and Filipinos, stories that resonate all the more poignantly in today’s turbulent times.