In 1897, twenty Black U.S. cavalrymen, dubbed “buffalo soldiers” by Native American tribes in the West, mounted their bicycles—yes, bicycles (no gears)—and rode nineteen hundred miles to St. Louis, where their arrival in Forest Park was roundly cheered. The St. Louis Post-Dispatch: “All semblance of color has left their shirts; their natty blue coats couldn’t be sold for dust rags in a second-hand clothing store.”
The forty-one-day journey included long stretches of mud and swamps, violent rain, deserts, snowstorms, carrying bicycles over mountains, wearing nets on their faces because of swarms of mosquitoes, freezing, heat exhaustion, wild animals, and, in many places drinking polluted water. Many of them were sick the entire journey. Yet they made it.
Also on the journey was an Army surgeon, a reporter, and of course, a white commanding officer. There would always be white commanding officers, from the Wild West through both world wars. (President Harry Truman desegregated the Armed Forces just before the Koran War.) Why? Why were Black soldiers in history always scrutinized by white commanders?
Alton’s James Killion Jr., in his WWII letters home to his mother, wrote about such supervision. He oversaw German and Russian prisoners, a few miles from the D-Day invasion. Always, a white officer oversaw him. Always, Mr. Killion was looking over his shoulder, acutely aware that no matter how efficient he was someone was watching him. The Tuskegee Airmen (I worked on the National Tuskegee Airmen Oral History Project) experienced the same thing. Benjamin O. Davis was their Black commander, but Noel Parish, a white officer scrutinized him. Why?
The Buffalo Soldier bikes: donated by the Spalding company. The bikes weighed thirty-two pounds. Another twenty-eight pounds of gear was added, strapped in frames, or tied to handlebars. A two-day supply of food, meaning every third day they had to hunt, forage, and buy staples like eggs from local farmers. A bike mechanic rode along for obvious reasons.
A young Black man named Erick Cedeno (his Instagram handle is @bicycle_nomad) followed the 25th Infantry Buffalo Soldier route solo, arriving in St. Louis a week ago on the 125th anniversary of the adventure. A large crowd greeted his arrival. Huzzah!
The Army’s bike experiment was to see if bicycles could supplant horses (food, water, etc.). The experiment ended in St. Louis. (Fighting units in future world wars would have 25th Infantry units called Buffalo Soldiers few of which would see combat because Southern generals maintained that Blacks were mentally and physically inferior to whites.)
But again: Why? Why Black men on bikes? Or, why not?
The answer lies in the word experiment. “The Tuskegee Experiment,” 1932-1972, in which four hundred Alabama Black sharecroppers, infected with syphilis (they didn’t know it) went untreated so that white doctors could observe them. One hundred of those experiments died.
The Black women experiment. In 1840, a white gynecologist, James Marion Sims in Montgomery experimented on enslaved women. No anesthesia was used because the doctor was convinced that Black women didn’t feel pain. Nazi monster Dr. Joseph Mengele was intrigued by Dr. Sim’s experiment, employing many of the same methods on Jewish women (Adolph Hitler was an admirer of slavery in the South).
The Tuskegee Airmen experiment. Those brave men were never intended to fly missions in WWII. They were set up for photo ops and positive news stories. Eleanor Roosevelt and Black lawyer Truman Gibson (I interviewed him) conspired to get the Airmen into the war.
The how to kill a Black man when he doesn’t want to die experiment, in Belleville, Illinois.
New York Times, June 8, 1903
Belleville, Illinois, June 7. This has been the most exciting day Belleville has known in years, as the result of the lynching last night of David J. Wyatt, the East St. Louis school teacher, who fatally shot Charles Hertel, Superintendent of Schools of St. Claire County, at 6 o’clock Saturday evening.
The mob hanged Wyatt to a telephone pole in the public square. Even while his body was jerking in the throes of death from the strangulation, members of the mob began building a fire at the foot of the pole. The flames flared up and licked at the feet of the victim, but this did not satisfy the mob, and another larger fire was started.
When it had begun burning briskly, the negro, still half alive, was cut down, and, after being covered with coal oil, was cast into the fire. Moans of pain were heard from the half-dead victim of the mob, and these served further to infuriate his torturers. They fell upon him with clubs and knives and cut and beat the burning body almost to pieces, and not until every sign of life had departed did they desist and allow the flames to devour the body.
As the fire lighted up the scene the members of the mob stood around the funeral pyre hurling more fagots of wood into the flames and denouncing the negro for the shooting. Not until the body had been reduced to ashes did the mob depart.
Fully 10,000 strangers visited the public square and viewed the site of the lynching.
Crowds came from all sections of Southern Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and Kentucky. Only the charred telephone pole and bits of unconsumed flesh of the unfortunate Wyatt remained for their view.
Almost every citizen of Belleville visited the scene of the lynching today, and not one word was heard against the action of the mob in compelling Wyatt to expiate his terrible crime. No action has been taken by Acting Gov. Northcott to apprehend the lynchers.
Why weren’t twenty white cavalry soldiers recruited for the bicycle experiment? Why didn’t white settlers mine lead (Galena) and salt (Southern Illinois) instead of Haitian slaves? Inhaled lead particles led to multiple diseases. Salt scoured the skin and caused high blood pressure. Who better to do the work than non-humans? Bike riding in the Wild West? I can imagine some “Injun fighter” friend of the late last stander George Armstrong Custer: Hey, we’ve got twenty expendable Black soldiers out there; let them take the risks.
Today, we honor the experimented upon. I doubt that the Tuskegee airmen or the Buffalo Soldiers took a moment’s time to ponder the why. They did shit, and the Army and now the nation is finally honoring Black people. Truman Gibson told me that Tuskegee Airmen were not civil rights minded. Rather, they knew they were as capable as any white pilot in history; they were Americans, and they would do their duty even as white American lynched some, red-lined some, wouldn’t allow some into restaurants and movie theaters.
Actions have changed. People of many colors marched with King, and King got Lyndon Johnson (“If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket.”) to sign the Civil Rights Act.
Counterpoint: In June, in line at the grocery store, a white husband and wife behind me: Husband: Juneteenth. What about us white people? Wife: Yep. Why don’t white people have a “teenth?” Madam, sir, your and my great-great-great grandparents have had a “teenth” since 1619. A woman in line in front of me at a restaurant listens to a man talking about being a bounty hunter in St. Louis. She turns to me and says, “How do you tell them apart?” Haw-haw-haw! The owner of a local oil change place tells a customer that Blacks have ruined St. Louis. The customer responds by “shooting” an imaginary gun, and the men laugh. Racism is as alive today as it was in the seventeenth century. But today we wouldn’t dare reinstitute slavery or experiment on people because of color. Right? Right, Steve Bannon and the Supremes and the White Pirates? Any of us who stays silent—any of us. . . is compliant. Silence is action, as punish able a crime as lynching.
“All semblance of color has left their shirts.” But not their skin. Remember the Buffalo soldiers.