story by Kathyrn Waddell Takara
It is 1915. In a rugged, parched terrain, a work crew labors, clearing a trail. They toil partway up the flank of a massive volcano, breaking lava rock with picks. They angle their mules for protection against the cutting winds and the burning sun. Draw closer and you see they are all black (except for their white supervisor, who casually leans against a wagon, directing them). The men sing a work song as they hack at the bare lava. Closer still, and you can see that the men wear uniforms. They’re soldiers. Buffalo Soldiers.
From 1913 to 1918, the US Army’s 25th Negro Infantry Regiment was headquartered in Hawai‘i. At that time, just two decades after the overthrow of Queen Lili‘uokalani, few in Hawai‘i had heard of the Buffalo Soldiers or knew their distinguished history. Even today not much is known about the Buffalo Soldiers’ contributions in Hawai‘i, and little documentation survives in the state, if it ever existed. We do know that beginning in 1913, they built an 18-mile trail to the summit of Mauna Loa. They also built a cabin so that scientists could spend extended periods of time studying the volcano. The trail and cabin, which are still in use today, are perhaps the only visible signs of the Buffalo Soldiers’ presence in Hawai‘i.
Even as far back as the War of Independence, black soldiers had served in the military while struggling to overcome prejudice, discrimination and invisibility. Not only did they fight with distinction, they helped open the American West after the Civil War. Yet their contributions often appear as little more than marginalia in the annals of military history.