By Avis Thomas-Lester and Hamil R. Harris
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, September 20, 2005
He was 111 when he died last week, believed to be the oldest of the Buffalo Soldiers -- the black Army men on horseback who helped settle the West and fought abroad even as they were denied personal freedoms at home.
Mark Matthews was born in 1894, when Grover Cleveland was president, 28 years after the federal government had formed six regiments of black soldiers, largely to acknowledge the contribution they made during the Civil War.
As he was laid to rest yesterday with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, 1st Sgt. Matthews was remembered by family, friends and military colleagues as a dedicated father, a committed friend and a patriot, the elder statesman of a group that opened the door for blacks in military service long before the Tuskegee Airmen took to the skies.
"He was a piece of living history," said Mary E. Brown, 85, vice president of the Baltimore chapter of Buffalo Soldiers Inc. and a close friend. She told a story about taking a dark blue cavalry hat and bright yellow scarf to the aging soldier last month on his birthday. "When I placed the hat on his head, he said, 'This hat is too small.' He was spit and polish until the day he died."
More than 1,000 people attended two wakes for Matthews at Trinity AME Church in Northwest yesterday and Sunday. And more than 500 were present for his burial yesterday afternoon in a vault above his wife, Genevieve, who died in 1986.
Mary Matthews Watson, his daughter and caretaker, was given a folded U.S. flag in honor of her father, who was also the oldest man on record in the District. He died of pneumonia Sept. 6 at a Washington nursing home.
"It is really true that old soldiers never die -- they just fade away," Watson said after the service. "When they presented me the flag, I felt not only for my father, but for all the Buffalo Soldiers and the other African American soldiers who were such great heroes and such great Americans."
No one knows how many Buffalo Soldiers are left. Their numbers have dwindled as years, then decades, and now more than a century have passed since the group's inception in 1866, the year after the Civil War ended.
They were known then simply as the "colored soldiers," about 5,000 men who enlisted in the 9th and 10th cavalries and the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st infantry units. Some signed on for the chance to see more than the fields they had worked as slaves, others to take a part in the change they knew was coming.
They worked long hours laying roads and telegraph lines, escorting wagon trains and guarding stagecoaches. They fought against Geronimo in Arizona and against Spain in Cuba. Matthews was among those who helped Gen. John J. "Black Jack" Pershing pursue Pancho Villa in Mexico. Later, he trained recruits in horsemanship at Fort Myer and fought in the South Pacific in World War II .
Coley Davis, 83, a friend from Livingston Manor, N.Y., said the men wore the name Buffalo Soldiers with pride. The nickname had been bestowed by Indians, who said their curly hair reminded them of a buffalo's mane. The name was also a term of respect, soldiers said.
"Like the buffalo, they fought with strength and power when confronted," said William Aleshire of Bowie, the group's spokesman and author of a book on the black soldiers.
Davis recalled the life of the horse soldiers in the cavalry, who patrolled the West on horseback until the horse units were mechanized in 1944. His shins still bear the scars from the tight riding boots the soldiers wore.
He recalled their struggles to be treated fairly, despite their heroic exploits.
"I remember at the pool at Fort Meade, they used to let the white boys swim on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday, then we could swim on Thursday. Then they drained the pool and scrubbed it so the white boys could have a clean pool again on Monday," he recalled.
Yesterday's ceremony for Matthews included a procession, led by members of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, from the church to the cemetery, where black soldiers were once buried in a segregated area. The motorcyclists wore the group's trademark blue cavalry hat and brown leather jacket.
As they remembered Matthews, loved ones fretted that the history of the Buffalo Soldiers might die with them.
"African Americans have [served] with honor and distinction for decades, lest we forget," said Loretta Clarke, 70, a member of the D.C. Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry who stood proudly at attention during the funeral in her dress blue uniform and cavalry hat.
Added Davis: "I was the first black soldier to guard the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier. You'd be surprised about how many people never heard of the Buffalo Soldiers."
But others said their contributions will always be a part of U.S. history, pointing to a monument that was dedicated to them at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., in 1992 and a postage stamp issued in their honor in 1994.
"We came down here because Trooper Matthews was one of our own. He was a great man," said Herb Dorsey, of Fort Dix, N.J., who led the motorcycle procession.
"He was a Buffalo Soldier ," he said, standing taller.