RAY MACCOLL WAS IN THE GRIP OF AN OBSESSION. AN unpretentious schoolteacher known for good intentions and modest results, a white man whose career and training offered little grounding for this endeavor, he was possessed by the story of Henry Ossian Flipper, a black soldier out of the long lost past. For six months he awoke in the morning and retired at night with Lt. Flipper on his mind. Sleep was no escape. When the back bedroom of his old clapboard house turned dark and silent and MacColl was dreaming, Flipper's visage often came to him: uniformed and dignified, appearing in the exact image of photographs from 1877, when Flipper was the first black graduate of West Point. The message was always the same. "What," Flipper would ask, "have you done for me today?"

In a cold sweat, anxious and shaking, MacColl arose with the realization that there was more to accomplish in his unlikely effort to erase the stain on Flipper's military record and restore the old Buffalo Soldier to his rightful place in history. Four years after leaving West Point as the only black among 2,100 officers in the U.S. military, Flipper had fallen victim to a racist plot hatched by jealous white peers at Fort Davis, an isolated outpost in west Texas. He was court-martialed on embezzlement charges. The court found him innocent of theft but guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman" and cut short his promising Army career with a dishonorable discharge.

Somehow, Ray MacColl -- not a military man, not a civil rights activist, not even a scholar, but simply a public school educator in south Georgia -- took it as his self-assigned mission in 1975 to win exoneration for Flipper, nearly a century after the shameful episode, by presenting his case to the Army Board for the Correction of Military Records in Washington. He succeeded in glorious fashion, pushing himself beyond his limitations to cleanse and heal one of his nation's ugly old sores. But that is for later in the story. First it is important to appreciate the context of MacColl's pursuit of historical and racial justice, to see beyond its obvious romantic, quixotic appeal. That context, like so much of black American history, evokes a largely unheralded and overlooked drama: the story of the Buffalo Soldiers.

What are Buffalo Soldiers? Americans, black and white, seem largely unfamiliar with the phrase, beyond the few who recall a hauntingly ironic Bob Marley reggae song by that name or those who might have seen one episode of a television Western that dealt with the subject two decades ago. But history, as Ray MacColl says, "is a big, big thing, full of holes and footnotes." Before "Glory," who knew of the deeds of black soldiers during the Civil War?

Black cavalrymen and foot soldiers in the Old West, chronological and spiritual successors to the Civil War fighters, were adorned with the nickname Buffalo Soldiers by the Kiowa, Cheyenne and Apache tribes they encountered. There is uncertainty about the name's derivation. Some say it came from the thick overcoats black soldiers wore on the cold Plains. Others say their hair reminded Indians of a buffalo's. A third and the most accepted theory is that it was a monicker of respect based on Native American reverence for the buffalo. Black soldiers, including Henry Flipper, took it as a compliment, and it is still esteemed by their descendants today.

But Indians apparently regarded the troops, most of whom were ex-slaves from the South, with more respect than historians, Western pamphleteers and Hollywood screenwriters did. For more than 100 years, Buffalo Soldiers have been treated as a cultural footnote, overwhelmed by the white Western fantasy perpetuated by Buffalo Bill Cody, John Ford and John Wayne.

There is scant notice that thousands of Buffalo Soldiers scouted 34,420 miles of Western desert and plain, laid hundreds of miles of new roads and telegraph lines, protected the mail coaches, were instrumental in the military actions against the great Apache chiefs Victorio and Geronimo, fought valiantly at the side of Teddy Roosevelt's Rough Riders in Cuba during the Spanish-American War and then returned to the West, where they guarded the Mexican border until 1917 -- all with inferior horses, miserable rations and third-rate equipment discarded by white regiments. Despite adverse physical conditions and a racial climate that spawned the Flipper court-martial and a multitude of similar prejudiced acts, Buffalo Soldiers won 19 medals of honor and had a remarkably low desertion rate: one-third that of their white counterparts. At the end of Western expansion, their regiments -- the 9th and 10th cavalries and 24th and 25th infantries -- stayed together and fought in both world wars and Korea before being reconfigured in 1952 after the Army desegregated.

The historical neglect of the Buffalo Soldier created a hole of greater dimensions than the simple historical facts. It ripped at the always tender psyche of race relations in this country: allowing whites to delude themselves with stereotypes and myths, and denying generations of black Americans both a powerful connection to the past and role models for the present.

"When I realized how much those guys had done and not been honored for, I was incredibly angry," said Cmdr. Carlton Philpot, a black Navy officer stationed at the military command school at Fort Leavenworth, Kan., where the most prominent of four Buffalo Soldier regiments, Flipper's own 10th Cavalry, was formed in July 1866. "We have to get this story into the schools, not as part of Black History Month in February but as part of American history. This is a group of heroes -- true heroes that you don't have to create. Not football players, not singers, just guys who did a tough job and nobody gave a hoot."

Not quite nobody. Philpot, director of an ambitious plan to build a Buffalo Soldier Monument at Fort Leavenworth, certainly gives a hoot. He is as obsessed with the story in Kansas as MacColl is in Georgia. So is the artistic force behind the monument, Eddie Dixon, a black sculptor from Lubbock, Tex., who sees it as his mission to let black children "know we had role models, that our only purpose in life was not slavery." The Buffalo Soldier passion has also seized Gen. Colin L. Powell, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who thought up the idea for the monument when he was stationed at Fort Leavenworth eight years ago and whose Pentagon office features three paintings of Buffalo Soldiers, including one of Henry Flipper on patrol.

In Hollywood, the Buffalo Soldier drama largely has been ignored, but Len Glasgow pushes forward. Glasgow, an actor and stuntman, for years has led a mock 10th Cavalry drill team comprising black lawyers, teachers, actors and garbage collectors. He knows the life of Henry Flipper so intimately that he says he feels "reincarnated as the lieutenant." In Lawton, Okla., Steve Wilson, director of the Museum of the Great Plains, became engrossed with Flipper's long and remarkable career after his court-martial. With pack mules and a four-wheel-drive jeep, Wilson retraced Flipper's arduous travels through the mountains of Mexico as a mining engineer. In Washington, Sarah Dunlap Jackson at the National Archives and former Howard University official H. Minton Francis, a black 1944 graduate of West Point, took up Flipper's cause and provided invaluable assistance to MacColl as he made the case for exoneration and more recently pushed for a commemorative Flipper postage stamp.

And finally, the story of black soldiers in the Old West brought new vigor, hope and inspiration to Bob Burton, Robert Nolan, Tony Zasa and Tony Brown, leaders of a juvenile care agency called Vision Quest that uses the Buffalo Soldiers of yesteryear as role models for some of the toughest kids from America's inner cities. The young men, rejected as too difficult for the normal juvenile justice system, learn the history of the 9th and 10th cavalries and perform Buffalo Soldier drills that translate the dusty past into today's rapping, step-dancing culture with a message aimed against drugs and violence.

This diverse cast is not an overly religious or superstitious lot, yet many of them say that at some point they heard voices from the past or felt the hand of providence in their work. Ray MacColl had no knowledge of black history and little inclination to become absorbed by it when he started his Flipper quest. Carlton Philpot was angry at being shipped to landlocked Kansas, but then his life was recharged by the mission of the monument. Both men say that at points in their struggles when they felt uncertain or overwhelmed, some undefinable spirit drove them forward and help arrived from the most unpredictable of places. Many of the kids in the Vision Quest program came in as hardening criminals -- drug dealers, armed robbers, manslaughterers -- and came out feeling proud and positive for the first time in their lives, touched somehow, through the generations, by the magic of the old Buffalo Soldiers.

It is hard to bump into the Buffalo Soldiers at any level and not be touched. From the moment I visited Fort Davis last April and read the modest historical marker noting Henry Flipper's court-martial, I too was overtaken by the lieu- tenant and his Buffalo Soldier comrades. Flipper has not come to me in a dream yet, but he is constantly in my thoughts. He is as alive to me as the troubled but proud young men dressed in Vision Quest's Buffalo Soldier uniforms whom I watched march into the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington one brilliant afternoon this fall to perform for Gen. Powell and the Congressional Black Caucus. "Way down in the valley, I heard a mighty roar," they chanted. "It was a Buffalo Soldier. We are the soldiers. The Buffalo Soldiers." WALKING THE PATH OF UPRIGHTNESS

n the morning of March 21, 1856, Henry Ossian Flipper was born into slavery in Thomasville, Ga., a rich plantation town near the Florida border. He and his mother, Isabella, were owned by the Rev. Reuben H. Lucky. His father, Festus Flipper, an expert cobbler and craftsman, belonged to one of the richest slave traders in south Georgia, Ephraim Ponder. When Ponder decided to move to Atlanta after the Civil War, Festus Flipper purchased his wife and son from Lucky so they could make the move with him. In Atlanta, according to documents at the Thomasville Historical Society, Festus was so successful that white craftsmen, resentful of his competition, pushed through a local ordinance imposing a tax on shoes, barrels and other goods constructed by slaves. Henry was the oldest of five sons. He was taught to read and write by a black slave mechanic and later studied at a missionary school and Atlanta University. In 1873, during the Reconstruction era when blacks were breaking barriers one by one, Flipper was nominated to West Point.

A white student from Atlanta tried to buy the nomination by offering Flipper a $5,000 bribe. No deal. Flipper was well aware that the few blacks who had preceded him at the military academy were hounded out before graduation. In a book of his experiences there titled The Colored Cadet at West Point, Flipper wrote that he arrived "with my mind full of the horrors of treatment of all former cadets of color, and the dread of inevitable ostracism." His treatment often was horrible and the ostracism intense. Many cadets were friendly to him in private; in public they disparaged him with racist epithets. But Flipper, who loved the military and was an earnest student, stuck it out, becoming the first black West Point graduate in 1877. The graduation picture of the 6-foot-2 Flipper shows a determined, strikingly handsome young man.

Liberia, the country founded by ex-slaves who returned to Africa, immediately offered the second lieutenant a position as commander of the Liberian Army. He turned it down, choosing instead to head west to serve as the only black officer among the black troops known as Buffalo Soldiers. He reported for duty with Troop A 10th Cavalry in Oklahoma on the first day of January 1878. At Fort Sill, young Flipper performed an impressive engineering task that is renowned to this day: He designed a ditch to drain cesspools that were suspected to be breeding grounds for malaria. His white superiors thought the ditch was foolhardy. They said it ran uphill. In fact, Flipper said, that was just an optical illusion. They were looking at the world from the wrong perspective. "It looked that way, but I knew I was right," he said. And he was. The ditch carried the stagnant water away, easing the malaria threat. It is now a national historical landmark known as Flipper's Ditch.

While at Fort Sill, Flipper became friendly with Capt. Nicholas Nolan, an open-minded Irishman who got along well with his black troops and held what was then the unpopular view that the cavalry's job was to control the hostilities between Indians and white settlers, not kill every Indian in sight. Nolan was married to a woman from San Antonio whose younger sister, Molly Dwyer, lived with them. Molly Dwyer and Henry Flipper became riding companions. Several white officers were jealous of the relationship, which may have been Flipper's military undoing.

After performing valorous work as a scout and messenger for the 10th Cavalry's leader, Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, during the grueling Victorio campaign in 1880, Flipper was dispatched to Fort Davis, a desolate outpost amid the brown mountains and desert landscape north of Big Bend country in Texas. He was given two jobs: acting commissary and quartermaster. Shortly after Flipper arrived, the fort, which was under infantry rather than cavalry command, got a new commander, Col. William Rufus Shafter, a burly, profane fellow who took an immediate dislike to Flipper and tried to strip him of his duties. Two other white officers seemed to have it in for Flipper as well, one because of Molly Dwyer, the other holding a grudge going back to their days at West Point.

One day in July 1881, Flipper discovered that commissary funds were missing from his trunk. As a black man in a white man's army, he felt an extraordinary pressure to be perfect, knowing that any little slip would do him in. On two pre- vious nights, he had seen shadowy figures moving in the di- rection of his trunk. He thought he had been set up. But he was afraid to report the missing funds, deciding instead to keep quiet until he had made up the deficit on his own. "Never did a man walk the path of uprightness straighter than I did," Flipper wrote later, "but the trap was cunningly laid and I was sacrificed."

Shafter discovered the financial discrepancy, ordered Flipper's arrest and held him in a cramped cell for four days before his superiors declared that such treatment was unprecedented for an officer and Flipper was released to house arrest. Although the money was repaid within two weeks, Shafter pressed forward with a court-martial. It took two months. Shafter and other prosecution witnesses offered unpersuasive and contradictory testimony. Flipper's attorney, Maj. Merritt Barber, addressed the issue directly. "The question before you," he said, "is whether it is possible for a colored man to secure and hold a position as an officer of the Army."

On December 8, 1881, the court found Flipper innocent of embezzlement charges but guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer." Flipper was taken to a cot in a holding room where a fierce wave of nausea swept over him. The verdict carried a penalty of dishonorable discharge. Many of Flipper's allies assumed the order would be overturned, according to Bruce J. Dinges, a University of Arizona historian who is the leading expert on Flipper's court-martial. In fact, the secretary of the Army recommended that Flipper not be discharged, but President Chester A. Arthur ignored his recommendation. Henry Ossian Flipper, a fine soldier who in a better world might have become the first black general, was cashiered at age 25.

Some historians, such as Sarah Dunlap Jackson, maintain that Flipper achieved more outside the military during a life that covered another 58 years than he would have in the Army. Perhaps. In any case, Flipper moved to El Paso, took temporary work in a steam laundry and then embarked on a remarkable career. He was a surveyor and mining engineer in Texas, Arizona and Mexico. He wrote several books, including technical journals explaining Spanish land laws. For a time he was the first American black editor of a white newspaper, the Nogales Sunday Herald. Fluent in Spanish, he was constantly in demand as an interpreter. He became an aide to Sen. A.B. Fall and served in Washington as a high-ranking official in the Interior Department, where his engineering skills were instrumental in the development of the Alaska railway system. And he worked as a troubleshooter for William F. Buckley's Pantepec Oil Co. in Venezuela.

Over the span of those six decades, Flipper thought of himself first as a soldier. He was addressed as "Lieutenant." Nine times he tried to get Congress to clear his name, but every effort failed. In 1931, at age 74, he returned to Atlanta and spent the last nine years of his life at his brother Joseph's house on Bishop's Row, an area that housed most of the city's black clergy. Joseph was a high official in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.

Old Lt. Flipper, dressed in a steel-gray suit and wearing thick metal glasses, rarely left his brother's two-story white house. He could often be seen on the porch, pacing back and forth, sometimes muttering "left, right, left" to himself. In the mornings he would enter his closet and take out a steamer trunk full of memories, including a bundle of papers marked: "Official Army Court-Martial Records of Second Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper." On the morning of April 26, 1940, Flipper had about finished dressing -- he was putting on his left shoe -- when he fell back upon his bed and suffered a fatal heart attack. He let out a scream, according to relatives. It was a scream that Ray MacColl would hear decades later and describe this way:

"By his scream Flipper wanted to declare that he had lived justly. However, he realized that time had run out. He had continued on page 30 finally learned that the last victim of injustice is silence. When nothing else can be accomplished, one must scream."

Flipper was buried in Atlanta in an unmarked grave. Under the category of occupation on his death certificate were three words: Retired Army Officer. 'A BURDEN LIFTED FROM MY VERY SOUL'

n 1970, Ray MacColl, a transplanted Yankee from Chester, Pa., was taking a black history course at Valdosta State College in Georgia. For his term paper, he decided to write about blacks in the Old West. It was a rather uninspired effort. His professor gave him a C. But if one ever needed proof that grades are not everything, here it is. From that paper, which briefly mentioned the case of Henry Flipper, a native of nearby Thomasville, MacColl found the cause of his life. Over the next few years, as MacColl graduated and began a career as a teacher, he spent his free time gathering information on Flipper, whose story intrigued him. One day he was at the library in Valdosta's black neighborhood, searching for a back issue of Ebony magazine, when the librarian told him that she knew Henry Flipper's niece, Irsle King, and that she lived only a few blocks away. The librarian called King, who immediately invited MacColl over. It was the beginning of a beautiful relationship.

"For some reason, when he walked in the door I wanted to hug him," King, now 84, said during a recent interview. "I don't know why. I had never seen him before, but when I opened the door he actually felt like kin to me. Our spirits agreed as one, as old folks say. We started doing the best we could with each other."

MacColl and King, the daughter of Flipper's youngest brother, Carl, spent hours and days talking about their families, about education and, of course, about the Flipper history. She recounted memories of her uncle when she had visited Atlanta in the 1930s as a college student. "The Lieutenant would talk about the court-martial, but get off the subject quickly," King said. "He didn't have any hatred, but he had so much regret because he felt mistreated. It was painful to him to talk about it." From their discussions, this unusual couple, two teachers, young and old, black and white, struck upon the idea of seeking Flipper's exoneration one last time.

King put MacColl in touch with other relatives who knew parts of the Flipper story and had documents that might help him make the case. Some were skeptical at first about the motives of this white teacher, but their suspicions eased over time. As MacColl extended his research, finding Sarah Dunlap Jackson and H. Minton Francis in Washington and Steve Wil- son in Oklahoma, among others, he reached the conclusion that Flipper had been wronged. By 1975, conveniently, West Point was starting to think about the 100th anniversary of Flipper's graduation. Officials there did not know how they could honor a man who had been dishonorably discharged, so they too took a renewed interest in the case and encouraged MacColl's efforts.

For six months in 1975, MacColl prepared his case, pushed on by the nightly vision of the Lieutenant. When he finished, he showed it to Thomasville attorney Roy Lilly, who was impressed with the narrative but informed his teacher friend that the "way the facts were put together as a legal brief was awful." Lilly turned MacColl's story into a legal argument. The key to his case was a fundamental piece of logic. If the court found Flipper innocent of the main charge, embezzlement, they had no standing to find him guilty on the second charge, which was wholly dependent on the first.

On December 13, 1976, the military board of corrections accepted the argument and exonerated Flipper, issuing him an honorable discharge 94 years too late. MacColl, teaching in Thomasville at the time, drove to Valdosta to share the news with Irsle King.

"My only regret is that my uncle wasn't around to know that he was cleared," she said. "But sometimes we can have the strangest feelings about things. I have always felt like somehow he knew. Maybe it was the satisfaction in my heart that caused me to feel that way. When they sent me the honorable discharge it felt very, very good, because what happened was such an injustice and it kept, well, you might say a speck of hurt for a long, long time. I don't know if it was a speck or what, but there was just something that made you uneasy. When it was over, it seemed that a burden was lifted from my very soul."

MacColl felt relief as well, but his obsession was far from over. The next year he and Irsle King and many other Flipper relatives flew to West Point to witness the unveiling of a Henry Flipper statue and the inauguration of a new award at the academy given to the cadet who withstood pressure with the most integrity over the course of four years. In 1978, he led an effort to exhume Flipper's remains from the unmarked grave in Atlanta and rebury him, with full military honors, at the Old Magnolia Cemetery in Thomasville. It was the best attended funeral in Thomasville history. From the church to the cemetery, the cortege moved to the beat of muffled drums. At the grave site next to the tombs of Flipper's parents, there was a 21-gun salute and a single bugler sounded taps. H. Minton Francis delivered the eulogy. Flipper, he said, "epitomized every black man of courage."

During the 1980s, MacColl and King kept at it. In 1987 they held another ceremony at the gravesite for the unveiling of a state historical marker. For the past four years they have been pushing hard for the U.S. postmaster general's commemorative stamp committee to approve a special stamp honoring Flipper. That effort has received support from all corners of American life, from the black historian John Hope Franklin at Duke to Roots author Alex Haley to Republican strategist Lee Atwater to former president Jimmy Carter.

"I never thought my interest would lead to something like this," MacColl said one afternoon last fall as he stood near Flipper's grave. "Minton Francis once said that from the grace of God came Ray MacColl. I always felt awkward about that kind of statement. But I don't know how things could have been the way they were if divine providence did not play a role here, because I was totally unprepared by background. Henry Flipper had been overlooked all those years. History is such a big, big thing, full of holes and footnotes. I'm sure there are dozens of other incredible people out there who have been overlooked. And folks like me searching for them. That's the only way people who are lost in the pages of history are going to have their stories told." 'A SUBTLE SENSE OF PRIDE'

olin Powell was stationed at Fort Leavenworth as a brigadier general in 1982, one of many brief postings along his trail to the top of the military world. As a keen student of black military history, the fort's significance as the birthplace of the Buffalo Soldiers was not lost on him. He knew how the regiments were formed with black ex-slaves and white officers. He knew that among the white officers sought for leadership of the 10th Cavalry was George Armstrong Custer, who rebuffed the offer, disdaining the talents of men of color for an all-white regiment, the 7th Cavalry, formed that same summer. Powell appreciated the hardships and accomplishments of his black predecessors. But he feared that, to use Ray MacColl's phrase, they might be lost in the pages of history.

"I was jogging around the post one day and noticed a couple of gravel alleys that were named 9th and 10th Cavalry streets," Powell recalled years later. "And I thought, 'I wonder if that's all there is. I wonder if here on this most historic Army post in Kansas where the 10th Cavalry spent so much of its garrison life, in the center of the region where both the 9th and 10th Cavalry spent so much of their blood, I wonder if these gravel alleyways are all there is to signify . . . their incredible contribution to the American West. And so I looked around some more. And on the entire post, all I could find to commemorate two of the greatest regiments in the Army were these two alleys. That was a situation that had to be changed."

From that unsettling morning jog, Powell set in motion a project to construct a fitting Buffalo Soldier Monument at the fort in Kansas. His concept at first was to raise a simple statue much like the one of Ulysses S. Grant that stood in a small park across the street from his headquarters near the old parade grounds. But when Powell left Fort Leavenworth for more important missions, the project fell dormant for a time, and when it was picked up again, those who revived it had a larger vision.

The monument, scheduled to open July 28, 1992, the 126th anniversary of the day Congress authorized the Buffalo Soldier regiments, will be situated off the fort's main street, Grant Avenue, on a gentle slope leading down to Smith Lake, on the spot where Buffalo Soldiers pitched their tents in the early 1900s. It will feature a 16-foot bronze statue of a soldier on his horse, rifle in hand, with a pond behind him and a reflecting pool in front. Near a walkway around the statue, markers will honor the 19 Buffalo Soldiers who earned medals of honor: George Burnett, Moses Williams, Thomas Boyne, John Denny, Henry Johnson, Thomas Shaw, Emanuel Stance, Brent Woods, William Wilson, Clinton Greaves, Augustus Walley, Louis Carpenter, Powhattan Clarke, Edward Baker, William McGryar, Dennis Bell, William Thompkins, George Wanton and Fitz Lee.

The inexorable force behind the monument is Carlton Philpot, who grew up on a farm outside Tallahassee, Fla., only a few miles from Henry Flipper's home across the Georgia state line. Philpot knew nothing of Flipper and the Buffalo Soldiers until he arrived at Fort Leavenworth three years ago. He was disappointed and somewhat embittered at the time after being passed over for command of a ship, his life's dream. What was there for a sailor to do in Kansas? Philpot found out. Soon after he arrived, looking around for an outside project, he learned of Powell's dream for a Buffalo Soldier monument. The dream has possessed him ever since.

When he wasn't teaching war theory, Philpot devoted much of his time to learning about the Buffalo Soldiers. He found that some old soldiers from the 10th Cavalry were still alive and remained in the Fort Leavenworth-Kansas City area. There was Chief Warrant Officer Harry Hollowell, a sprightly 76, who joined the Buffalo Soldiers in 1936, when Fort Leavenworth was segregated: Blacks had a separate theater, lived in separate barracks and had their own band, of which Hollowell was the leader. And there was 96-year-old Elisha "Sarge" Kearse, perhaps the oldest living Buffalo Soldier, whose days with the 10th Cavalry began when they were stationed out in Arizona before World War I.

Philpot could not get enough of the old-timers' stories. They told him about the female companions who followed the Buffalo Soldiers and were called Washtub Women. They recalled how the path from their tents to town was called Shackpappy Lane. Kearse told him how it felt to ride wild mustangs and wield the 10th's heavy saber. Often, Philpot said, he would burn with rage when he thought about how these noble soldiers were mistreated. "Imagine the patriotism it takes to serve your country when your country is treating you unfairly," he said. "These were true patriots. But what strikes me most is that they never seem angry. I would get angry but they are always positive. I get recharged every time I talk to them." The groundbreaking ceremonies for the monument were held last July 28. Harry Hollowell and Sarge Kearse, called "Old Double Jaw" by his troops, were among the special guests seated near the main speaker, Powell. The slope down to Smith Lake was packed with more than 2,000 people. In a speech that moved many old soldiers to tears, Powell told the audience about three paintings that hang on the wall of his Pentagon office directly across from his desk, paintings, he said, that "remind me of my heritage and of the thousands of African Americans who went before me and who shed their blood and made their sacrifices so that I could sit in that office today." One is of Col. Grierson and Lt. Flipper on patrol, another portrays a Buffalo Soldier scout on the Western plains, and the third depicts the charge up San Juan Hill in Cuba. Most paintings of that event show only white Rough Riders making the charge, but Buffalo Soldiers were there too, and Powell's painting, he said, "shows San Juan Hill as it should be shown."

Finally Powell read from Grierson's last statement to his black troops in 1888, when he relinquished command. "The officers and enlisted men have cheerfully endured many hardships and privations, and in the midst of great dangers steadfastly maintained a most gallant and zealous devotion to duty," Grierson wrote. "And they may well be proud of the record made, and rest assured that the hard work undergone in the accomplishment of such . . . valuable service to their country cannot fail, sooner or later, to meet with due recognition and reward."

When Americans journey to Fort Leavenworth in future years to give the Buffalo Soldiers their due recognition and reward, they will see the past through the artistic perspective of Eddie Dixon, the black sculptor from Lubbock who was commissioned to make the monument. Since 1982, after abandoning a career as a grain futures trader in Chicago, Dixon has emerged as one of the preeminent sculptors of black historical figures in America. His specialty is blacks in the West, especially Buffalo Soldiers. Many parks and museums in the Southwest are graced by his Buffalo Soldier renditions, including Fort Davis, the place where Henry Flipper was court-martialed.

Dixon is working on the Buffalo Soldier Monument in the same fashion that he prepared the Fort Davis sculpture. His skill is not just artistic; he deals with history, texture, emotion. He visits the isolated posts where Buffalo Soldiers were stationed and sits quietly for hours, taking himself back in time until he can almost hear the marshaling of arms. "When I do a Buffalo Soldier," Dixon said, "I think about the position they were in, without decent horses or guns. I express that condition in the face, the forlornment, the rejection, yet determination to complete a mission. And also a subtle sense of pride. Buffalo Soldier in the vanguard: A black man in a new world."

His hope, Dixon said, is that his work will help black youngsters in the future view American history from a different perspective than he did as a child. "In the movies, it was always the white cavalry," Dixon said. "So when we were kids, and we wanted to be the cowboys charging over the horizon, we were white and our heroes were John Wayne and other whites. Blacks were not recognized as having any part in it. There were no role models for us. Every time I think about that, I get more motivation to do what I'm doing." A WHOLE SHOW ABOUT BLACK SOLDIERS? he Old West that many Americans think they know came to them mostly in films and TV shows, a cultural milieu based largely on the myths of white culture. Indians, for the most part, were rendered subhuman. Blacks were virtually ignored. The story of one episode of one TV show provides the exception to the rule that proves the point. It was the November 22, 1968, episode of "The High Chaparral," a Tucson-based Western starring Leif Erickson as John Cannon, Cameron Mitchell as Buck, Linda Cristal as Victoria, Henry Darrow as Manolito and Mark Slade as Billy Blue. The episode was titled "The Buffalo Soldiers." The guest star was a young Yaphet Kotto as Sgt. Maj. Creason.

In the archives of TV Westerns, "The High Chaparral's" episode on the Buffalo Soldiers stands alone: the only show devoted singularly to that subject. The show elicited much praise and high awards, yet a certain bitterness lingers concerning what might have been. As much as the episode broke new ground, it also represented an opportunity lost.

While various executives take credit for the episode, the true inspiration for it was Len Glasgow, a black stuntman who organized a diverse group of 50 African-American men in the Los Angeles area into the 10th Cavalry riding team. Glasgow formed the outfit in 1965, when he thought that Buffalo Soldiers would be needed for a film starring Woody Strode about the campaigns involving the 10th Cavalry and the Apache chief Victorio. That film fell through, but the band of mock horse soldiers held together. They spent their spare time at a stable near Burbank practicing the formations of the old 10th Cavalry. When a local television news show featured Glasgow's Buffalo Soldiers, "The High Chaparral's" producer, William F. Claxton, and executive producer, David Dortort, happened to see it and decided that the Buffalo Soldiers would make an interesting episode.

Men and horses were transported to Tucson for the seven-day shoot, where the glory and ignorance of past and present converged. Local wranglers watched in amazement as these black actor-soldiers performed precise riding maneuvers in the brutal desert heat. All except Yaphet Kotto, that is; the episode's guest star was afraid of horses and needed intense remedial help from Glasgow. The script needed remedial work as well: The original version seemed to perpetuate more stereotypes than it broke. Claxton and Kotto and director Joseph Pevney worked late every night trying to fix the scenes.

The plot is simple: Tucson citizens are dumbfounded when their petition for troops to break the grip of an evil town boss brings an all-black cavalry unit. But Sgt. Maj. Creason restores law and order without a shot being fired, so impressive are the equestrian skills of his Buffalo Soldiers. As the cavalry portrayed by Glasgow and his buddies fades into the sunset, a narrator proclaims: "The Buffalo Soldiers of yesterday were the stuff of which legends are made and hope rekindled . . . so that all of us can recall and cherish the historic and continuing contribution of the black American to the life and progress of our nation."

Months after the show aired, word arrived that it had won the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Dortort and a contingent of Glasgow's 10th Cavalry journeyed to Oklahoma City for the awards banquet. When Dortort took the stage to receive the award, he said: "Gentlemen, this award does not belong to me, it belongs to the 10th Cavalry." At that moment, on cue from the back of the ballroom, an honor guard of Buffalo Soldiers appeared at the doorway and marched in. "I still get goose bumps thinking about it," Dortort said. "I've never felt that way before or since."

Glasgow, delighted by the episode's reception, thought it would be the start of something bigger. His 10th Cavalry unit stayed together and constantly sought out more authentic Buffalo Soldier material. He obtained the original marching manuals and a few old uniforms. He started studying the life and times of Henry Flipper, wrote a script about the most famous of the Buffalo Soldiers and even started to take on aspects of the old lieutenant's personality. "I just absolutely know him," Glasgow said. "He was the quietest person. A scholar, athlete, gentleman. Spoke Spanish so well. I've tried to model myself after him. He is quite a role model for all of us." Yes, Glasgow even dreamed of Flipper.

Surely, he thought, one of the networks or production studios in Hollywood would see the potential here for a series or miniseries. In his effort to take the Buffalo Soldier story to a wider TV audience, Glasgow found that David Dortort was among his strongest supporters. The esteemed executive producer of "The High Chaparral" and "Bonanza," one of the most popular Western series in history, went to New York in an effort to persuade NBC executives to consider a series. No luck.

"NBC would not go for it," Dortort recalled. "They said: You want to do a whole show about black soldiers? Who would sponsor a show entirely about blacks? They also said that Westerns were becoming passe. They were more interested in cops and crime shows. It was a depressing ending to a glorious episode. The feelings blacks have of being excluded from American history is enormous. That's why 'Glory' was so important. I think the neglect began in the writing of history, and Hollywood people read the so-called conventional wisdom and never realized there was a glaring omission. If they would have dealt with it based on the facts of history, instead of the exclusions, we would have had role models for kids in the inner cities today: now they have so little from the past to relate to. There is nothing that has the strength of a successful TV series week after week to reinforce in the hearts and minds of young people an image that is respectful, that they can respond to, that they can say, yeah, we had a great role in helping build this country." 'IT'S GREAT TO BE A BUFFALO SOLDIER'

s the old blue and white bus rumbled through the Pennsylvania countryside from Reading to Philadelphia, rap music pounded from the sound system and 35 black youths aged 14 to 19, dressed in cavalry uniforms modeled after those of the old Buffalo Soldiers, were getting a little rowdy.

"Information!" yelled Tony Brown and Tony Zasa in unison.

"Information!" responded the kids. The tomfoolery stopped.

Brown and Zasa -- black and white, both in their thirties, one a former cop, the other a onetime hockey goalie, both ram tough -- were the staff leaders for this monthlong Buffalo Soldier Quest. They were officially designated as generals. Other staff members at Vision Quest, a private juvenile care agency, were colonels, majors and lieutenants. The highest-ranking juvenile was a sergeant major. The kids called Brown and Zasa "Gents," as in, "Hey, Gents Brown," or "Thanks, Gents." It was short for general; the "t" on the end gave it a nice twist of linguistic irony.

There were "no jaywalkers in this group," as Gents Zasa said of his troops. These were tough young men who had been arrested for armed robbery, drug dealing, manslaughter and assault. On average they had been through the justice system 3.8 times. Most were considered so wayward that local authorities wanted nothing more to do with them. Their sentencing judges viewed Vision Quest as a final alternative to adult jails and prisons and had placed them in the agency's care for terms ranging from one to three years.

Since the early 1970s, Vision Quest has taken about 800 troubled youths per year and tried to teach them the importance of self-discipline, pride, control and cooperation through old-fashioned missions. One mission, or quest, is a year-long wagon-train trek across the country. The most popular mission these days is the Buffalo Soldier Quest, where boys are taught the lore of black soldiers from the Old West. They dress in cavalry uniforms, learn how to ride and march at a two- week boot camp, then visit schools spreading a message against drugs and violence. Not all social workers approve of Vision Quest's hands-on approach. Some juvenile experts once raised questions about the agency's effectiveness in rehabilitating youths. They said the recidivism rate in the program was higher than that of youngsters who had been locked up. But recent studies of Vision Quest over a 10-year period indicate just the opposite, that its recidivism rate of less than 50 percent is far better than most other juvenile detention programs. And the Buffalo Soldier Quest, to those familiar with it, is regarded as especially imaginative, effective and emotionally powerful.

"Most inner-city kids are desperately looking for something to be loyal to," said Bob Burton, Vision Quest's founder. "That search usually leads to the negative loyalty of a gang. Being a Buffalo Soldier is a positive alternative." Another Vision Quest leader, Robert Nolan, put it this way: "The kids start seeing it and living it. It's really magical. There is a definite connection between the old guys and us. The perspective I have is that a lot of these kids that get in trouble, 100 years ago might not have. They'd have been cavalry scouts, stagecoach riders, found some way to fit. Society has changed, and they don't belong, they're outside the bubble and having a hard time trying to find a way back in. This is a way to give them that sense of self worth."

The 23rd Buffalo Soldier Quest over the past decade was in its final week on this bright fall morning as the bus rolled toward west Philadelphia. For the past two weeks the young men had been practicing their drills, a series of intricate maneuvers that spanned the decades, combining old Buffalo Soldier marches and chants with modern black raps and step-dances. Their first performance would be at the West Philadelphia Community Center in a gymnasium teeming with awestruck 4-year-olds. Their last, two days later, would be inside the Rayburn House Office Building in Washington before an audience that featured Colin Powell, distinguished black war veterans and members of the Black Congressional Caucus.

Gents Brown viewed the trip to Washington as the culmination not only of this month of training but of years of developing the Buffalo Soldier program. One by one, he called boys to the front of the bus to discuss the week's mission. He and Gents Zasa were especially concerned about the tuneups in Philadelphia so close to the neighborhoods where many of these kids found trouble. The night before they had been warned by one boy that another might try to make a run for it. "The street is a strong pull," Brown said. "Loyalty to the Buffalo Soldiers competes with loyalty to the street."

Near the front of the bus sat Ron Roberts, oldest of the group at 19, an ex-gang member from Philly who had committed more felonies than he cared to remember. Becoming a Buffalo Soldier, he said, changed his life. In school he had learned about the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., but nothing about black soldiers. Never before had he encountered men who cared about him or been around horses and other animals. "This is my family now," he said.

Behind Roberts was 18-year-old Dormen Lisby, tall, sensitive and bespectacled, a high school graduate serving time in Vision Quest for vehicular manslaughter. Being a Buffalo Soldier meant so much to Lisby that when his sentence expired a week earlier he asked the judge for permission to stay another six months. Lisby, a talented artist, said the judge thought he was crazy, but granted his request. "Being a Buffalo Soldier gives me a pride I can't really explain," he said. "When the Gents talk to us about what the old guys did and what we can do to stop drugs and violence, it brings tears to my eyes. It's great to be a Buffalo Soldier. I love my race. It means a lot to me, finding out about my people and my ancestors. This should be for everyone, not just those of us who get in trouble. It changed me."

When the bus reached the community center in Philadelphia, Lisby stepped off to find his mother waiting at the sidewalk. She hugged him and gave him a silver angel pin and three African arm bracelets. The gym was lined with bright-eyed preschoolers who screamed with delight when the sharply outfitted Buffalo Soldiers double-timed their way in. Gents Brown told the toddlers that their message was to say no to drugs and violence. Gents Zasa told them about the 9th and 10th cavalries, how they had done so much under difficult conditions and yet had the lowest desertion rates in the military.

For the next 30 minutes, the young Buffalo Soldiers performed their precision drills. Then they spread out across the gym in pairs, each pair taking a group of six or eight tots and teaching them how to march and chant: "Are we saying no to drugs? Yes, we are! Yes, we are! Yes, we are! Say no, chu-chu. No, chu-chu."

The room resounded with syncopated joy, though an enormous teardrop rolled down the cheek of one little boy who felt left out of the proceedings. "I want to be a Buffalo Soldier," he sobbed. A 14-year-old Buffalo Soldier, Dominick from Lancaster (juvenile offenders under 18 can be identified only by first name), found the boy and took him into his group. Dominick said the scene made him feel "happy in my heart." From his 13th birthday to the time a few months ago when he arrived at Vision Quest, Dominick, whose parents had been killed in separate violent incidents, spent most of his nights out on the town looking to beat up people and fight with cops. He said he had more anger than he could release. When he appeared before little kids and told them to say no to drugs and violence, he said, it sent chills up his spine with contradictory sensations: a sense of pride at being a positive role model and a sense of concern that he was really talking to himself.

When it was over, as the Buffalo Soldiers double-timed back to their bus, Kareem, a 17-year-old Philadelphian, saw his chance to triple-time it right on out of the program. He flew down the street with three Vision Quest staffers in pursuit. They caught him in back of the American Family Market. "I'm not going back on that bus," he shouted. The police came and took him to the precinct station. The other boys were stunned and subdued. Dormen Lisby said Kareem had told him he was going to run. "I thought he was kidding. It was such a stupid thing. We're free and doing something useful," Lisby said. "He couldn't take that pressure. He would have rather been locked up."

Lisby's mother got on the bus for a few minutes. "Don't worry about it," she told her son. "Just do what you've got to do."

"I love you, Mom," he said.

Two mornings later, the Buffalo Soldiers awoke on the hard floor of the Greenbelt Armory gymnasium on the northern rim of the nation's capital and quietly went about preparing for the biggest day in their lives. In one corner they were shining boots and spats. At another end Gents Zasa passed out new shirts and suspenders. Col. Dorothy Lamb, a social worker who served as a second mother for many of the boys, sewed stray buttons and did some hemwork on the pants. The peer leader of the group, 18-year-old Sgt. Maj. Steve Bryant, showed up. He'd been scheduled to leave the program a day earlier, but like Dormen Lisby, he had gone to court and asked to stay. Most of the drills these guys had learned -- the M.C. Hammer and Wizard of Oz, the Tipatap March, Stop the Violence -- he had taught them. His rap name back in Philadelphia was Silky. Bryant was incorrigible, it seemed, when he arrived in the program two years ago. Now he was a leader, determined to stay off the streets and attend Temple University.

At 12:30 p.m. they marched out to the bus, with Sgt. Maj. Bryant barking out the orders: "Heeeere we go again! Buffalo Soldiers back again!" When they arrived at the Rayburn Building for the Congressional Black Caucus ceremonies honoring black veterans, the boys still had a few hours to kill. So they performed outside on Independence Avenue. Suddenly they seemed almost out of place, naive, touching, a quaint curiosity in this hardened world of political power. There are so many layers of cynicism, self-absorption and suspicion in Washington. The professionals of Capitol Hill eyed them with puzzlement. Who are these kids? How do they fit in? Are they being used? Washington seemed tougher in that hour than the meanest streets from which the Buffalo Soldier juveniles came.

But soon they were inside, standing proud as honor guards as Powell spoke to the caucus and the black veterans. Their generals, Brown and Zasa, were right up there at the speaker's rostrum below Powell. The kids carried the flags and watched the doorways as Powell declared that "no group of Americans ever served this nation with greater devotion, greater loyalty, greater sacrifice than African Americans." When he mentioned the Buffalo Soldiers in his speech, Dormen Lisby felt an overwhelming sense of pride. When the address ended, the Buffalo Soldiers marched down to the foyer, where Sgt. Maj. Bryant introduced them to Powell and said they wanted to be soldiers of peace. Then Bryant lined up his troops and got rolling, 20 minutes of step-dance drills.

They were dazzling, moving in flawless unison from one step to another. Bob Burton, the Vision Quest founder, stood to the side and smiled. "And the psychologists say they can't do this," he said softly. As the late afternoon shadows darkened the foyer, the Buffalo Soldiers performed an encore step. They finished frozen in place, heads down, fists triumphant in the air.

Henry Ossian Flipper was not there, as far as anyone could tell. Carlton Philpot, director of the Fort Leavenworth Buffalo Soldier Monument project, had planned to attend, but at the last minute headed off to southern Virginia in search of a 108-year-old man who claimed to have served in the 10th Cavalry. Ray MacColl, the Georgia schoolteacher, had never heard of Vision Quest at the time of the Washington performance in late September. But the world works in mysterious ways. Not long ago, MacColl was driving along a road outside Atlanta when he encountered a wagon train of young men heading in the other direction. They were from Vision Quest. They said they were Buffalo Soldiers.

David Maraniss is The Post's Southwest bureau chief.