Against a rainbow-colored backdrop of mountain foliage, this Appalachian community honored its most-decorated war hero today.
Sgt. Brent Woods, a former slave who won the Congressional Medal of Honor, was laid to rest with full military honors 78 years after his death and more than a century after his service in the Indian wars.
Woods returned to central Kentucky, died in obscurity and was buried in obscurity. But today, he was praised by the secretary of the Army, a congressman, town officials and about 500 local residents, most of them white.
None of Woods' family survived to witness the ceremony. But it seemed that almost everyone else in town turned out to honor the hero -- one of 42 Kentuckians to win this nation's highest honor for bravery.
Woods was born in Pulaski County in 1855 to a slave family. He enlisted in the United States Army on Oct. 10, 1873, and was assigned to the 9th Cavalry, better known as the "buffalo soldiers."
He was awarded the medal for his heroism in a battle with Indians along the Texas-New Mexico border on Aug. 19, 1881.
Woods was one of a small group of soldiers and civilians in pursuit of a band of Apaches led by Chief Nana. His unit rode unsuspectingly into what is now Gavilan Canyon, N.M., and found themselves easy targets for a trap. Woods was left in command when the unit commander was killed and the second-in-command deserted.
He led a charge against the Apaches, fighting his way to the top of a ridge in what witnesses described as a one-man battle.
His medal was 13 years late in coming -- and then was presented not by the president but by Woods' commanding officer in 1894. Woods was discharged in 1902 and returned to Pulaski County without recognition or honors. He died in 1906.
For 78 years, Woods' body lay in an unmarked grave in the black section of Sinking Creek cemetery.
Woods' battlefield feats largely were ignored because of his race, according to Lorraine Smith, the town's equal employment opportunity director.
A graduate student doing a dissertation on black war heroes uncovered Woods' story a few years ago and contacted Smith, who began her own search. In 1981 she located Woods' widow, Pearl Barker.
Barker, who died a few weeks after that visit, still had Woods' medal, its faded red, white and blue ribbon held together with hand-sewn stitches.
Through Smith's efforts, the ceremonies honoring the former buffalo soldier came about. She was presented with the American flag that would have gone to Woods' survivors after a memorial service at Mill Springs National Cemetery at nearby Nancy.
"I feel like I'm just as much a part of him as his daughter," she said after the memorial service.
The first event today was a "freedom rally" at Somerset High School. But in contrast to the freedom rallies of the 1960s and 1970s -- in which blacks were demanding equal rights -- this was one of racial harmony.
About 500 mountain men and women turned out in the "Briar Jumpers'" gymnasium to honor Woods. The ceremony was delayed an hour because heavy rains and overcast skies prevented U.S. Army Secretary John O. Marsh Jr.'s airplane from landing at the Somerset airport.
The 113th Army band from Fort Knox played, and the Oak Hill Baptist Church choir sang.
In the ceremony, Smith gave the tarnished medal to Rep. Harold Rogers (R-Ky.), who gave it to Don Jenkins, a Morgantown coal miner. Jenkins won the Congressional Medal of Honor winner for a feat in Vietnam similar to Woods'.
He will deliver the medal to the Medal of Honor Society, where it will be placed in the Hall of Heroes aboard the USS Intrepid in New York harbor.
Jenkins, who served 19 months in the Army, was a machine-gunner in Kein Phong Province in Vietnam when his platoon came under ambush. "I laid down fire and then took three of my wounded comrades back to safety under fire. And I was wounded myself," Jenkins said.
Rogers called Woods "a hero lost in history."
"This day almost did not happen," he said. "And today we emancipate Sgt. Brent Woods from the anonymity of his heroism."
After the ceremonies at the high school, a riderless black horse led a procession down a narrow street where Rogers and Marsh placed a wreath at a veterans' memorial.
"I think it's real nice. I think it's about time," Hobert Henderson of Burnside said. He had brought his sons Robert, 12, Michael, 11, and Eric, 7, to witness the event.
"I think he really deserved it," he said of Woods. "It's just a little bit late."
Marsh said at the ceremony that America's black heroes frequently had been ignored. He reminded the audience that black soldiers served at Valley Forge, Saratoga and Yorktown. "They were part of the patriots' dream," he said.
Marsh said that it still is necessary sometimes to "go into the trenches for freedom. Our history shows that when these times have come, the black soldier has said, 'Here I am. Send me.' "