With a bald eagle circling overhead, Lakeland dignitaries, the artist, and historians unveiled a monument dedicated to the soldiers stationed in Lakeland in 1898 as they readied for the Spanish-American War in Cuba, including the famed U.S. Army 10th Cavalry — an all-black regiment called the Buffalo Soldiers.

Retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gary Clark began the ceremony by noting this is the 22nd year that veterans have gathered to honor Polk County’s veterans, which now numbers about 60,000. Veterans Memorial Park, between the RP Funding Center and Lake Beulah, contains monuments to service members who served in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the War on Terror.

“The one piece missing was a Spanish-American War, of which the city of Lakeland and Polk County played a significant role at that time,” Clark said.

A bagpiper then played as multiple Jr. ROTC units from various area high schools stood at attention and Buffalo Soldier re-enactors rode their horses behind the still-covered monument to present the American flag. Janiya McCallister sang the National Anthem and two Children of the American Revolution, Mahlon Sale and Ben Madden, said the Pledge of Allegiance.

Mayor Bill Mutz said he had two words in his heart that morning: honor and bridge.

“This entire park is such an honor to people who have risked their lives to protect our freedoms that we take so readily for granted,” Mutz said.

He added that the memorial also created an historic bridge to the thriving Black community that once stood where Veterans Memorial Park is.  Moorehead was taken by eminent domain in the late 1960s and early 1970s to make way for what was then called The Lakeland Center.

“This memorial, Lakeland-based, is a bridge, a bridge to the old Moorehead community in which we have this park. This is an opportunity to take Buffalo Soldiers, who served in the Spanish-American War and were based here for a short period, and tie it to the missing … monument that’s here,” Mutz said. “So this to me, this is a deeply wonderful opportunity for us to recognize not only the celebration of veterans who have given their lives, but the bridging within our community of what has been missing links that get pulled together.”

The project was an initiative of Platform Art, a local non-profit dedicated to increasing public art in Lakeland.

Retired Marine colonel and former City Commissioner Don Selvage said the idea for the monument grew out of a proposal to relocate the Buffalo Soldiers plaque from the north shore of Lake Wire, where the men had camped, to the property adjacent to Lawton Chiles Middle School.

“The idea gained support and grew into a collaborative project culminating in today’s dedication of the unveiling of this monument,” Selvage said.

Selvage credited Richard Wilder, longtime president of the Florida chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers, for becoming the inspirational leader of the monument initiative and a tireless advocate of telling the story of the Buffalo Soldiers, particularly to students, noting that so much of, not only black history, but so much of our history itself is left out of our schools and he has tried to fix that.

He added that Wilder is a U.S. Army veteran with Vietnam War service and an avid horseman who has used equestrian therapy with veterans suffering with PTSD. He also takes students camping, fishing and has them work with horses.

“And if you look at the images on the base of this monument behind me that we are about to unveil, there is a Buffalo Soldier who looks remarkably like Richard  Wilder — a distinctive and deserving tribute,” Selvage said.

Selvage then quoted American philosopher George Satayana’s statement: “ ‘Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.’ But I believe American historian Howard Zinn’s quote is just as profound. ‘If you don’t know history, it’s as if you were born yesterday. And if you were born yesterday, then any leader can tell you anything.’ ”

Richard Wilder, president of the Florida chapter of Buffalo Soldiers, bows his head at the conclusion of the unveiling ceremony of a monument to soldiers who fought in the Spanish-American War in 1898, including an all-Black regiment.

Wilder spoke, noting that when Congress passed legislation on July 28, 1866, allowing Black men to serve in the military during peacetime, it forever impacted the nation and its citizens.

“It’s with great honor to stand before this memorial today to honor the men who fought in the Spanish-American War, or the Cubans’ War for Independence, and to stand here this day to build this special tribute to the regular soldiers who became known as Buffalo Soldiers – Hurah!”

About two dozen members of the area’s Buffalo Soldiers’ Motorcycle Club shouted back in unison at Wilder.

Artist Becky Ault acknowledged the Polk County art teachers and students who helped design the bronze monument that stands about seven feet tall and is topped with a line of soldiers on horseback. On each side is historic information about all the troops who camped in Lakeland.

“You have excellent educators in your community — It’s a very strong educational community,” she said, praising Lake Region High School teachers Anfela Fout and Hunter Wampler, and their students Alexis Cameron, Sydney Parker, Natalya Negron and Angel Arenas; and Santa Fe High teachers Lula Peoples and Lucile Pfund, along with their studentds Emily Dang, Blaine Keller, Taylow Tidwell and Jacob Velez.  The students’ designs were chosen from more than 100 that were submitted to Ault for use on the monument.

“We weren’t sure that this was going to happen — it was a three-year mission,” Ault said, adding that she was introduced to Wilder, who then introduced her to Buffalo Soldier motorcycle clubs. “The enthusiasm for this memorial was so exciting that they made contact with Richard Wilder down here in Lakeland, and decided that they were going to escort this memorial through every single state all the way until we came here.”

Polk County historian and a veteran of the Army National Guard, William Lloyd Harris, spoke about the hardships the men endured, cutting back palmettos, sweating in the Florida heat while dressed in wool uniforms, and dodging snakes and alligators while several regiments camped on Lakeland’s various lake shores. Most of the regiments were here from mid-May through August. The Buffalo Soldiers were in Lakeland from mid-May to June 7, 1898, before being moved to Tampa and then Cuba.

Buffalo Soldier re-enactors rode horses during Saturday’s Veterans Day ceremony and parade. Credit: Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow

Harris noted that the Buffalo Soldiers were a part of Lt. Teddy Roosevelt’s charge up San Juan and Kettle Hills in Cuba and distinguished themselves with valor.

“Their original motto, ‘Ready and Forward,’ was not lost on the Cuban battlefields — no less than five declarations of the Medal of Honor were presented to men of the 10th Cavalry for valor above and beyond the call of duty,” Harris said.

And among their ranks in Lakeland was First Lt. John Pershing, who eventually rose to the rank of General of the Armies; the only other person to achieve that rank in American military history was Gen. George Washington.

Wilder, Mutz, Clark, and Ault then gently pulled a white cloak off of the monument to the applause of the audience.

Following the ceremony, the Junior ROTC units, the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club, Lakeland Police, the Polk County Sheriff’s Office and others participated in a parade that wound from Veterans Memorial Park along Lemon Street, over to Massachusetts Avenue and then west on Main Street to Munn Park.

In a nod to diplomacy, Harris did not mention an incident that took place in Lakeland in 1898 with the Buffalo Soldiers that made national news.

The soldiers, who had already fought with distinction against Native Americans out west were unaccustomed to the blatant racism in the South.

“In a town where blacks were expected to step aside on sidewalks to let whites pass, these men — who had faced death daily — demanded to be treated as equals,” former Ledger reporter Bill Rufty wrote in 1998.

On the evening of May 16, 1898, a small group of Black soldiers went to a downtown drug store to buy beer and sodas, but were turned away, contemporary reports state. Then three of the soldiers “made an attempt to get shaved in the best barber shop in town,” a writer for the Boston Daily Globe claimed.

“The proprietor turned them down, and they vented their spite by kicking in the barber shop window,” the Globe reported.

Trooper John Lewis wrote to his family in Illinois, as quoted by Joe Knetsch and Nick Wynne in “Florida in the Spanish-American War.” Lewis claimed Joab Collins (listed in various accounts as Abe Collins and Jacob Collins) was the barber in question. Lewis claimed Collins participated in the drug store altercation, yelling racial epithets at the soldiers.

Things became heated at the barber shop. Lewis claimed Collins went into the shop to get his guns, prompting the soldiers to fire. Other accounts say the enraged soldiers started firing their weapons into the air. In that scenario, Collins was reported as just an innocent bystander.

“Collins, T.F. Griffin and others, who were on the opposite side of the street, started across to see what the disturbance was about, when the (soldiers) opened fire,” M.F. Hetherington wrote in “A History of Polk County.” “One ball barely grazed Griffin, another killing Collins instantly.”

Hetherington wrote that two soldiers were arrested for the shooting and placed on trial in Bartow. One was released for lack of evidence, while the other was sent to prison. In the meantime, the remaining Buffalo Soldiers made their way that August to join the fighting in Cuba.

“Lakeland was relieved to see them go,” Hetherington wrote, though some returned to the area to live after the war and helped to build Lakeland into a thriving community.

Richard Wilder, left, Mayor Bill Mutz and retired U.S. Air Force Col. Gary Clark, along with artist Beck Ault, who is not seen, unveiled a monument to soldiers who were stationed in Lakeland for the Spanish-American War in 1898. Credit: Kimberly C. Moore | LkldNow

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Kimberly C. Moore

Kimberly C. Moore, who grew up in Lakeland, has been a print, broadcast and multimedia journalist for more than 30 years. Before coming to LkldNow in the spring of 2022, she was a reporter for four years with The Ledger, first covering Lakeland City Hall and then Polk County schools. She is the author of “Star Crossed: The Story of Astronaut Lisa Nowak," published by University Press of Florida. Reach her at kimberly@lkldnow.com or 863-272-9250.

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