Tacoma’s Buffalo Soldiers Museum Packs Big History into a Small Space

Tacoma’s Buffalo Soldiers Museum Packs Big History into a Small Space

March 12, 2018 0 By Jeff Suwak

The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum stirred up a lot of emotions as I walked among its exhibits. There was admiration, fascination, sympathy, and a bit of anger—sometimes a lot of anger. As a veteran who knows how difficult military service can be, it bothered me to learn about how the African Americans dubbed “Buffalo Soldiers” were frequently disrespected even as they fought for their nation. It’s an aspect of their history that can’t be ignored by any person with a sense of honesty or justice, and I would be remiss in leaving it out, but I also don’t want that to become the central point of this piece. The courage and service of the Buffalo Soldiers are the important things to focus on here. Those men should be celebrated—they earned it.

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The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum is located at 1940 South Wilkeson Street, just off 19th. There’s a small sign at the street corner marking the turn. There’s a donation box at the door, but entry is free, and there’s plenty of street-side parking right out in front of the building.

The story behind the museum started long before it opened up in 2012. Many years before that, William Jones had served as a Buffalo Solider in the Korean War and had been a prisoner of war. After he was freed and returned home, he never spoke much about his experience beyond making it known that he wanted to have the Buffalo Soldiers preserved historically after he died. When Jones passed away in 2009, his daughter Jackie took it upon herself to make that dream a reality. She accomplished this, and today the museum stands as one of only two of its kind in the country.

Jackie Jones-Hook is a sharp woman with a commanding presence and a big smile. She’s friendly, but she also gives the definitive impression of the sort of person who can get museums made. She told me her father spoke little of the war, and most of what she knew of his experience came from her mother. Jones-Hook herself didn’t serve in the military, largely because she was a product of the ’60s and grew up with that era’s countercultural sensibilities. Still, the sincerity of her respect for military service and sacrifice is obvious. She displays that increasingly rare ability to see multiple sides of an issue at once without becoming so emotionally entrenched in any side that she loses sight of the bigger picture. Speaking with her enhanced my own experience of the museum. Basically, she’s an impressive person worth talking to.

Numerous stories exist regarding the origin of the term “Buffalo Soldier.” Some claim it came from Cheyenne warriors, while others say it was Comanche. The name itself is said to come from either the perceived similarity between the hair of the black soldiers and bison or the buffalo-like toughness the soldiers displayed in battle. Still other sources, such as John P. Langellier’s Fighting for Uncle Sam: Buffalo Soldiers in the Frontier Army, cast doubt on both of those claims. Whatever the precise origin, the term was widely in use by the 1870s and came to be an indicator for Army units whose lineage went back to the 9th and 10th Cavalry units.

The history of African American military units is rich, fascinating, inspiring, and very complicated—too complicated for the purposes of this piece, in fact. But for those who want to learn more, the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum is a terrific resource to have. It’s a secret little Grit City gem tucked away just off the road to Fred Meyer. There, visitors will find all kinds of memorabilia and exhibits, from warfighting gear to photographs of the great Joe Louis, rations, uniforms, and books. The little museum’s got a lot of big history packed into it.

The museum’s open on Wednesdays and Saturdays. August 10, 2018, their putting together a golf tournament. On September 3 they’re having a Labor Day celebration, and November 16th will be a military veteran’s appreciation day complete with an Air Force versus Army softball game. Knowing the rivalry between the two branches of service, I can only imagine it will be a fun knock-down-drag-out affair. The event will be celebrating veterans of all wars, but will also highlight the 100th anniversary of the creation of the Harlem Hellfighters of World War I and II.

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The 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Buffalo Soldiers Museum is a great historical resource that is well worth visiting. It brings to life an aspect of American military history that is often overlooked. Interestingly, Jones-Hook said that, in her experience, people from the east coast have heard of the Buffalo Soldiers much more often than people from the west. Whatever the reason for that, the museum’s there as a remedy. For my money, it’s definitely worth the visit.