TPWD Employee Recalls Lost History with ‘Buffalo Soldiers’ – Lake Mohave
AUSTIN, Texas – The gray warehouse is easily overlooked in between the industrial buildings just outside of downtown Austin. Only a tiny Texas Parks and Wildlife Department seal on the glass door hints at the library of artifacts inside.
Step inside, and you may relearn history.
“Up until 1990, I didn’t know anything about Buffalo Soldiers,” said Ken Pollard, TPWD outreach coordinator. “A lot of black history focused on slavery, picking cotton, slaughtering hogs. When you hear about the Buffalo Soldiers, a lot of folks get excited. It’s a new story, and it’s an uplifting story.”
With work from volunteers and re-enactors like Pollard, Texans are remembering the African American regiments that helped shape the Texas frontier following the Civil War. American Indians reportedly dubbed these troops “Buffalo Soldiers” in reference to the resemblance of their curly hair to the hair of the buffalo, the sacred mane and their fighting spirit.
The Buffalo Soldiers’ living history program travels across Texas each year to historic fort sites, rodeos and schools. The educational mission has expanded beyond the Buffalo Soldiers story since TPWD started the program. Texas youth learn about their diverse history, from the all-black regiments, the life of hard-working frontier women, the American Indians and Mexicans in Texas and how the land impacted the people.
Now, the story of the military that helped shape Texas is becoming better known. The 76th Legislature designated July “Texas Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Month.” Since its inception 12 years ago, the program has reached more than 1 million Texans. It wouldn’t have been possible without the hours of work from more than 50 organizations, 600 volunteers, and a small but dedicated TPWD team led by Pollard.
Tucked back behind Buffalo Soldier memorabilia and artifacts, Pollard’s office is easy to find, with country music straining from a radio and the posters, thank-you letters and certificates of appreciation from schools. Visitors will probably find Pollard talking on the phone to a principal or teacher, or scanning the bursting schedule of events he’s planning for the upcoming year.
As he talks about the history of Texas, it’s hard to imagine Pollard only found out about Buffalo Soldiers and other frontier residents a little more than a decade ago. It’s the latest stop in his nearly 25-year career with TPWD.
Growing up in Lampasas in the 60s, Pollard watched animal shows like Flipper and Sea Hunt and Mutual of Omaha’s Wild Kingdom. He wanted to be a park ranger, but didn’t know there were any in Texas.
“If you did go to a park, you had a black section, and a white section,” he says. His family never really visited state parks. When he was a cadet with the Waco Police Department, however, he learned about the TPWD game warden academy and applied. He says the management was eager to hire him as the first African American game warden in Texas, but there was just one problem with the prospective graduation date: his 21st birthday. “I still wouldn’t have been able to carry a gun for a couple of months,” he says.
Instead of going into law enforcement, he came to the parks division to become the ranger he dreamed of being as a kid. After a few years at Lake Whitney and Mother Neff state parks, he left to complete his degree in Industrial Maintenance at Texas State Technical Institute.
In the 80s, Pollard had the distinction of becoming the first African American regional supervisor for the TPWD state parks division. It was Pollard’s post as maintenance supervisor in Abilene that would lead him to the Buffalo Soldiers. He met with the “Soldiers in Blue Committee,” a volunteer group in Abilene dedicated to retelling the story of Buffalo Soldiers.
They started with nine uniforms of blue wool. Now the props and supplies to take children on camping trips or exploring reconstructed soldier campsites fill up a warehouse.
On a cold day between phone calls and packing for an upcoming event, Pollard walks around a room as big as a school gymnasium, pointing out camping gear, buffalo hides, cowhides, period costumes and more. He pulls a doll from a chest; the top is white fabric with a simple dress attached. He flips the skirt inside out to reveal a different pattern of fabric — the bottom becomes another doll.
“You’d love to get this for Christmas because you’d be getting two for one,” he says. Toys, dresses, musical instruments and even a row of stuffed wild animals fill the warehouse. The Buffalo Soldier program tries to be as authentic as possible, down to the surrounding snakes or raccoons.
“The military was camped out, just like you’d go camping today,” Pollard says. “You’d have these critters around you.” At reenactments and shows, the Buffalo Soldiers set out native Texas wildlife either bought independently or borrowed from area game wardens. The animals, confiscated from poachers, become educational exhibits for children.
“Just seeing an armadillo on his legs rather than legs up, that’s unique,” Pollard says. “The kids see a lot of these things on the Discovery Channel, but what opportunity do they have to see them up close? When we’re saying living history, it becomes that.”
Authenticity extends to the food as well. “We’d look pretty funny in an 1800s-period uniform with a McDonald’s hamburger,” Pollard says. With Dutch ovens and campfires the re-enactors cook dishes of cultural or regional value like egg rolls, menudo, steak, deer and frog legs.
Pollard and others have worked hard to create the strong program today. Because of recognition from the Legislature, he knows the Buffalo Soldiers will be a permanent fixture. “After we’re gone, it will live on,” he says.
But that doesn’t mean he’s ready to call it a day yet – there’s still a lot of forgotten Texas history to be remembered. “I’m still having fun — I’m in no rush.”
Following are some upcoming events for the Buffalo Soldiers program.
All throughout February, visitors can learn more about the Texas Buffalo Soldiers through Black History Month programs at the following venues: the Red River Valley Museum in Vernon; the National Cowboys of Color museum in Fort Worth; and Fort McKavett State Historic Site. Call the local site staff for dates and details.
Feb. 28, the Bob Bullock State History Museum will host Ken Pollard with the Buffalo Soldiers in a historical talk in conjunction with the new Texas Flags exhibit. From 1-3 p.m., visitors can learn about the Civil War, African American regiments and life aboard the Battleship Texas during World War II. At 2 p.m., Pollard will read from Clinton Cox’s book, The Forgotten Heroes: the Story of the Buffalo Soldiers.
March 26–27, students and visitors to Fort McKavett State Historic Site’s West Texas Heritage Day will be able to watch re-enactments including period baseball, cannon firings and cavalry drills. – Lake Mohave