Soldiering on 

His office smells like horse manure. But James Buchanan doesn't mind at all.

He's standing behind his small desk on a sweltering July afternoon, putting on a heavy wool uniform worn by soldiers long ago.

Buchanan is in charge here at the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Center, which lies at the edge of Rouge Park, on the city's western border. 

The stink comes from the horses down the hall, in stables that are separated from his office by only a little door. This place belonged to the Detroit Mounted Police until the storied unit was shut down for a while five years ago, and this spot was closed for good.

The cops left behind an ancient red-brick building, some old wood stables and an abandoned plot of land where Buchanan and a few friends would bring their horses and ride around.  

"And every time, before we'd even get the horses off the trailer, kids would come by to see them," Buchanan says. 

So he hatched an idea, contacted city officials, and was given permission to put horses back in the barn, corral the yard with a white picket fence, and give city kids a rare chance to see and ride horses and ponies.

As he pulls on the layers of his uniform in the July heat, families sit outside on a picnic table in the shade of an overhanging tree, waiting for a ride on an animal many out here have never seen in person. 

And when he steps outside, Buchanan hopes that maybe one of them will notice the old uniform, or see the small displays just outside his office, the ones with faded photos of black soldiers long ago, and ask him to explain the story behind them, to find out what inspires a man to dress in a thick wool costume on a hot summer day.

Years ago, Buchanan was riding horses in Canada, the closest place someone from Detroit could do that back then, when a fellow rider told him about the Buffalo Soldiers. 

"When I was in school, I knew about Billy the Kid, Jesse James, the Dalton boys, but I never heard of someone by the name of Ben Hodges, who was a famous cowboy, and I didn't know about the Rufus Buck Gang, who were outlaws, but, over the years of studying about these young, courageous men, I found out there were other ethnicities out there that you don't have in our history books. So then I was captured by it."

The name Buffalo Soldiers originally referred to the four all-black army units formed in 1866, staffed with former slaves and soldiers who'd fought in the Civil War. Their name was reportedly given to them by the Cheyenne tribes they were sent out West to fight, and referred either to the troops' fierce fighting style or their curly hair, which the native fighters, it was said, thought resembled that of a buffalo. Either way, the troops took the name as a compliment.

Buchanan studied their history, found friends and fellow riders who shared his fascination, and formed a local chapter under the national Buffalo Soldiers Cavalry Association, dedicated to preserving the memory of the forgotten troops.

They slowly assembled expensive replica uniforms, the old-time horse saddles, the sabers and guns. They held meetings, gave lectures at schools and performed re-enactments at Greenfield Village. 

But their group had no home. So when the old horse stables became available to them three years ago, along with a lot of office space they didn't need, they put together a historical exhibit dedicated to their heroes and opened it to the public.

The exhibit's displays are small and few so far. A cabinet holds some historical items, such as pictures and documents. An old saddle rests on a stand, next to an easel holding a board featuring yellowed news articles. Trophies line a set of shelves, prizes from parades the group marched in over the years.

There are no official tours, other than when Buchanan shows horse riders around.

"People walk inside and look at the showcase and ask, 'What's going on?' and then that gives us the opportunity to talk about it," he says. 

The Buffalo Soldiers Calico Troops, as his group calls itself, is down to four members. Death and the economy have taken their toll. They've tried to recruit, but the uniforms are expensive, and, in tough times, few people have that kind of money for this kind of hobby. They've resorted to a slightly ghoulish solution, and give new members pre-worn costumes. "A lot of the guys who have passed away, we've been using their uniform to patch up," he says.

Those uniforms still grab the attention of the kids they speak to at city schools. Their interest, though, is often for the wrong reasons. 

"Of course, the first question they always ask is what kind of gun do you carry," Buchanan says, "and they can almost tell me as much about the weapon I have as I can. And we're speaking of grade school kids."

But when his group goes to a classroom, dressed in the blues and grays of the Buffalo Soldiers, all eyes are on them. And when Buchanan sings the Buffalo Soldiers anthem, his voice the lone sound hanging in the air, the students are fascinated.

"A lot of our young black kids, the only thing they know about our history is that we were slaves," he says. "And it's very demeaning to them. But we like to tell these kids that all black men was not slaves, that there were black cowboys and blacks in Congress in the 1880s, that there were famous young black men during those depressive times. And they did their job very well."

Buchanan fell
in love with horses the first time he saw them on his grandfather's tobacco farm in Tennessee. 

"I used to climb a fence, and the horse walked by and I'd grab it by the mane and jump on. That darn horse, it would actually take care of me, because I would start to slide off and it would stop and wait for me to adjust myself and he'd walk again."

He became infatuated. Didn't even have to be a real horse to capture his attention. "Mom used to take me to Kresge's and she made sure she had a couple dimes for that old pony you used to put the coins in," he says, laughing. "I had the horse bug at that point."

Kids from the city, he finds, are just as fascinated by horses today as he was at their age.

"Sometimes they're afraid because they're bigger than they thought, and there's other times they're gung-ho, just jumping up there. But usually the ones that's afraid, once they get up there, we have just as much trouble getting them off." Rides cost $4 for once around the fence, $6 to go twice. 

"This is the greatest thing ever," says Ranada Reid, 35, as her 3-year-old daughter, Madison, rides a horse around the corral, "'cause I wouldn't be able to afford to go get her lessons. She fantasizes about horses. We're in the middle of Detroit, so we don't see horses, but she sees them on TV."

James Mills, 70, saddles a horse nearby. "They understand what you're thinking," he says about his horse. He loves them as much as Buchanan does. "They trust you as much as you trust them."

Sometimes, as the day ends, when everyone leaves, he and Buchanan will saddle up and ride their horses around the woods and fields, looking much like their icons, who probably never dreamed that, a century later, some strangers would wear their uniforms and tell their story.

"The original soldiers did not get the proper respect that they were supposed to have or should have gotten," Buchanan says. "Better late than never."

Detroitblogger John scours Detroit for Metro Times. Send comments to

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