Black and Filipinx solidarity: Lessons from the Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines

Sandra Nomoto examines the experiences of all-Black regiments during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902 for an historical example of effective allyship.

Since George Floyd’s death and the flood of content about the movement for racial justice for Black people, I’ve dived head-first into articles, blogs, social media posts, movies, and courses about allyship.

What I didn’t expect to find was such a significant historical event that would forever change the way I saw Black Americans as allies for Filipinxs: the Philippine-American War.

Thanks to Bianca Mabute-Louie on Instagram, I learned about this event and a few key Black figures involved in this war. “Buffalo Soldiers” is a term originally given to Black soldiers by Native Americans in 1866, and refers to the all-Black regiments formed that year.
Courtesy of Bianca Mabute-Louie on Instagram.

The Philippines was a Spanish colony until the Spanish-American war of 1898. Filipinxs had welcomed the Americans’ help in their revolt against Spain, only to find themselves at war with those Americans, in what would later be the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902.

2,100 Black soldiers arrived in the Philippine Islands, followed by another 4,000. At this time, Jim Crow laws had enforced racial segregation in the American South. Black American soldiers were conflicted in their loyalty; prominent Black leaders spoke out against the war in the Philippines, stating that Filipinxs should be given the opportunity to govern themselves, at least until the United States made significant progress in its treatment of Black and Native Americans.

Buffalo Soldiers of the 25th Regiment in Ft. Keogh, Montana
Buffalo Soldiers from the 25th Infantry. Photo Credit: Library of Congress

White American soldiers held negative and racist attitudes toward the Filipinxs. The Black soldiers found themselves caught between their sense of duty and identity as American soldiers, and their compassion for the people of colour suffering from white supremacy, which also included Cubans.

Some nine or so soldiers, including David Fagen, deserted the battlefield altogether, while others were punished for expressing sympathy toward Filipinxs. After several clashes with his commanding officer, Lt. James Alfred Moss, Fagen deserted his camp to join the Filipinxs on November 17, 1899, earning the nickname “General Fagen.”

Around fifteen Buffalo Soldiers joined Fagen, who led ambushes and assaults against the American troops. He also married a Filipina woman. Retreating to the Pacific coast with a reward for his life, Filipino hunters killed him in December of 1901, though some believed he’d faked his death.

David Fagen sitting at a chair
David Fagen. Courtesy private collection of Anthony L. Powell.

The racist attitudes White Americans directed at Filipinxs, coupled with Black soldiers demonstrating their respect for Filipinxs and forming relationships with Filipina women, led to some 1,000 Black soldiers staying in the Philippines after the war was over.

Despite the strong kinship between Black soldiers and Filipinxs, the Philippine-American War came at the enormous cost of over 250,000 Filipinx lives. Disapproving of the relationships that developed between Black and Filipinx people, U.S. President William Taft—then also the Governor-General of the Philippines—had most of the Black soldiers in the Philippines return to the U.S. in 1902.

What we can learn from the Buffalo Soldiers during the Philippine-American War

Learning about the Buffalo Soldiers in this period of history reminds me about how we can have more in common with people of other ethnicities, besides just skin colour.

Just as David Fagen enjoyed music, drinking, and playing stud poker with the locals, and saw who the real oppressors were during the war, Black people showed that they were more than just soldiers; they were people who wanted good lives for themselves. I think that’s what we all want too.

As wars continue to break out around the world, at home, we’re still fighting against a prejudiced history that subsequently erases the humanity of certain peoples. The Buffalo Soldiers transformed from enemy to ally of Filipinxs, and although this was one of the most significant examples of allyship, it wouldn’t be the last.

The USA granted independence to the Philippines on July 4, 1946, 44 years after the end of the Philippine-American War. Many Filipinx activists today recognize the importance of standing by Black people, because if it wasn’t for the Buffalo Soldiers, we may not have known what allyship looked like.

In David Fagen’s newspaper obituary, the editor called Fagen a “traitor, [who] died a traitor’s death.” Perhaps that was true, but today, in countries like Canada and the USA where most of us are settlers on unceded land, we can no longer confine alliances within country borders. I believe that we all have an obligation to actively oppose the injustice imposed on oppressed peoples globally.

Fagen’s obituary continues: “. . . but he was a man, no doubt, prompted by motives to help a weaker side, and one to which he felt allied by ties that bind . . . He saw, it may be, the weak and the strong; he chose, and the world knows the rest.”

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