By Quentin Choy
May 31, 2021
In honor of Memorial Day, I’ll look at the lives of African-Americans who served in the Spanish-American War of 1898 and the Philippine-American War in 1899, both of which are often forgotten in the American memory but were pivotal in the U.S. emergence as a global superpower. The U.S. acquired Cuba after liberating the country from Spain whose empire was in decline and taking Cuba rather than fully freeing it to independent nationhood. Following the loss of the Philippines by the Spanish empire, the United States sent soldiers to the Philippines to but down independence-minded rebels and transformed the Philippines into a U.S. commonwealth.
The 1890s was a period of rapid expansion for the United States as a rising power as this was a time of direct imperialism and foreign intervention in nations such as Cuba, Samoa, the Philippines, and Hawai’i during the Spanish-American War. The American government under President William McKinley viewed the wars as the civilizing of the savage world, especially in the Philippines.
While not as prominent as the voices of whites during the time, African-Americans had a multitude of different voices and opinions regarding the dawn of U.S. empire and imperialism. The voices would be crucial in that they were the first instance of African-Americans voicing their opinions in regards to U.S. foreign policy in the years following the Civil War and would inspire more African-American voices to resound within the future foreign policy community.
The Buffalo Soldiers held a unique perspective on the war in that they viewed their participation in the Spanish-American War as an honorable opportunity to gain status while fighting for the United States. While not direct supporters of empire and of the war itself, the Buffalo Soldiers hoped that the unifying equality they gained within the military would eventually translate to equality for African-Americans within greater American society.
John Waller served as the Captain of Company C of 23rd Kansas Volunteer Infantry. During his life, Waller also served as the Consul to Madagascar. When sent to Cuba, Waller was astounded by the beauty of the island nation while simultaneously appalled by the conditions in which Spain had left Cuba. “I think God has made no more beautiful country than on which we are camped,” wrote Waller upon seeing “the most fertile land interspersed with rivers and creeks of running water.”
In Waller’s letter from September 1898, the reader can see the pride and honor he felt in being in Cuba on behalf of the United States. Waller describes the beauty of Cuba, the bravery of the Rough Riders at the nearby San Juan Hill as well as mentioning what he calls “a year’s touch of American hand and civilization” brought to Cuba. Waller’s romanticized and patriotic perspective of the U.S. intervention in Cuba can be assessed in the portion of his letter where he says that “we found the condition of the natives very greatly changed for the better by the help of the Americans. Hundreds and thousands of Cubans who were driven to the mountains and forests three years ago by the Spanish are returning to their former homes since the arrival of the American troops.” Waller’s words show the pride that many Buffalo Soldiers felt serving the United States abroad and the genuine belief that some held in that they were assisting in the liberation and civilization of people around the world.
Chaplain George W. Prioleau served with the 9th Cavalry during the Spanish-American War. Prioleau served as a former minister after graduating from the Theological School of Wilberforce University in 1884. After graduating, Prioleau pastored churches in Xenia, Ohio. While he was supportive of African-Americans fighting the war as an obligation of citizenship, Prioleau also believed that the U.S. was hypocritical, asking “Is America any better than Spain? Has she not subjects in her midst who are murdered daily without trial?” in a reference to lynchings.
“Has she not subjects in her own borders whose children are half-fed and half-clothed, because their father’s skin is black…yet the Negro is loyal to his country’s flag.” While states such as Mississippi, Georgia, and New York refused to accept black volunteers who wanted to fight in the war, African-Americans wanted to fight on behalf of the U.S. to prove their patriotism, and they also wanted every black unit to be led by black officers. While he acknowledges the hypocrisy of the U.S. and their treatment of blacks within their borders, he also viewed it as an honor for African-Americans to be able to fight on behalf of their nation, saying that “the American Negro is always ready and willing to take up arms, to fight and to lay down his life in defense of his country’s flag and honor,” (Gatewood 27).
Charles A. Young was one of the most prestigious African-Americans to fight in the Spanish-American War, and his life was one of excellence and achievement. Young ultimately demonstrated that status could be gained for African-Americans through the military, which was one of the primary reasons that he supported African-Americans fighting wars on behalf of the U.S. despite the racism they would inevitably face. As a graduate from West Point Military Academy, Young had a legendary military career ahead of him.
During training in Camp Alger, Virginia, Young faced one of his most prominent instances of overt racism in the military. Because of Young’s skin color, one of the Southern recruits refused to salute Young although Young was the recruit’s superior, with the recruit saying he would never salute a “damn n*gger.” The recruit did however salute Young’s coat when set upon a chair.
Despite these setbacks however, Charles Young persisted, eventually rising to the rank of Captain and leading his men in the Philippines in February 1901. There he fought against insurgents on Samar Island and other Filipino regions. Not all of his men approved of Young’s leadership however, with one of his men, Taliaferro Miles Dewey writing in a letter that “if there is anything for which “dynamite” (Maj. Charles Young) should be commended it is his vigilance over the food that is given his men. When a man fails to get enough to eat all he has to do is to report the fact to the major and he will see that the soldier gets enough.”
Later on in the letter, Dewey writes that he believed that Young cared more about being promoted to Captain over the safety and well-being of his own men. Winslow Hobson of the 9th Ohio Battalion wrote that Young was the “king” and that “the major does not try as hard to please his colored visitors as he does the whites. We hope our friends will help us out of this.” After his military career, Young became the first African-American superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks. He would also be assigned as military attache in Haiti and Liberia.
In 1916, Young was awarded the Spingarn Medal by the NAACP for his lifetime achievements, and following his death in Nigeria, his body was returned to the U.S. where he was honored for his service with a full military funeral, public street proceeding, and burial at the Arlington National Cemetery, one of the first instances of an African-American soldier receiving this type of honor. Young’s life demonstrated the honor that African-Americans aspired to attain in society by climbing the social ranks of the U.S. military, thereby demonstrating their loyalty and love of country.
During the dawn of Jim Crow, many African-Afmericans wondered why they should be the ones responsible for taking up the “white man’s burden” around the world, particularly in the Philippines where they would actively play a role in assisting the oppression of their brown and colored cousins.
One of those African-Americans was David Fagen, a child of slaves who became a Buffalo Soldier that served in the Philippines. He would later become a man of mythical proportions and a household name for African-Americans at home with his most controversial decision during his time in the Philippines Campaign being his defection from the 24th Regiment of the U.S. army on November 17, 1899 to join the Filipino guerilla revolutionaries. Fagen defected due to the racism he faced in his regiment as well as the realization that he was assisting white Americans oppress the Filipinos even though white Americans were the same group oppressing his people at home. Fagen was well-liked by the Filipinos, and he was something of a legend to the Filipinos who called him “General Fagen.”
He led several raids against the U.S. army including the capture of a steam launch on the Pampanga River, vanishing into the dense jungles after looting the ship of its guns. Angered by his defection and attacks, a bounty of $600 was placed on Fagen’s head. While a bounty hunter revealed the head of a black man to authorities, it cannot be confirmed whether the head truly was Fagen’s, and no official records show a reward being given to the bounty hunter.
Fagen’s legacy ultimately represents that of someone who originally supported fighting on behalf of the U.S. until he realized what he was truly responsible for doing. A very unique example of ideology during this era, Fagen demonstrates an individual who could no longer go along with U.S. expansion and imperialism after seeing its atrocities, so much so that he was willing to switch sides in the conflict and have his name be dishonored for all of history.
The voices and opinions of African-Americans during this pivotal era of becoming a rising power and fledgling U.S. empire were crucial in that the Spanish-American War was one of the first major instances where African-Americans voiced their opinions regarding foreign policy and the direction of the United States as a nation following emancipation and the American Civil War. The voices of these 1890s African-Americans would give voice to future African-Americans in regard to speaking out both for and against U.S. involvement in events such as World War II, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, involvement in the Arab Spring, and intervention in the Syrian Civil War.
While mostly non-interventionist in rhetoric, the African-Americans who played a role in shaping public opinion regarding the Spanish-American War, one of America’s most influential foreign policy decisions, would inspire future African-Americans in the foreign policy community such as General Benjamin O. Davis Jr (Commander of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II), Condoleezza Rice (National Security Advisor and 66th Secretary of State under the Bush Administration), Colin Powell (Military General, Chair of Joint Chiefs of Staff, National Security Advisor, and 65th Secretary of State under the Bush Administration), as well as Barack Obama (former U..S. Senator and 44th U.S. President).
Much thanks to these African-Americans who used their voices to amplify the political voice of the African-American community.
Image Courtesy of Tattler Philippines.