Black History Matters: Black Soldiers in the Filipino-American War

Tinig Migrante


American soldiers fired the first shots that started the Filipino-American War on February 6, 1899 which ranged for more than three years. This war has been described as America’s “first Vietnam War” because of the atrocities against the Filipino civilian population (e.g. strategic hamlets, massacres, “water cure”, killings of civilians, including children) and because of the American occupation and “pacification” campaign to crush the Filipino revolutionary fighters who had launched the first war of national liberation in this part of the world.

American troops were sent to the Philippines at the turn of the 20th century to stop the Philippine revolutionary forces and secure America’s foothold in the region. In the Revolution of 1896, brave Filipino men and women ended 300 years of Spanish rule and proclaimed the First Philippine Republic. Imperialist United States did not like this at all.  Thousands of American soldiers were shipped to the Philippines and among them were some 7,000 African-American soldiers in all-Black regiments, segregated from the white soldiers.  

In an article exclusive to Bicol Mail in 2013, Alex Umali wrote about the Black American soldiers called the “Buffalo Soldiers” because, according to Umali, “apart from their dark color, they were noted for their stamina and their resilience to malaria and dysentery.”  Umali credits this unknown piece of history from Law Professor Gill Boehringer who had gone through the records of the US Army, from researcher and writer Rene G. Ontal and from the African-American historian Anthony Powell.

Troop C, 9th Cavalry, at Camp Lawton, Washington, before being sent to the Philippines in 1900. T. Preiser, Special Collection, Suzzallo Library, University of Washington

Two of these Buffalo soldiers were Lewis Russell and Edmund Du Bose of the 9th and 10th Cavalries; they were descendants of slaves and it is not hard to imagine what they felt or what they thought when they saw the less than humane treatment of the Filipinos by the American forces. They must have heard the white officers and soldiers use the word “nigger” to refer to the Filipinos. Or they must read pamphlets addressed “To the Colored American Soldier” which called for them to join their fellow oppressed “coloreds”, i.e. the Filipinos. They surely saw a determined people and army bent on defending their revolution and independence against America. At any rate, Russell and Du Bose defected to the Filipino revolutionary forces in Albay and were later joined by John Dalrymple, Fred Hunter, Garth Shores, and William Victor, fellow Black soldiers from the 9th Cavalry. 

There is also David Fagen who defected to the Filipino revolutionary forces under the command of General Urbano Lacuna in Central Luzon and fought against the soldiers of the US Army. Rene G. Ontal wrote that Fagen inspired far more than 20 other black defectors, and 12 of them joined Fagen in active service on the Filipino side. 

The Buffalo Soldier defectors followed their conscience and principles and in the spirit of solidarity, committed themselves to fighting with the revolutionary forces against imperial United States. They chose to go with the army fighting a just war instead of staying with the occupying army.

Russell and Lewis were caught and were hanged before a crowd of three thousand at the public plaza in Guinobatan, Albay on Feb 7th, 1902. Shores and Victor were sent back to Fort Leavensworth, Kansas to serve their life term imprisonments, Darlymple was reported to have died of fever while in the mountains of Albay with the Filipino guerillas, and Hunter was “killed while escaping custody”. Fagen was reported to have been killed and beheaded by a local hunter but the $600 bounty on Fagen was never awarded.

As we mark Black History Month this February in Canada, we must remember the Black Soldiers in our Filipino people’s history who opposed America’s pacification war in the Philippines and took the side of the Filipinos and fought alongside them. Umali described the Black comrades as “descendants of slaves, [who] discarded their blue uniforms and shed their blood on the black volcanic soil of Albay.”

Solidarity, internationalism is a better word maybe, describes the action of the Black soldiers in defecting and joining the Filipinos in their struggle against imperialist United States.

A marker for the Black soldiers who adopted the Filipino revolution as their own and who fought alongside their Filipino comrades is not a bad idea.

Let’s build that marker in Albay!


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