At age 23 in 1966, I was a freshly minted US Army second lieutenant. I had completed the armor officer’s basic course at Fort Knox and qualified at Fort Hood with state-of-the-art tank weapons. When my first army exercises proved successful, I thought I was ready – really ready. I volunteered for assignment to any armored or cavalry unit serving in Vietnam.
Early in 1967, after administrative delays and travel to Saigon to Pleiku to Tuy Hoa, I, at last, took command of 1st Platoon, Troop A, 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry. Minutes after reporting for duty with the troop commander, before I even drew a weapon, the first sergeant, a white southerner, called me aside. “Sir, do you know the story of the 10th?”
“No, First Sergeant. I first heard of the 10th just days ago.”
I was about to learn that the army was more than weapons and tactics. When the first sergeant handed me mimeographed pages of homework, my army education began – again!
I had no idea that I had just assumed command in a one-hundred-one-year old cavalry unit and that the 10th was one of two all-black cavalry regiments authorized by Congress in 1866 – the Buffalo Soldiers!
But, wait. There’s more.
In 1877, the first black man to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point was assigned to Company A, 10th Cavalry. Lieutenant Henry O. Flipper, a former slave, served the 10th for five years. Though a “history buff,” I knew none of this – not in my high school or college books. All I knew was the famous 7th Cavalry from the movies.
By the time I was promoted to captain and in an airborne assignment, I had all but laid my cavalry heritage aside. During an army project with IBM, I was made an offer I couldn’t refuse; I left the army for a career in IT.
Decades passed before my interest in the Buffalo Soldiers was rekindled. A chance encounter at a shopping center with a retired sergeant brought back memories. The sergeant invited me to a meeting of retirees, including Brigadier General George Price. We formed the Baltimore Chapter of the 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association.
Before the Internet became a thing, one received sales flyers via snail mail. The noted artist-historian, Don Stivers, sent me a flyer announcing the release of his painting titled: “Proud to Serve.” In Don’s painting, a black soldier leads a saddled cavalry horse. Admiring the flyer, I said, to no one in particular, “Someone should write his story.” Across the room, my wife said, “Why don’t you write it?” Not realizing that she had heard me, my jaw dropped. Huh? Me? The chemistry major, turned soldier, turned IT guy?
For guidance, I enrolled in creative writing at the University of Maryland. Two lessons emerged that shaped First Dark. As expected, I learned basics of the craft. A learning bonus emerged when I presented a chapter to classmates. I was not ready for this challenge: “Your story is totally unrealistic. Everybody knows slaves can’t think. So, how could one be a blacksmith – much less plan an escape?”
Another jaw dropping experience…
Upon hearing that “revelation,” I scrapped my “Buffalo Soldier only story” idea. Instead, First Dark would begin during slavery – two years before the end of America’s Uncivil War and three years before the Buffalo Soldiers. To chip away at the ignorance that I thought existed in the population, as confirmed by my classmates, I added needed context of the times: enslaved life, the black codes, the violence of the Reconstruction era, and westward expansion. That meant including characters (non-fictional and fictional) who were Native American, Mexican, European American, and African American. It also meant interviews with their descendants who are now farmers, museum curators, librarians, professors, historians, authors, and business owners – plus, digesting many history books and hundreds of 19th century hand-written documents and personal letters.