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Have you heard of Cathay Williams? The woman who dared to become a Buffalo Soldier

Crysta Henthorne
KCUR 89.3

In 1866, Cathay Williams, a newly freed Black woman from Independence, Missouri, made a historic decision: She switched her name to William Cathay, disguising herself as a man so she could become a legendary Buffalo Soldier.

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Cathay Williams was a trailblazer, who confronted racial and gender discrimination during the Reconstruction Era, the era after the Civil War when social inequities were being readdressed across the United States.

“If a woman is a slave and goes to being a soldier, that is one of the longest journeys in American history,” says storyteller George Pettigrew of the Alexander/Madison Chapter of the Kansas City Buffalo Soldiers.

But Cathay Williams’ legacy as an African American veteran and pioneer for women in the military hasn’t always been acknowledged.

Cathay Williams’ journey

Born in 1844, Cathay Williams grew up in Independence, Missouri. Her father was a freeman, and her mother was enslaved. After the Civil War broke out, she was sold by the owner of the farm where she had been enslaved and forced to cook and travel with the Union troops throughout the rest of the war.

During that time she learned how to care for the sick and wounded, about the hardships of war, and how to be around other soldiers.

Eventually, she ended up at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, Missouri.

“I think she had a vision of what freedom might be like. Even though she had never known freedom,” says Donna Madison, who presents Cathay Williams’ story for the Alexander/Madison chapter.

021721_CaptureMeIfYouCan_Donna Madison as Cathay Williams.jpg
c/o Capture Me If You Can Photography
Alexander/Madison Chapter of KC Buffalo Soldiers
Donna Madison is a storyteller for the Alexander/Madison Chapter of KC Buffalo Soldiers. She presents Cathay Williams' story for different educational events, keeping her memory alive.

Madison says it was a time when the nation was coming to terms with this new post war reality, a United States without slavery.

“Well, everybody who was a slave that was free, everybody’s running around looking for a job. And you had not only Black folks looking for a job, you had white folks looking for a job,” says Madison.

So Cathay Williams made a historic decision. It was illegal for women to join the service, but she changed her name, disguised her identity, and enlisted.

Congress had just passed an Act meant to establish the peacetime military. It created six units of Black soldiers to be sent out west to protect the western frontier. This was the first time African Americans could serve for the United States military in peacetime, and it was the beginning of the Buffalo Soldiers.

Cathay Williams said in an interview given to the St. Louis Daily Times in 1876, “Only two persons, a cousin and a particular friend, members of the regiment, knew that I was a woman. They never blowed on me. They were partly the cause of my joining the army. Another reason was I wanted to make my own living and not be dependent on relations or friends.”

The legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers

Storyteller George Pettigrew says there is a long often untold history of African Americans fighting outside and inside of the military to shape this country. And it’s a story that needs to be told.

African Americans have fought in every single war involving the United States.

Pettigrew, a descendant of one of the original Buffalo Soldiers and a Navy veteran says these new units formed in 1866 after the Civil War weren’t originally called Buffalo Soldiers. They were just all Black units.

“Black soldiers had several nicknames,” says Pettigrew. “And they weren’t meant in a complimentary way.”

Historians still debate the exact origins of the name Buffalo Soldier, whether it was a term used to describe the soldier’s physical characteristics or meant to infer strength.

To Pettigrew, when he looks at what the buffalo meant to the Plains peoples, and the history of how soldiers fought in the west, he thinks it was the latter.

“Once a buffalo is wounded, then it becomes even more dangerous,” says Pettigrew. “It will not shy away, and you’re not going to cower it down. Well that’s a characteristic that Black soldiers showed as well. ”

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Capture Me If You Can Photography
Alexander/Madison Chapter of the KC Buffalo Soldiers
The Alexander/Madison Chapter of the KC Buffalo Soldiers tells the stories of Buffalo soldiers who have shaped American history.

Pettigrew says the Black soldiers fought with strength and dignity often while facing discrimination from the settlers they were sent to protect. And they took this opportunity in the service to learn to read and write. Buffalo Soldiers had the lowest rate of alcoholism and desertion.

And Cathay Williams was among them.

“My great grandfather, Isaac Johnson, was a private. He was in Jefferson Barracks at the same time Cathay was. But I doubt he knew Cathy was a woman, because first your mindset was there weren’t any women in uniform. You didn’t expect to see one,” says Pettigrew.

The military remained segregated by gender and race until 1948 when President Truman signed acts for integration which makes Cathay Williams’ service as a female Buffalo Soldier 80 years before from 1866-1868, unprecedented.

“This woman should be considered a patriot,” says Pettigrew.

Cathay Williams spent two years in the infantry, serving under harsh conditions in hostile territory. But eventually it took a toll on her health and her true identity was discovered and she was discharged.

Williams eventually ended up in Trinidad, Colorado. She was sick and walking with crutches after she had lost her toes. She tried to file for her military pension but was denied. Eventually she passed away between 1892-1900.

Nobody knows where exactly she’s buried. But her memory lives on at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas.

A patriot remembered

“We didn’t want her story not to be told,” says Edna Wagner, Executive Director at the Cultural Center.

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Suzanne Hogan
KCUR 89.3
A sculpture of Cathay Williams honoring her legacy is at the Richard Allen Cultural Center in Leavenworth, Kansas.

A sculpture of Cathay Williams made by artist Eddie Dixon was not included in the Circle of Firsts monument at Fort Leavenworth which honors African American pioneers in the military.

So Wagner says they made a place to honor Cathay Williams at the cultural center. Her bust is displayed proudly outside on the museum lawn, surrounded by roses.

“Hopefully, we’ll hear one day that announcement come out that says, 'Hey, she’s been exonerated.' She is not considered a person who lied to the military,” says Wagner. “But wanted to come in and do the right things that she felt was going to help her have a better life as well.”

Until then, Wagner says it’s important to keep telling Cathay Williams’ story because it’s the story of a strong woman who took risks and paved the path forward for others.

Every part of the present has been shaped by actions that took place in the past, but too often that context is left out. As a podcast producer for KCUR Studios and host of the podcast A People’s History of Kansas City, I aim to provide context, clarity, empathy and deeper, nuanced perspectives on how the events and people in the past have shaped our community today. In that role, and as an occasional announcer and reporter, I want to entertain, inform, make you think, expose something new and cultivate a deeper shared human connection about how the passage of time affects us all. Reach me at hogansm@kcur.org.
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