Published: July 28, 2022
When reflecting on her childhood, Dr. Aundrea Matthews recalls time spent at the United States Military Academy, also known as West Point. She was raised outside its historic walls in the Village of Highland Falls, New York. Beyond being close to West Point, her grandfather, Sergeant (Ret.) Sanders Haygood Matthews, was a member of the academy’s esteemed Buffalo Soldiers.
“I got to spend the majority of my time on West Point hanging around them, listening to old stories,” she shares. “They always got together. They talked about horses, horses they liked, and who they trained and how many cadets. My grandfather used to say all the time, anything you can do standing up and walking, he can do on a horse. They loved horses. You grew up your whole time just talking about that experience.”
The History Behind the Buffalo Soldiers of West Point
Looking to replace their cavalry detachment, West Point–which had only graduated three Black cadets at the time–received the 9th Cavalry in 1907 and the 10th in 1931. These were two of the Army’s all-Black regiments, and part of what came to be known as the Buffalo Soldiers. Between 1931 and 1947, the detachments remained at West Point, providing cadets with riding instruction and mounted drill, and doing menial work on campus.
“They did all the work on the military base that the white soldiers did not want to do or they didn't feel that they needed to do,” Dr. Matthews says. “They stayed up, they did everything, but it was pride. They were at West Point, and they knew that if they held it down, became a stellar soldier, and showed their discipline and their craft that they would make headway for other soldiers, who were experiencing adversity, trials, and tribulations due to racism.”
Simply put, life as a Buffalo Soldier was far from easy. Dr. Matthews explains, “It was hard. Matter of fact, he would even say it was hell, but they achieved their mission, which was they were just as good, if not better, than any other white soldier. And that they had the honor that they were chosen to come to West Point because that meant they were the best of the best.”
On July 26th, 1948, President Harry Truman signed Executive Order 9981, banning racial segregation in the armed forces, slowly initiating the end of all-Black units. It is believed that SGT Matthews was one of the last Buffalo Soldiers to serve at West Point.
Leaving a Legacy
After retiring from the Army in 1962, SGT Matthews became the first African American police officer for Highland Falls, a big accomplishment in the heart of the civil rights movement.
“There's a reason why my grandfather was chosen to be the first African American police officer,” Dr. Matthews says. “The skills that he learned facing all that adversity—and still coming out with dignity and respect and treating people fairly—he attributes that to his experiences at West Point, seeing all people as people.”
Like many other Buffalo Soldiers, SGT Matthews stayed in the area after leaving service. They formed a growing community within the village on what Dr. Matthews refers to as “Snyder.”
“If you were an African American or person of color and you came to West Point, you probably came to Snyder Ave,” she shares. “[It] was phenomenal. My grandmother ran the first Black beauty shop in Highland Falls. So, our house was always bustling with cadets, their families, and military people. My grandfather was an excellent cook, and then also being a police officer, a lot of people liked him, appreciated him.”
Continuing a tradition that started during their time at the academy, SGT Matthews and the group of former Buffalo Soldiers would throw a large gathering every Labor Day. Some would travel great distances for the reunion for a chance to remain connected to their days of service. “All the families would descend back into Highland Falls for our Labor Day event,” Dr. Matthews recalls. “You got to meet everybody and they were close knit.” It would remain a tradition, even as the living number of Buffalo Soldiers decreased.
In 2008, with the help of several supporters, SGT Matthews formally established the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point. The association would go on to work on several educational endeavors still active today, as well as military and Veteran awareness campaigns. But SGT Matthews would become most famous for his efforts to bring a permanent memorial to West Point.
“My grandfather died at 95, and that's all he's ever dreamed about,” Dr. Matthews explains. “He wanted a statue.”
Making a Dream a Reality
The year that started it all, according to SGT Matthews’ granddaughter, was 1973 when he was present for the ribbon cutting of the academy’s newly dedicated Buffalo Soldier Field. A simple rock and plaque marked the spot, a small reflection of the contributions of hundreds of thousands of African American soldiers. “I guess you could probably say that really began what was to transform that rock into something comparable to the other statues on West Point,” Dr. Matthews claims. The dedication of another large Buffalo Soldier monument at Fort Leavenworth, by General (Ret.) Colin Powell in 1992, also served as inspiration.
SGT Matthews would work tirelessly for years advocating and fundraising to see the dream of a similar, grander statue at West Point come to fruition. Unfortunately, he would succumb to cancer before it became a reality.
”Right before he passed, he gave me the mission: I had one mission and one mission only, and that was to put [in] the monument,” Dr. Matthews says. She would take up the torch and run the Buffalo Soldiers Association of West Point, but she wouldn’t work alone.
“When he passed, everybody just picked up the mantle, together as a village, and we were all just determined to make that [the statue] happen,” Dr. Matthews shares. “We recruited Retired Major General Fred Gordon, who was the first African American commandant at West Point. He accepted, and three years later, we had the money for the monument.”
The association raised up to $1 million, and on September 10th, 2021, the statue sculpted by Eddie Dixon was officially unveiled at West Point, bearing the likeness of none other than SGT Matthews. His legacy was realized; now visitors to the academy can see a testimony to the years of service of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“It was beautiful to see all races of people, just the number of families and everybody who cheered this on and made it happen and allowed it to be put up,” Dr. Matthews shares. “We are just glad to continue the legacy of West Point by being able to be inclusive, be diverse, and recognize the human spirit, regardless of color. To do what's right for those soldiers that have served this country and to make sure that they get the recognition and the acknowledgement that they deserve.”
More importantly, she notes that the families of the Buffalo Soldiers, and current military families, will also be seen for their sacrifices.”To all the families that are serving, I just want to say thank you,” Dr. Matthews says. “I'm thankful to be able to serve all of you in a way that makes sure that all of your stories and all the sacrifices and all the contributions that your families are making will never be forgotten, as well. So, when you come to West Point, and you look at that Buffalo Soldier monument, that's for you. That's for all the traveling. That's for all the times you miss them and you worry about them. That statue says we can hang in there and everything's going to be alright.”
Blue Star Families’ Campaign for Inclusion works to highlight initiatives, such as this one, to amplify the importance of seeing all military families. Through the annual Military Family Lifestyle Survey, we understand that your experiences are unique. We have also learned that they influence others and initiate change. Fill out this form, and consider sharing your story too.
Learn more about the Buffalo Soldiers and their continued work here.