Buffalo Soldiers Hope to Resuscitate Officers’ Club
As 69-year-old Thomas Stoney Sr.'s car slowly crests a small rise in the road, a building emerges from the knee-high yellow grass.
Its cream-colored paint is flaking. Plywood covers windows and doors. Inside is a jumbled heap of discarded light fixtures, carpets and ceiling tiles.
But Stoney, president of the Southwest Assn. of Buffalo Soldiers, doesn’t just see the building as it is today. He sees it as it was generations ago, when Lena Horne, Ella Fitzgerald and Louis Armstrong performed there, when heavyweight champ Joe Louis boxed out front.
His group is trying to restore the 1942 two-story wood structure.
“There she is. That building,” he said, gesturing toward what was once dubbed the Colored Officers’ Club. “She stands alone.”
It didn’t always.
Once, the building was among 1,400 structures hurriedly constructed to house, train and care for black soldiers destined for the North African and Italian battlefields of World War II.
The other buildings are gone now -- torn down to save money and water.
But Stoney’s group envisions the former officers’ club as a research center for the role of black servicemen. They have begun collecting artifacts and are working to find the estimated $1.5 million to $2 million it will take to restore it to its WWII-era condition.
The building is unique not because it was a black officers’ club. The segregated Army had others, but Mountain View Officers’ Club, as it was also called, was the only one built for that purpose.
It’s “the only building constructed specifically for the morale, welfare and recreation of black officers,” said Stoney, a retired first sergeant who fought in Korea and Vietnam.
The building became a noncommissioned officers club in the 1960s and, later, a recreation facility. Stoney used it as a soldier and managed it later as a civilian when he was the chief of recreation.
“I used to party here all the time as a young soldier,” said Stoney, standing on the painted gray floor of the dark debris-filled ballroom.
Black soldiers had a long history at Ft. Huachuca, established in 1877 to help defend the territory against American Indians. Troops from the all-black 9th and 10th Cavalries were stationed at Ft. Huachuca in the 1890s.
But the real buildup occurred during World War II.
Before and after the 1941 Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, President Franklin D. Roosevelt called for a 227,000-man increase in the Army, and the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People pushed for equal involvement of blacks in the war effort, according to a report on the Mountain View building by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
In response, black Americans were drafted in proportion to their makeup of the U.S. population.
In 1940, there were 4,000 black enlisted men in the Army and a handful of officers. But by the height of the war, about 50,000 black servicemen and support staff were at Ft. Huachuca alone, Stoney said.
The segregated military generally used black servicemen as cooks or builders, rarely allowing them into combat unless there were dire staffing shortages, said Robert J. Maddox, professor emeritus of American history at Penn State.
“The Army and the Navy reflected the prejudices of the time,” he said.
The Army integrated in 1948.
Ft. Huachuca was chosen as a location to train the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions, made up of black soldiers, because it was isolated, and there were few people to complain about the influx of black servicemen, said Stoney and Tanja Linton, spokeswoman for Ft. Huachuca.
“It was no accident,” Linton said. “It was a conscious decision.”
In southern Arizona near the Mexico border, Ft. Huachuca remains somewhat isolated -- 30 miles from the nearest interstate. “In the 1940s, it was really isolated,” Linton said.
Maddox said putting black soldiers in faraway places was in keeping with the practice of the times, although he couldn’t say for sure if that was the case at Ft. Huachuca.
“That they were put out in the boonies to keep the peace or something is not surprising to me,” said Maddox, who has written several books on World War II and the Cold War.
For many years after WWII, the Ft. Huachuca buildings for black servicemen remained in use. The Mountain View club served as a recreation building and then a theater until 1998.
But the fort had permission to level the officers’ club along with the other WWII holdovers, all built in six months, as the installation worked to control its water use, Linton said.
The buildings were meant as temporary structures, and the fort was under pressure to reduce its water consumption because of its proximity to the San Pedro River.
“You got an old building and that’s nice, but it has leaky pipes,” Linton said. “Every little drop counts.”
Besides, they were magnets for unwanted critters, and old buildings are expensive to maintain, she said.
It took six years of negotiating between the Buffalo Soldiers group and the Army before they reached an agreement in April setting out plans for the association to raise money and eventually lease and renovate the building.
The association, with 85 members, has architects and engineers looking at the facility. It has also been holding dinners and other events to raise money. So far, it has gathered about $100,000, Stoney said.
Many people think that the Army will renovate the building, but it won’t, Stoney said. The money will have to come from donations and grants.
“Since we started this, this has started to consume my life,” he said. “But I’m committed to seeing this through.”
The Southwest Assn. of Buffalo Soldiers can be reached at P.O. Box 715, Sierra Vista, AZ 85636-0715.