When James Cooper was a teenager in segregated Louisiana, he worked at a factory for $2 a day and didn’t see a bright future.
So he entered the military, attracted by such benefits as free lodging and meals, and eventually joined the ranks of one of the first African American regiments in the U.S. Army, becoming what was known as a Buffalo Soldier.
“Why did I join the Army? Survival. At 17, I looked at the Army and it was better than what I had,” Cooper, now 89, told a small audience Sunday at the Autry National Center of the American West, in one of many events commemorating the birthday of the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.
A program in Culver City featured a panel discussion, poetry, choral and jazz music and a staged reading of a play called “The Dreamers” featuring Margaret Avery, an actress best known for her role in “The Color Purple.” In Exposition Park, the California African American Museum kicked off a two-day program with a celebration called One Dream, a National Influence, a World of People.
At the Autry, Cooper spoke of the need to tell younger people about the Buffalo Soldiers as time rapidly shrinks their ranks.
“I want them to remember what we accomplished as a black people … and that we’re still marching on,” he said.
The first African American regiments in the Army were authorized by an act of Congress in 1866.
Buffalo Soldiers guarded the Western frontier and fought in the Spanish-American War, both world wars and other conflicts. The all-black regiments disbanded in the early 1950s as the military desegregated.
Cooper and fellow Buffalo Soldier Andrew Aaron spoke in front of the Autry museum’s exhibit on Henry O. Flipper, the first African American cadet to graduate from West Point. The two men talked about their experiences fighting in Korea, Japan and Italy, and they wore high blue hats, blue jackets adorned with medals and yellow ties decorated with images of Buffalo Soldiers.
Their audience of about two dozen included children — some squirmy and some eager to take photos. One child asked whether Cooper and Aaron were the first Buffalo Soldiers, to which the 80-year-old Aaron replied: “Weren’t the first, one of the last.”
It is unclear how many Buffalo Soldiers are still alive. Charles L. Davis, who helps organize some of their public appearances, called their story “a treasure that we’re letting fade away.”
“If you don’t keep that bandwagon going,” Davis said, “people will throw dirt over your history.”