The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II arouse intense scholarly and popular interest (a recent treatment is Miracle at St. Anna, a 2008 film by director Spike Lee based on the novel by James McBride). Their long-overlooked achievements gained national prominence in 1997, when seven African-American soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Only Vernon Baker, who served with the 92nd Infantry, was still alive.
“It was something that I felt should have been done a long time ago,” Baker said at the time. “If I was worthy of receiving a Medal of Honor in 1945, I should have received it then.” In 2006, Baker published his own memoir, Lasting Valor, with the help of journalist Ken Olsen.
The medals were issued after a historian documented that no African- American who fought in the war had even been nominated for one. “At the end of World War II, the white officers in particular wanted to wash their hands of the Italian campaign experience with the 92nd Division,” says historian Daniel Gibran, author of The 92nd Infantry Division and the Italian Campaign in World War II. “It was an experience that a lot of white officers didn’t really want, and they might as well soon forget that kind of experience.”
At the end of the war, Daugherty returned to his hometown, Washington, D.C., determined, he wrote at the time, “to help make it a place that shows compassion for, humility for, high regard for, and values all its citizens alike.” Of course, Daugherty and his fellow Buffalo Soldiers returned not to a hero’s welcome but to segregated schools and job discrimination. “The road has been long and hard; blood and sweat, death and destruction have been our companions,” he wrote. “We are home now though our flame flickers low. Will you fan it with the winds of freedom, or will you smother it with the sands of humiliation? Will it be that we fought for the lesser of two evils? Or is there this freedom and happiness for all men?”
Daugherty didn’t let his own flame go out. He went on to study at Howard University in Washington, D.C. on the G.I. Bill and to work as an administrator in the U.S. Public Health Service. He was the first African-American to serve on the board of the Montgomery County Public Schools, among the nation’s largest public school districts. Following publication of his book, Daugherty has become somewhat of a celebrity in his adopted hometown—July 28 is now officially “Buffalo Soldier James Daugherty Day” in Silver Spring.
He sits in the living room of the ranch-style house he built nearly five decades ago and in which he and his wife raised their four sons. He recalls that his work in the public health system also taught him about inequity.
“The majority of the health centers were in poor, black areas where people couldn’t get health care and all that,” Daugherty says. “But I also had to go up into West Virginia to the coal mines, and they were mistreated something terrible. A lot of these weren’t black, they weren’t Asian; they were white, Caucasian.”
Daugherty’s original handwritten manuscript remains sealed in two yellowed envelopes. Daugherty mailed them to himself more than half a century ago, in lieu of obtaining an official copyright. The postmarks read April 28, 1952. It’s his way of proving that The Buffalo Saga is his story.