When Joe Tillmon was in elementary school, segregation was still legal. However in the 5th grade, when Tillmon’s all black school became an integrated institution, he found himself as one of the only two black boys in his class. One day after a social studies lesson, while Tillmon was at recess, a classmate told him something he’s always carried with him.
“We were studying social studies at the time,” said Tillmon. “My classmate said, ‘Joe, you all were only slaves.’”
Today, Tillmon looks back on that moment with sage-like wisdom and a broader understanding of a larger issue. His classmate’s comment was the result of a history that viewed African Americans with a skewed and often, limited, perspective.
“He didn’t mean anything by that statement,” said Tillmon. “He was just repeating what we learned in class.”
The impact that African Americans have had at almost every state of the country’s development is often significantly understated in the American educational system. For Tillmon, that missing piece of history is something he feels driven to complete.
Fast forward to 2018 where Tillmon now acts as president for The Buffalo Soldier Historical Society (BSHS), an organization with a primary mission to preserve, promote and perpetuate the untold history of African-American military units. With a focus on youth mentorship, BSHS strives to give students a historical perspective that they can relate to. Something that Tillmon says is largely absent during the educational experience of most African-Americans.
African Americans have participated in every military engagement in the United States since the Revolution. Tillmon’s connection to the Buffalo Soldiers is something he almost attributes to fate. After he first joined the Army, Tillmon was introduced to the history of the Buffalo Soldiers and was constantly encouraged by commanding officers to learn more. As he began to learn, he also became aware of their importance in American history.
The Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society highlights the role that the Buffalo Soldiers played during Western Expansion and the Spanish American War in Cuba and exposes a side of African-American identity that stretches beyond slavery. Mr. Tillmon has since expanded his focus to include a discussion of all African American Service from our nation’s beginnings to 1951 when the United States military was integrated.
In honor of Black History Month and in partnership with Africana Studies, the John C. Hitt Library will host “African American Military History: A Legacy of Honor and Valor,” an exhibit presented by the Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society. The exhibit will be on display in the John C. Hitt Library through Feb. 28.