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Art Voices: Buffalo soldiers and Masons making history in N.D.

There’s a sculpture (cardboard “standee”) at Fort Buford’s officer’s quarters that shows an Afri-can-American soldier stationed there during the 1860s. It’s not a fancy work or by a noted artist. It’s meant to represent a group of men who lived and worked at that remote site at the Missouri and Yellowstone confluence, which Meriwether Lewis described as having “Buffalo elk and deer so gentle” they could “walk right up where they were feeding …” and the curious animals walked to them to check them out.

The studio picture is an enlargement of an enlisted black solider, who is standing among models of the fort’s layout, bugles, regimental/organizational chart and officers’ uniforms. He greets visitors who tour the 146-year-old building where the 25th Infantry was housed. His importance was noted by historian and site supervisor, Steven Reidburn (from Jamestown) who has been researching the role of the enlisted black soldier, known as a buffalo soldier, at Fort Buford and later the transition they made to organize an all-black Masonic Lodge on the military site.

All those seemingly insignificant items are growing in significance because the Fort Buford Historical Site is going to play host to a dedication ceremony May 17, when hundreds of dignitaries from all around the globe will meet there to officially dedicate an interpretive site where the buffalo soldiers remaining at Fort Buford in 1891 opened the Eureka 135 Prince Hall Masonic Lodge, the first black Masonic Lodge in the Dakota Territory. The footprint of the original two-story lodge remains an historic relic. A new interpretive center will be opened on the Masonic site for visitors on May 17.

Reidburn has been researching the role of the buffalo soldiers at Fort Buford since he began as supervisor there in 2010.

He wondered what a black soldier was doing at that remote location.

“My first impression,” said Reidburn, “was …Whoa … What’s this? Buffalo soldiers were here?”

His curiosity started what has blossomed into a much larger vision than he had initially.

“We found a number of soldiers or family members buried at Fort Buford Cemetery,” he said. “We will recognize them with memorial wreaths and perhaps honor their memory in other ways.”

Reidburn said he’s had remarkable input from Masonic and buffalo soldier historians.

“Jim Savaloja (grand historian from Rolla, N.D.) and Robert Campbell (president of Phylaxis Society from St. Louis, Mo.) have been my go-to resources” Reidburn said. “They have forgotten more than I will live to discover.”

“General Colin Powell is among those invited,” said Reidburn, “and dignitaries many would recognize” are on the guest list for the mid-May event.

If anyone has an item for this column, please send to Sharon Cox, PO Box 1559, Jamestown, ND 58402-1559.