Hidden History: At 97, Florida veteran may be last living Buffalo Soldier

MANATEE COUNTY, Fla. (WAVY) – After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941, President Franklin D. Roosevelt issued an address that reverberated across the nation, declaring it “a date which will live in infamy.” He went on to say “the United States of America was suddenly and deliberately attacked by naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan.”

It’s a day etched into the memory of 97 year old Steve Lewis. He was in high school at the time. Lewis remembers it well. “I was in 12th grade. It was on a Sunday. At that time we didn’t have TV. We had radio.”

That day would change his life, like so many others, forever.

Steve Lewis grew up in Palmetto, Florida, a small Manatee County town with a population just under 3500 in 1940.

After he graduated from high school, he moved to Tallahassee in February, 1942 to attend what was then Florida A&M College. He decided to attend Florida A&M for one reason.

“I wanted to study agriculture and all my teachers, most of my agriculture teachers and contacts had graduated from Florida A&M,” he said. But because of the times, he wasn’t given the opportunity to do all that he wanted to do.

According to published FAMU history:

“Shortly after its founding, the school became the beneficiary of educational provisions for African Americans made possible through the passage of the Second Morrill Act of 1890. Through this important federal legislation, FAMU, formerly known as the “State Normal College for Colored Students,” was designated to receive a land grant “to the endowment and support of branches of learning as related to agriculture and mechanic arts, including military tactics.”

However, unlike the 1862 predominantly white counterpart institutions, FAMU and the other sixteen 1890 historically black colleges were not given any resources to carry out the research and development areas of the land-grant tripartite system until 1966. As a result, the school was relegated to teaching without the benefits of research and extension funds from either the federal or state governments.

Reading about it is one thing. Living it is something different. Lewis lived and learned under those conditions.

“I took animal husbandry and I wanted to do daily work and stuff like that. But during that time I never discussed it because people of color, they didn’t give you any basic scientific stuff to do,” Lewis remembered.

Animal husbandry is the science of breeding and caring for farm animals. That was Lewis’s passion. He never fully got the chance to live out that passion.

Although in college, the bombing of Pearl Harbor prior to his arrival really did change the course of his life. “Every man in college had to be in the Enlisted Reserve Corps and they would march like soldiers all during the week and practice. That went on for two years,” Lewis said.

Eventually, his time as a college student was cut short. He enlisted in the US Army and was assigned to the US 9th Cavalry, one of two all-black cavalry units better known as the Buffalo Soldiers. He was trained to ride, shoot and fight as part of a horse-mounted military unit, training that has long since been replaced by mechanized units. Mr. Lewis was retrained in the modern tactics common to World War 2.

The all African American cavalries, known as Buffalo Soldiers, started during the Civil War and lasted until 1948 when President Harry S. Truman integrated the military. By the early 1950s, they were gone. “We didn’t know a thing about Buffalo Soldiers when we were in the Army. We never heard of it,” he said. Lewis may be the last living Buffalo Soldier around. He remembers his duties well. “Each man was assigned a horse and you had to ride the horse, bring him in, wash him down, clean him up, feed him and then ‘you’ go eat.”

After military service, Steve Lewis returned to Florida A&M and in 1947, earned a Bachelor of Science degree in Agriculture. He later earned a Master’s degree from University of Northern Colorado. He maintained ties with Manatee County, teaching in the Manatee school system he helped de-segregate as a youngster.

He taught agriculture for one year, then spent the rest of his career as an elementary teacher. Lewis spent more than 30 years working in Manatee County communities as a teacher, volunteer and community leader.

One of his greatest memories as a young student decades ago at Florida A&M, is joining the Alpha Xi chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi.

“It was good. It was a good school. It still is good now,” he said.

Lewis also added, his service and that of others who served our country, needs to be remembered. “They don’t give it the publicity it needs.”

He has great advice for people who want to go into agriculture now – do it.

“Agriculture now is terrific, you do scientific stuff. I would suggest anyone go into agriculture, because you can specialize in animals, specialize in plants. Agriculture is scientific now.”