The Woyingi Blog

Buffalo Soldiers in the Philippines: A Filipina American Grandaughter remembers her African American Grandfather

While researching Buffalo Soldiers, I stumbled upon an interview by Evangeline Buell, a Filipina American activist, discussing her grandfather, an African American who had fought in the Philippines. My knowledge of Filipino History isn’t what it should be so this interview and my subsequent research was really an eye opener.

The Spanish American War began in 1898, and was fought in several Spanish colonies around the globe, including the Philippines. The war ended with the Treaty of Paris, in December 1898, and the United States took over control of the Spanish colonies of Puerto Rico, Guam, and the Philippines. Filipino Nationalists, led by Emilio Aguinaldo, were not happy about having to trade one colonizer for another and resisted American occupation. In February 1899, these Filipino insurgents (insurectos) began attacking U.S. Troops. Thus began the Philippine American War (1899 to 1902). During these wars, African American soldiers were recruited to fight for the United States in the segregated Black regiments of the 24th and 25th Infantry, the 9th and 10th Cavalry, and African American National guardsmen.

Evangeline “Vangie” Canonizado Buell is a leading Filipina American writer and activist living in San Francisco, California. She is the co-founder of the Filipino American National Historical Society’s East Bay Area Chapter and is the retired Events Coordinator of the University of California-Berkeley International House. She has written books about Filipino American history, including a memoir about her family, Twenty-Five Chickens and a Pig for a Bride: Growing Up in a Filipino Immigrant Family (T’Boli Publishing, 2006). Her family immigrated to the United States in 1928 and she was one of the few Filipinos growing up in West Oakland, California in the 1930s and 40s, a difficult time for Asian Americans. She remembers seeing signs stating “No Filipinos or dogs allowed” posted at restaurants. During World War II, she had to wear a button that declared “I am a loyal Filipino” in order to avoid harassment if she was mistaken for Japanese.

This memoir also records the life of her grandfather, Ernest Stokes, an African American who came to the Philippines as a Buffalo Soldier during the Spanish American War and stayed during the subsequent Philippine American War. According to Buell, her grandfather joined the military in order to escape racism in the American South. In a reading from her memoir for a 2007 podcast of San Francisco Chronicle’s Pinoy Exchange commemorating Black History Month, Buell states:

My grandfather Ernest Stokes was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee around 1870. Grandpa Stokes wanted to escape from the South where he had experienced oppressive racial prejudice. In 1898, he found an opportunity to leave for an overseas assignment, hoping for a life free of racial discrimination in another country. He responded to a call for volunteers for the Spanish American War in the Philippines and travelled with a group from Tennessee to San Francisco to receive training at the Presidio Army Camp. The windy and cold military base on the scenic hills overlooked the Golden Gate Bridge, the gateway to the Pacific Ocean. Grandpa Stokes and the other Tennessee volunteers would cross the largest and deepest sea in the world to fight a war in a land they knew nothing about and later on in life Grandpa Stokes explained to his second wife, Roberta: “We had to leave this deplorable country even if it meant facing the unknown, at least we had a chance for a new destiny, perhaps a better life than here.” Grandpa Stokes was among 6,000 African American soldiers who were sent to the Philippines in 1898 to fight in the Spanish American War. Upon arriving in the Philippines he became part of the 9th Calvary of the United States Army. My grandfather became a sergeant in that unit consisting of African American members who were called Buffalo Soldiers.

But he, as well as his fellow Black soldiers, still faced discrimination in the US Military. As Buell explains: “He was sent out by the Caucasian soldiers into the front line to take the bullets from the opposite side. It was only their cunning and their street-wise defiance that they were able to not get shot.”

Buell says that Stokes loved life in the Philippines, including its people, culture and food. While in the Philippines, Stokes, like many other Buffalo Soldiers, married a Filipina woman, Maria Bunag, Buell’s grandmother and lived in a Filipino village. They had three daughters, including Felicia, Buell’s mother. According to Buell, Stokes was accepted by most of Maria’s family. Maria died in 1917, and Stokes could not raise his daughters and serve in the military at the same time so he sent one sister to live with her grandmother, and  two of the sisters, including Felicia, to live with their mother’s cousins. This was a troubling time for these Black Filipina sisters. These relatives were not accepting of these darker-skinned and coarse-haired girls. According to Buell, her mother and aunt were treated like servants and beaten. They were also repeatedly raped by older male cousins. This went on for five years, until their father discovered what was going on and rescued them.

Buell’s grandfather later remarried another Filipina, Roberta Dungca. It is from Roberta that Buell learned about her grandfather’s life in the Philippines and his early life in the United States. According to Roberta, Stokes refused to shoot Filipino insurgents because he understood their resistance to American colonial rule. Many African American soldiers felt torn about fighting Filipinos and African American leaders, such as Booker T. Washington and Ida B. Wells, were outspoken in their opposition to the Philippine American War.

After living in the Philippines for 25 years, Stokes returned to the United States with all his children and Dungca. They settled in West Oakland, California in 1928.

Buell remembers her grandfather fondly. She stated that:

…her favorite memories are of her grandfather bouncing her, her younger sister and their cousin on his knee while he counted to them in Cantonese and sang in Tagalog. Stokes learned eight languages while in the Philippines, including Tagalog, Chinese, Spanish and various Philippine dialects.

Stokes died in 1936 and is buried at the Presidio in San Francisco. According to Buell:

The relations between the African Americans and the Filipinos, the beginning of that, was in the Philippines. … And it’s important today in terms of Filipinos getting to know black Americans and (black people) getting to know the Filipinos — to know that we have had that relationship way back, a hundred years ago.

Further Reading:

Filipina activist Buell writes family history to understand herself (2007 article available online)

Buffalo Soldier came to Philippines to fight, instead found new way of life (2007 Audio Interview available online)

The Philippine War: A Conflict of Conscience for African Americans (article available online from the National Park Service Presidio of San Francisco Website)

White Backlash and the Aftermath of Fagen’s Rebellion: The Fates of Three African-American Soldiers in the Philippines, 1901-1902 by S. Brown (essay available online)

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