FELTON — The original Buffalo Soldiers may have been instrumental in the settlement of the American West, but they’re being commemorated back east in Delaware at the new Buffalo Soldiers Cavalry Regiment Museum.
The museum, on U.S. 113 in Felton, has been open a little more than a month.
Darrell Hughes, the museum’s founder and curator, said the regiment was first formed in 1866. They were the first African Americans to serve in the aftermath of the Civil War.
“They were used in the Indian Wars,” where they fought famous Native American leaders like Geronimo and Victorio, Mr. Hughes said.
“The name comes from the Cheyenne warriors,” he said, “because the Buffalo Soldiers fought so fiercely, and their hair resembled the hide of a buffalo.”
Mr. Hughes is a Buffalo Soldierhimself. He an Army member of the 10th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Hood. That group is no longer segregated but traces it lineage back to those first segregated Buffalo Soldier units
He has a number of artifacts and exhibits pertaining to the group’s history. The most interesting might be his diorama of Cathay Williams — or William Cathay as she was known to her fellow troops.
“She was an African American slave. She entered into the Union Army to gain her freedom” during the Civil War, posing as a man, Mr. Hughes said.
“She’s the only African American woman Buffalo Soldier ever. She lasted two years in the military, in the Union Army, until it was later found out at a doctor’s physical that she was a woman,” he said.
“I know that, after her service, she died penniless,” Mr. Hughes said of her ultimate fate. “She wasn’t able to get a government pension like a lot of Buffalo Soldiers did.”
Although the museum portrays the Buffalo Soldiers in a flattering light, it doesn’t ignore the reason they were contracted — to help clear the American West of its indigenous people, so mostly White settlers could replace them.
“Their history is good and bad, just like every group in the military,” said Doug Poore, director of the Greater Harrington Historical Society. “They were involved in some of the (Native American) massacres and stuff.”
Mr. Hughes has gathered a large number of items pertaining to Native Americans, which are displayed alongside his pieces focused on the Buffalo Soldiers.
But his focus is actually much broader. Mr. Hughes has information and exhibits that pertain to both local and national African American history in general and the entire global African diaspora.
Alongside a display about Crispus Attucks, a Black Bostonian who was the first American killed in the Revolutionary War, he has portraits of African American musicians and politicians, a Ghanaian flag he bought from an immigrant from the country and different consumer products created by Black inventors.
It’s also important for Mr. Hughes to help people get a better understanding of slavery.
One of the items he demonstrates is a facsimile of a slave collar that would have been used to punish slaves on an antebellum Southern plantation. He sometimes puts it on people, so they can experience how undignified the life of a slave was.
“One has the three bells on it. That was for runaways. There’s another one that has four long prongs, which was used for runaways, as well,” Mr. Hughes said. “They were both very uncomfortable.”
He added that “the only way they could have slept was sitting up. There was no way to lie down in either one of them.”
Mr. Hughes and Mr. Poore are both Harrington residents and members of the Harrington Business Association.
In town, Mr. Hughes may be best known as a barbecue pit master, who can often be found working out of his kitchen of choice, The Penalty Box Food Truck and Stick To Your Ribs BBQ.
“He’s very proud of his history,” Mr. Poore said of Mr. Hughes. “I think the telling of that history as a whole is very important.”
In particular, he said African American experiences and the individual stories within have historically been underrepresented.
“That’s why I’m happy Darrel put his museum out there,” Mr. Poore said. “I think it’s better than what it used to be.”
He said it’s rare for an individual proprietor to undertake running an entire museum on his own.
“Most of the time, it’s a group of people. In some cases, it is individuals who start up, and, then, it gets a groundswell, and it grows from there,” Mr. Poore said.
For the rest of February’s Black History Month, the museum is open Saturdays and Sundays from noon-4 p.m. Visitors can also make appointments for after 4 p.m. the rest of the week if they call or text Mr. Hughes at 538-8326. The museum is located at 9781 S. Dupont Highway, Suite A.
The museum is free, but donations are encouraged. So far, Mr. Hughes has been bankrolling the project himself for the most part,
As the weather gets warmer, Mr. Hughes will have to cut his availability down to once a week, as he will open his barbecue truck up.
“I used to park here in Harrington at Smitty’s Garage,” he said. “This year, I believe I might set up full time by a produce stand out on Del. 1, just outside of Milford.”