By Jean Gonzalez | Catholic News Service
LAKELAND, Fla. (CNS) — Under the shade of oaks near the shores of Lake Beulah in Lakeland stands a bronze obelisk that tells an important story that many Americans and local Floridians might never have heard.
The Friends of Freedom statue, dedicated Nov. 12, memorializes soldiers of the 9th and 10th Calvary, known as “Buffalo Soldiers,” who fought alongside Cubans fighting for freedom from Spain during the Spanish American War.
Buffalo Soldiers were Black men who served in the military to secure their own freedoms in the post-emancipation United States.
Two art teachers at a Catholic high school in the Orlando Diocese and their students played a part in making sure these soldiers’ story was not lost to history.
About a year and a half ago, a nonprofit cultural arts organization called Platform Art invited local high schools to participate in a project it was working on with the Florida Veterans Council to produce a monument to recognize Lakeland’s distinctive role in the Spanish American War.
They also used the project as an educational tool to teach youths.
Lula Peoples and Lucile Pfund, both art teachers at Santa Fe Catholic High School in Lakeland, embraced the opportunity. They showed their students a video produced by Platform Art called “Those Men that Came Before,” which detailed why the 9th and 10th U.S. Calvary of Buffalo Soldiers came to Lakeland and why it was so important.
Richard Wilder, president of Buffalo Soldiers Florida and a Vietnam veteran, participated in the educational video.
“The presence of the 10th Calvary (of Buffalo Soldiers) in Lakeland was a positive influence on the Black residents here in Lakeland,” Wilder said in the video. “They saw these men hold their heads up. They saw these men with a sense of pride and dignity, and they saw them carry that with them everywhere they went in Lakeland, even in the face of racism.”
Those words inspired Taylor Tidwell, Blaine Keller, Emily Dang and Jacob Valez, students in Peoples’ and Pfund’s art classes. They created art that was later chosen to be fired into the bronze sculpture.
“Then they came up with their own ideas, made drawings and worked on them for several weeks,” Peoples told Florida Catholic, Orlando’s diocesan newspaper. “When we got the call that four were chosen for their art, we were so immensely proud.”
The statue is the newest to grace Veteran’s Memorial Park in Lakeland, which includes memorials honoring veterans who served in the Civil War, World War I, World War II, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War and the Global War on Terrorism.
The sides of the obelisk include narrative scenes and verbiage that speak to the role of history of the Spanish American War and the Buffalo Soldiers who were based in Lakeland and fought in Cuba.
At its top are members of the Calvary on horseback and at the base are the students’ drawings memorialized in bronze.
According to historians, Native Americans gave Black soldiers the moniker “Buffalo Soldiers” because to them their dark, curly hair resembled a buffalo’s coat but also because of their fierce nature of fighting. The nickname soon became synonymous with all African American regiments formed in 1866, such as the 9th and 10th Calvary.
Santa Fe is one of only two schools with work by students incorporated in the statue; the other is Lake Region High School in Eagle Lake.
“They transformed their drawings into a relief sculpture that you see on the monument now,” Pfund said. “(The artwork) was fired in our kiln at school and then transferred to (Platform Arts) so they could incorporate them in the statue.”
“We are so proud of them,” Peoples added. “Each of them were very careful with their attention to detail, and were very detailed about why they drew what they drew. They worked hard and did their best and we are over the moon to be a part of this legacy.”
All four Santa Fe students were present for the dedication. Tidwell and Keller are now seniors and Dang is a junior. Valez is now a senior at George Jenkins High School in Lakeland, but he produced his work while a student at Santa Fe.
Tidwell’s artwork displays symbols of the 9th and 10th Calvary, which included Buffalo Soldiers. It includes the Calvary’s flag, the American flag, a buffalo and the hat worn by the Black soldiers during the Spanish American War.
Dang’s artwork displays Buffalo Soldiers placing a Cuban flag on a hill in the Caribbean nation. Keller’s artwork displays the explosion of the USS Maine, which prompted U.S. involvement in the Spanish American War. Valez’s artwork depicts Teddy Roosevelt, then the leader of the Rough Riders.
Wilder, who also attended the dedication, said he hopes the video and monument share a part of the past, a part of his heritage that has been “omitted from the history books.”
Artist Becky Ault of Art Research Enterprises Inc. designed and completed the statue in cooperation with Platform Arts. The statue traveled from Pennsylvania to Florida and Buffalo Soldier Motorcycle clubs from across the nation escorted the monument to its final destination.
Members of the clubs from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania; Orlando; Tampa and other Florida cities were on hand for the Nov. 12 dedication, and Buffalo Soldier reenactors in uniform and on horseback participated in a procession.