In a small green and white one-story building in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood, you’ll find a treasure trove of photos, books and military gear, some of it dating back more than a century.
“We got a lot of artifacts, I mean, we can fill this building about eight times over,” said Darrel Nash, a board member for the Tacoma Buffalo Soldiers Museum.
This museum doesn’t have a prominent downtown location like many other museums in the Puget Sound region. With a volunteer staff, it’s only open a couple times a week.
Yet the museum’s mission is an important one: to preserve the stories of Black soldiers – primarily the Buffalo Soldiers who served in segregated units from just after the Civil War until midway through World War II.
Nash’s passion for military history dates back to his high school years.
“One guy called me a geek,” Nash remembered. “He said, ‘Darrel, you, you go home, you do research on Buffalo Soldiers’, well I do – and Black troops as a whole, because there’s so much of it out there. And then I get excited because when I find it, it’s like an archaeologist find, a treasure or something. I like to share with the rest of the world.”
Nash is tall and slender and carries himself with a posture that lets you know, even before hearing his story, that he spent more than 20 years in the military. He showed off some of the artifacts including one item still in use in the 1980s when he first enlisted.
“And I do remember this right here – the entrenching tool when I came into the Army, that’s what they gave us. And you can fold that bad boy up. And you can use it for everything: you can use it for digging, use it to fight, we see the blade side of it.”
And how does it make him feel to have an object that he once used in a museum, behind glass?
“It makes me feel good, it does, because I can relate to that, that’s me, I’m part of that,” Nash said.
He’s part of one of only two museums in the country specifically honoring the contributions of Black troops. The museum’s full name makes reference to the segregated 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry, whose members include museum founder William Jones. It was the Army that first assigned Jones to the Pacific Northwest when he was stationed at Fort Lewis. He later made his home and started a glass and recycling business in Tacoma.
Jones died in 2009 but only after, Nash recalled, sharing his story and starting this museum.
“Some of the local colleges would come here and they will talk to him, you know, meet a real, live Buffalo Soldier, which he was,” Nash said. “To carry on his legacy, what he did, he started this as a project and it metastasized into this.”
Jones’ daughter, Jackie Jones-Hook is the museum’s executive director.
On the museum’s expansion plans
Nash: We’re trying to go to Seattle at Fort Lawton. [It’s] a bigger facility. We have two original buildings where Buffalo Soldiers stayed [including] the band of the 25th Infantry Regiment. So we’re trying to get those, well least one of them. And once we get that we want to continue on expanding. The job here at the Tacoma Buffalo Soldiers Museum is to preserve, perpetuate and promote the history of what Black troops – not just Buffalo Soldiers – but what Black troops contributed to the nation and society.
On what he hopes the museum will mean to visitors
Nash: The main thing we’re looking at is legacy. We’re getting to the point now where we don’t like talking about history. I know history is a tough thing, but history gives us a sense of direction, of where we came from, and where we need to go. And we make mistakes, we need to make them right.
With any man, woman or child that comes in. We want them to see what these guys went through. So when you think you have a hard time at school, you’re mad at your mom or dad or your wife or your husband. These men went through a lot more stuff, with a segregated society. And still they rose to the occasion, which they did with many accomplishments that still stand today on the books.
So it’s a challenge: don’t just give up, you keep going, believing that there’s light at the end of that tunnel and they prove that.
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