Wilson Keller stood in front of the infantry barracks on Saturday at the Fort Vancouver National Site to announce that a long-overdue day had finally arrived.
Speaking to a crowd that included Vancouver Mayor Anne McEnerny-Ogle and Fort Vancouver Superintendent Tracy Fortmann, Keller was there to kick off the dedication of a memorial honoring a local military veteran and the Buffalo Soldiers, a group of African American servicemen whose unsung presence shaped Vancouver and the West.
“We honor their sacrifices, contributions, dedication and patriotism,” said Keller, speaking to the crowd. “We thank them; they will never be forgotten.”
Following the Civil War, black soldiers were allowed to enlist in the U.S. Army as regulars, rather than volunteers, in segregated units. Given the nickname “Buffalo Soldiers” by Indian tribes, many were sent to the western frontier where they engaged in military campaigns and served as essentially the first rangers for national parks. Despite their contributions, they faced racism and hostility and were pushed to history’s margins.
In 1899, the first unit of Buffalo Soldiers was stationed at the Vancouver Barracks. Until now, Fort Vancouver had no memorial marking their presence. Keller, a 17-year-old senior at Columbia River High School, set out to change that after attending a presentation by local historian Greg Shine on the contributions of the Buffalo Soldiers.
“I didn’t know that there is no monument to an African American veteran in Clark County, and so I thought that was weird,” said Keller, also a member of Eagle Scout Troop 648. Speaking to The Columbian, he said that the contributions of African American soldiers were also absent from the history curriculum at school. “So I thought through this project, I could shed light on their contribution,” said Keller.
The memorial is the first dedicated to African Americans in the city of Vancouver. It includes an interpretative panel explaining the significance of the Buffalo Soldiers and their presence in Vancouver and the Pacific Northwest. The panel makes specific mention of Moses William, a Buffalo Soldier who was awarded the Medal of Honor and later laid to rest in the Vancouver Barracks Post Cemetery.
“This interpretative panel speaks to an important point in the history of our community,” said Fortmann, speaking to the crowd. “It was a critical keystone of African American history here and throughout the West that should be of relevance to all Americans.”
The memorial also includes a bench dedicated to Willie Morehouse, a local African American Army veteran who passed away in 2017. Morehouse co-founded the Moses Williams Northwest chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving the history of the Buffalo Soldiers.
Welling up with emotion, Frazier Raymond Jr., president of the chapter, gave a speech about Morehouse. As the microphone cut out, Raymond had to muster his “drill sergeant” voice to tell a story of how Morehouse was charged with guarding German and Italian prisoners of war on American soil during World War II. He said Morehouse had to escort the prisoners while they were allowed outside of the camps to eat at restaurants. But Morehouse knew that he wouldn’t be served at the same restaurants, said Raymond. He said that Morehouse found it difficult but he stuck with the orders given to sentries.
“I will guard everything within the limit of my post,” said Raymond, reciting the orders. “And I will quit my post only when properly relieved.”
Raymond said that Keller demonstrated the same spirit.
The memorial was Keller’s Eagle Scout Service Project, a community service project that’s a requirement for reaching the top scouting rank. Keller said he began the project by approaching the U.S. National Parks Service, which oversees Fort Vancouver, with the idea. He also got the local Community Military Appreciation Committee on board. Larry Smith, co-chair of the committee, said that they were looking into doing a memorial for Morehouse and the timing of Keller’s project lined up well.
Keller went door to door raising the $5,000 for the memorial, eventually exceeding the amount. Despite the enthusiasm at the memorial’s dedication, Keller said it wasn’t always a straightforward project. Both the parks service and the city of Vancouver had to sign off on it, as did multiple Indian tribes that consider the land sacred.
With the ribbon cut and the memorial dedicated, members for the crowd lingered afterward.
“This is a great day,” said Richard Scott, an Air Force veteran who volunteers as quartermaster with the Moses Williams Northwest chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th (Horse) Cavalry Association. “He did a hell of a job,” he added of Keller’s work.