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The Mystery of the West Point Cavalry Detachment Football Team
A February 2021 Washington Post article describes two mid-1920s photographs of a football team posing in West Point's newly-built Michie Stadium. Recently discovered in the National Archives, the images are notable because the players in the pictures are black, despite West Point's varsity football team remaining all-white for another forty years. What's happening in these pictures?
A partial explanation comes from the labeled sleeve in which the images were found that identifies the team as the 1925 or 1926 West Point Cavalry Detachment team. It is well known at West Point that the Cavalry Detachment was manned between 1907 and 1946 by 100, and later, 220 black enlisted men from the 9th or 10th Cavalry, commonly known as "Buffalo Soldiers." They cared for the horses, and taught horsemanship and cavalry tactics to West Point's cadets. While the label provides some information, there are few additional records concerning those who served in active-duty units at West Point, regardless of their race or time. Thus, the Washington Post article left us with a mystery as to the players' identity, the teams they played, and how they fared in their games. Of course, that created a desire to unravel part of the mystery.
Although West Point has little information about the Cavalry Detachment team, newspaper archives and an image found by happenstance yielded some understanding of the teams and their opponents, though many questions remain unanswered.
As background, the U.S. Army and Navy have fielded base or ship athletic teams since the late 1800s. Best known to the general public are all-star teams that played outside competition for public relations purposes, including those that played in the 1918 and 1919 Rose Bowls, and the 1944 Cotton Bowl. However, most military teams played in intramural leagues organized at the company, regiment, or similar levels at large bases. Some intramural teams also played outside competition, but where does an all-black football team located in rural New York State in the 1920s find teams willing to meet on the friendly fields of strife?
America's armed forces were segregated until 1948. Major league baseball was all white. The early NFL had a handful of black players in the 1920s, but that largely stopped in 1927 and African-American players did not return until 1946. Similarly, white or predominantly-white colleges in the North might have had one or two black players on the roster -most had none- but the white colleges certainly did not play black colleges. So, who did the Cavalry Detachment play?
It turns out that West Point hosted a multi-sport enlisted men's league in the 1920s and 1930s among the teams representing its Artillery, Service Department, Engineer, and Cavalry units, perhaps others. Since the enlisted men in the other units at West Point were all-white, the all-black Cavalry team's intramural competition was all-white as well. The available accounts indicate the Cavalry team was competitive in the enlisted men's league in most years, winning some games and losing others.
During the research for this article, the author happened upon images of a trophy in an online collector's forum that bore the inscription: WEST POINT FOOTBALL LEAGUE CHAMPIONSHIP 1929 WON BY U.S.M.A. DET. OF CAV.
Purchased by a collector from an antique shop thirty-some years ago, the trophy has seen better days, but confirms the Cavalry Detachment had its share of victories in the enlisted men's league.
Other newspaper articles show the Cavalry Detachment football team was active until at least 1932, and the enlisted men's league at West Point played basketball, if not other sports, until 1938. Still, little else is known about how well the team played in the enlisted men's league.
More information about the team comes from newspaper reports of their games against outside competition, including games against black teams outside West Point's gates. The Detachment's 1925 basketball team played the famous 369th Infantry Regiment. The 369th was a New York State National Guard unit known as the Harlem Hellfighters that served under French command in WWI, spending more time on the frontlines than any American unit. Detachment football games against black teams in the New York City area have not been identified, but the brief newspaper article shown below tells us they sought outside games.
Among the opponents they scheduled was Lincoln University in Philadelphia, then the top black college football team in the North. Their 1925 and 1926 games earned previews and game reports in the Pittsburgh Courier, a black newspaper. The white press does not appear to have covered either game. Regardless, Lincoln University lanced the Cavalry team 66-0 in 1925 and 87-0 in 1926. They did the same to a few university teams those years, but the scores tell us the Cavalry team clearly could not compete at Lincoln's level.
The Pittsburgh Courier article for the 1925 game included a box score with starting lineups and substitutes. Combined with several other articles, the following men were involved with the 1925 and 1926 teams. Though limited, the information is shown here in the hope that descendants of these players or other researchers can fill in some of the many gaps.
The second image of the football team found in the National Archives shows eleven players lined up on offense. If we assume the picture shows the 1925 team's starters and largely the same group started against Lincoln University game, the combination could identify some players in the image.
In addition to outside games against black competition, the Cavalry Detachment played club and semi-pro teams within one hundred miles of West Point whose games were covered by the opponents' local newspapers.
The Kingston Yellow Jackets were regular opponents, while others on the schedule included the Poughkeepsie Bears, Yonkers Gray Sox, and Pittsfield (MA) Athletic Association. The club teams were presumably all-white or predominantly white. (Racist commentary in a newspaper article or two suggests that was the case.) Given the segregated nature of high-profile sports in the 1920s, it may be surprising the Cavalry Detachment played white teams, but it turns out that black and white club / semi-pro teams in the North sometimes played one another. Similar newspaper reports show the Buffalo Soldier cavalry unit football teams at Fort Riley in Kansas played nearby town teams, and one assumes the Kansas town teams were largely white.
Like the 1925 and 1926 Cavalry Detachment lineups, displaying the information on the 1928 and 1929 rosters may facilitate investigation by other researchers. Perhaps those using Ancestry.com and other tools can link records to the names of these men that enhance our understanding of their lives and experiences.
Like the Washington Post article, the information presented here leaves more questions than answers. Still, it paints a broader picture of the Cavalry Detachment team and the competition faced. Notably, despite the racism and segregation of the times, we now know a black football team from the Hudson River Valley competed on the field with area white football teams. It was a small, but encouraging step. Just as these men toppled barriers during their time, here's to hoping others can advance the investigation to reveal a deeper understanding of the lives these men led.
A substantially updated version of this story that identifies some men in the pictures can be found here. The trophy pictured above is currently on display at the National Archive Museum as part of the All American: The Power of Sports exhibit.
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