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By Traci Chapman
It is the end of an era.
Alfonso Benson of Calumet, 89, died Jan. 4. In a life filled with firsts, Benson was also a last – the final original buffalo soldier living in Oklahoma.
Original buffalo soldiers were those defined as any African American man serving from the cavalry of the mid-1800s through World War II. Benson was one of those, a man who traveled from his home in Kansas to the South Pacific.
Buffalo soldiers were first members of the 10th Cavalry, formed in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth, Kan. The first black U.S. soldiers, they escorted wagon trains and worked cross-country cattle drives, before representing their country in the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II.
Although the buffalo soldier organization expanded its ranks to include other black veterans who served after World War II, Benson was part of a dwindling club known as “original” buffalo soldiers. As the years went on, the Calumet man became known perhaps less for his own service than that of another – an original member of the 10th Cavalry named Clark Young.
Buried in Fort Reno’s historic cemetery, Benson portrayed Young for years in events like Tombstone Tales and Candlelight Tours. After being wounded at the Battle of Sand Hill, Young died in April 1875. Benson said he felt it was important to bring Young’s spirit back to life, to educate people about what the buffalo soldiers stood for.
“Especially for the children, we need to make sure they know about history, about all history, and some of that isn’t really in the books,” he said last year.
Benson himself became part of history when he joined the Army during World War II. Things were different in those days, just as they had been from the organization of the first all-black regiment – the 10th Cavalry, formed in 1866 at Fort Leavenworth. Through those years – through the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, World War I and World War II, African American soldiers were segregated from their white counterparts. Benson said it is strange now to think that just a little more than 60 years ago, black soldiers were not issued weapons.
“We built the hospital and the railroad, but we didn’t do any fighting,” he said. “Only one black unit did any fighting.”
After the service, Benson went back home to Kansas City to work with his father in the steel mill. He said the work was hard, but life as one of 10 siblings – five boys and five girls – was happy.
In 1948, Benson entered the Kansas City Police Academy. In 1950, Benson became the Kansas City Police Department’s first black motorcycle officer and also served as one of the city’s first vice detectives.
In 1953, after a visit to California, Benson said he moved his family to Compton, a suburb of Los Angeles. Benson worked his way up the ranks and headed the department’s internal affairs department for 12 years, retiring as a first lieutenant in 1987, after more than 28 years on the job.
In 1989, a family celebration led the Bensons to Oklahoma. Benson and his wife, Lillie, visited Lillie’s sister, who lived in Geary. It was then they decided to move to a farm near Calumet.
Benson said once word got out he was an ex-police officer, he was tapped to serve on the city’s volunteer fire department. He also served as president of the Calumet Chamber of Commerce and was involved with the American Legion, as well as the Buffalo Soldiers 9th and 10th Cavalry Horse Association.
Hundreds of people learned a little about history thanks to Al Benson. He said last year it was a mutual gift.
“I really get a kick out of it, of having those children ask questions or learn something new,” he said. “There are so few of us left, but hopefully the stories can live on through those who’ve heard them.”