My "roots" journey began with a picture of a man in military uniform…a strange looking uniform, old fashioned, topped off with a silly looking hat. It was nothing like the hats I was used to seeing on military men in the 1950's. And as I sat in the small dining room of the house at 1535 T Street N.W., Shaw District, in the Nation's Capitol, gazing at the mantel and the military man's picture, even at the age of eight I knew there was something special about his story. Grandma (Lucy Comfort Winston Blackistone) said he was "great - grandma Money's (Mary Comfort Winston) uncle, named Benjamin Brown" and Aunt Blanche chimed in, "He's buried at Soldier's Home". Benjamin Brown wasn't the only picture on the mantel. There was this terrific portrait of my Grandfather, John Roger Blackistone. His handsome face and his intense eyes followed me wherever I sat at the dining room table. He was in a tuxedo, looking like he might have been ready for a "night on the town", or a "gig" with Duke Ellington's band. He had a story too…..I just knew it.
But, this story is about Benjamin. It was 33 years later when I really took notice of that picture again…still in the same place on the mantle. Except by then, Mom (Marjorie Adele Blackistone Bradfield - Detroit's first black professional librarian) had made copies of the original. Benjamin's color, seemingly a light brown in the sepia toned photo, faded in the stark black and white copies. But he was still a black man in a white man's army in the late 1800's. Now, as an adult I was asking different questions. (Me) Where's Soldier's Home? (Mom) Why in Washington, DC, of course. (Me) What's so special about this guy? (Gert, Mom's sister) Money always said he was a hero. OK, I said, if he's a hero and he's buried right here, let's go find him. And I pulled out the DC white pages picked up the phone and dialed Soldier's Home. By now at my age, and with a brush with the military through my husband's and brother's service, I recognized the stripes on the jacket. They were a Master Sergeant's stripes. I knew this guy had to have served in either the Civil War, or perhaps the Spanish American War. After all, if he was Money's uncle he had to have been born in the 1840's or 50's. I also recalled hearing that few, if any, men of color achieved rank above a private until the first world war. If this guy was a Master Sergeant he must have done something to get those stripes.
At the other end of the phone, a crusty, good ole' boy Sergeant answered from the Soldier's Home cemetery office. Not at all elated about looking anybody's records up at 3 pm on a September Friday afternoon, the Sergeant took the basic information about Benjamin Brown. He asked me about the photo. I described what I saw, including this scruffy looking hat that looked out of shape to me. Sergeant remarked, "sounds like a Buffalo Soldier to me". I started to get a little excited. Since moving to California with my family in the 1970's I'd heard a lot about Buffalo Soldiers and took to reading the history of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. Could I have one in my own family?
I waited for what seem to be an interminable period of time, all the while hearing the Sergeant's wheezing, coughing and whistling in the background. I wasn't on hold, just on his desk. About ten minutes later he returned to the phone and said "Gal, (I hate being called 'gal') well I think you done found yourself a bonafidee hero here! That's Master Sergeant Benjamin Brown of the 24th y'all got there. He was a Buffalo Solider and he won the Congressional Medal of Honor! Yes ma'am. He's a buried here, right at Soldier's Home, got his plot number, if you want it."
We'll you could have knocked me over with a feather. And after I recovered from the shock of it all, I wanted a lot more than his plot number. I wanted to see the gravesite, so did Mom, so did Gert. We packed into my rental car and drove to Soldier's Home. It was a perfect autumn day about 65 degrees with beautiful sunshine. I took my Nikon camera and some fresh film. I'd learned from talking to Alex Haley, author of "Roots", during my interview with him, back in 1976, that you should never miss an opportunity to take pictures and record interviews on matters of family history. The Sergeant was waiting for us by the main gate. He grabbed his data and walked while we drove behind him to the grave site.
Oh my! The sight of Benjamin Brown's grave took my breath away. There in front of me was a beautiful pure white marble stone with his rank, name, birth and death dates etched in gold, and a seal identifying him as a Congressional Medal of Honor Winner. It was true. A bona fide hero. I took pictures, copied everything I could find in the Sergeant's records and celebrated with my Mom and Aunt Gert the importance of the oral history in the Comfort, Winston, Blackistone line. They loved that day. I loved sharing it with them.
Benjamin Brown, born in Spottsylvania County, VA about 1860, son of Polly and Henry Brown, won the Congressional Medal of Honor for his participation in trying to save the Army payroll in the Wham Paymaster Robbery. Brown assigned to Company C of the 24th U.S. Infantry, was a part of the detachment of Black troops in Arizona escorting a stagecoach carrying a $29,000 Army payroll on May 11, 1889. Suddenly, the group was attacked by bandits. The 11 escorts fell one by one. Shot in the stomach, Brown fell from his horse and grabbed one of the wounded men's rifles continuing to fire until he was again wounded in both arms. The payroll, was lost, but Brown earned the Congressional Medal for his bravery. Brown never fully recovered from his wounds. He carried one of the bullets inside his body until his death, December 5, 1910 at Soldier's Home.
Trudy Bradfield Taliaferro is a public relations and grants consultant. A former San Francisco Bay Area television reporter, Trudy has been an amateur genealogist for 20 years. Her mother, Marjorie Blackistone Bradfield was the first African American professional librarian in the City of Detroit (1938). Trudy conducts family search seminars for libraries, schools, churches, and community groups in the San Mateo and Santa Clara County area. Her book "Storytime" is scheduled for publication in the summer of 2000. You can contact her at mrstat16@ yahoo.com or call me at 408-206-9809.