Brooklyn: Buffalo Soldier’s House

by Tim Gilmore, 12/25/2016

Halfway through the Civil War, in March 1863, black Union soldiers occupied Confederate Jacksonville for nearly three weeks.

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The following February, the United States sent 7,000 troops into Confederate Florida, including three black regiments. When the Confederacy scored a resounding victory at the Battle of Olustee, Jacksonville, more than 40 miles east, became a defensive wall against Confederate advancement, with black soldiers manning a Union stockade with a 12 foot moat and perhaps two dozen heavy artillery guns through the marshes of what’s now inner-city LaVilla down to Brooklyn, where Camp Foster stood near the intersection of today’s Jackson and Magnolia Streets.

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courtesy Wayne Wood

Perhaps one of those USCT, United States Colored Troops, or “Buffalo Soldiers,” first called the heart pine cottage at 328 Chelsea Street home. Though former slaves and black Union soldiers first occupied this western part of Brooklyn in the 1860s and ’70s, no records indicate 328’s first owner.

The last Buffalo Soldier’s house steps forward to the street. The houses alongside it stand back. Houses that pre-date present street grids sometimes extend to asphalt, as others stand crooked on 1880s’ and ’90s’ maps.

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photo by Hurley Winkler

Large migrations of Northeasterners to Florida in the late 1800s made Jacksonville a surprisingly strong city for Union resistance deep in the Confederacy. Many of Jacksonville’s white population were Union sympathizers and the town was largely black. One goal of the Union’s Florida surge was to recruit former slaves to fight against the Confederacy. They came to Jacksonville in droves and, even as Confederate soldiers tortured to death any black Union fighter they captured, former slaves, now American soldiers, held the line against Confederate forces at Jacksonville.

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photo by Hurley Winkler

As the Union occupation of Confederate towns like Jacksonville ended and the Reconstruction Era began, Confederate veteran Miles Price platted this former plantation into lots and sold them to former slaves and Buffalo Soldiers.

After walking the rotten floors of the last Buffalo Soldier’s house, retying my shoe on the back steps of the oldest house in Brooklyn, I have to admit to poetic license. (Anyway, I’m no historian, just a poet who writes history and gets it right.)

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My license lies in the slight anachronism of the phrase “Buffalo Soldier.” Early in 1864, the Union’s 1st and 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiments, which held Jacksonville against the Confederacy in March 1863, were designated the 33rd and 34th U.S. Colored Infantry. The former slaves and black soldiers who resettled in Brooklyn were “Buffalo Soldiers,” but not yet. The term “Buffalo Soldier” first applied to the U.S. Army’s 10th Calvary Regiment formed in 1866, then spread to all United States Colored Troops, even retroactively. People still argue fiercely both the origin and application of the term.

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magazine illustration, “Buffalo Soldier,” courtesy Florida State Archives, http://www.floridamemory.com

Joe “Hot Wing” Tillmon, former president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club and present president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society, takes great offense to the confusion of terms. Tillmon staunchly believes that only the black troops who fought native tribes in the U.S. Indian Wars should be called “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“When people call United States Colored Troops ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’” he says, “they discredit the specific history of those other units by lumping all of them together.”

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photo by Hurley Winkler

Other post-Civil War Brooklyn cottages stood until recently at 344 Chelsea and 364 Spruce. Now only 328 Chelsea is left. “Hall-and-parlors” spanned no larger than shotgun houses, built of heart pine and nebulous hard “crackerwood.” Their rooflines protruded at right angles to those of shotgun shacks and dogtrot houses.

Shotgun houses bear gables toward the street, with one long side hallway, front door to back, through which you could shoot the eponymous shotgun. Dogtrots bear rooms to either side of a central breezeway. Hall-and-parlor houses took root in the Southern countryside, which inner-city Brooklyn was in the 1870s, but rarely in cities.

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344 Chelsea Street, early 1980s, now demolished, courtesy Wayne Wood

The gables of 328 Chelsea, as with other hall-and-parlors, face the buildings on either side as the roof declines across a prominent porch toward the street. The porch yields to the parlor, and the parlor to the hall to the bedroom.

328’s front plaster falls away in clumps to show fiberglass panels underneath that cover original hardwood walls. The tin roof dates back far before suburbia. The sky breaks into the hallway through the holes in the roof and the rafters. Long ago, someone enclosed the front porch as annex to the parlor.

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The waxen dark green leaves of Bleeding Heart vines, their recently red blooms detumesced to fallen browns, reach up through plywood-sheeted windows, their roots in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Most of Brooklyn has fallen and disappeared. Les Paul Garner sold 150 to 200 copies of the black newspaper The Florida Star, walking door to door in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, when Brooklyn’s population had declined from more than 6,000, just 25 years prior, to around 800.

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photo by Hurley Winkler

Paul remembers when Old Mrs. Linder sat on her plastic deck chair on 328’s concrete porch early in the evening. Paul learned Brooklyn, selling papers, walking each block, and knocking on every door. Though he furrows his brow, presses his closed lips back against his teeth, he can’t remember much about Old Mrs. Linder. She was one more delicate old woman, paper-thin blue-black skin bulging with the veins in her arms and hands, who sat on her front porch early each evening in Brooklyn.

Each night waxes. Houses wane. Sighs caught in old crackerwood corners exhale when a house catches right in the night, exuding its long-clogged ghosts and inaccessible childhood memories.

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“Here’s what you need to understand about houses and seasons,” says Les Paul Garner, whose mother Vivian named him for the guitarist and inventor whose early electric guitars helped create rock n’ roll and named Paul’s sister Brenda Lee for the singer who recorded the 1958 single “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree.”

Paul stands in the deep yard behind the last Buffalo Soldier’s house and says, “Houses live their own lives, like the people who live in them do.”

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It’s easy to assume 328 Chelsea, all 770 square feet, has nothing left to offer a Brooklyn mostly vanished. The house first appears on a municipal map in 1885, though it could’ve been built as early as the late 1860s. It stands like the past beaten repeatedly and left for dead long ago.

“A house can be boarded up for years,” Paul says, “and it seems uninhabitable. But all you have to do is live in the house and it returns to its human-shaped life.”

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These houses fluctuate with the seasons. The floors sink and lean. The exterior shape of the old house holds, though the living space within lurches across its century with the land and the water that runs underneath it.

“You close up an old house,” Paul says. “The floors tilt. The doorjambs and windowsills swell. After years of its living alone, if you move in, slowly the house opens up. Anyone who’s ever moved into an old house after years of its abandonment knows what I mean.”

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He pauses, a grin carries his whole kind face, he looks to the side, shakes his head, then nods toward the Last Buffalo Soldier’s House.

“When people move back into a house,” he says, “the house comes back to life.”