Wordy Wednesday: My Meeting with a Buffalo Soldier

I didn’t want the last days of February — Black History Month — to slip away without relating one of the more awesome experiences I had back in my reporting days. In 1998, I had the chance to interview Mark Matthews, age 103 at the time, and one of the last surviving Buffalo Soldiers who fought in the Old West.

I met with Matthews in the home of his daughter, not far from the Maryland/Washington, D.C., line. The first time I arrived to interview him, with a photographer in tow, we were refused because he didn’t feel up to having his picture taken that day. The photographer was disappointed, but when you’re 103, you call the shots.

The second time we arrived for the interview, Matthews was feeling better. Much better. I asked him one question and he talked for 40 minutes. I asked him a second question and he talked for 30 more minutes. When it came time for the photographer to take his picture, Matthews donned his cavalry hat, sat up straight and jutted out his chin, though he could barely see the camera that was pointed at him.

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Here’s a quick summary about Matthews:

He joined the Buffalo Soldiers 10th Cavalry shortly after meeting some of the soldiers when he was only 15. A friend helped him forge papers he needed to join up because you had to be 17 at the time to enlist.

“They got me all trained up and everything,” he said. “When I got to 17, they shipped me out right to Arizona.”

Matthews was part of the border patrol at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., where he encountered bandits, including Pancho Villa’s men. He also served in World War II.

He later was stationed at Fort Myer, Va., where he performed in drills for the likes of Queen Elizabeth II. He got to meet President Clinton twice.

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At the time I wrote the article, it was believed that Matthews was the last surviving Buffalo Soldier from his regiment. Over time, I often wondered what happened to Matthews. After years went by, I thought surely he must have passed away. Turns out, he lived until he was 111 years old! I found this tribute page with the text of his 2005 obituary from the Washington Post. It is noted in his obituaries that he was the oldest surviving Buffalo Soldier before he died. He also was the oldest man in Washington, D.C.

It’s been nearly 12 years since the interview and I still can’t believe I had the opportunity to meet this man and hear his incredible story first-hand.