More than 120 years after his death, Pvt. James Johnson will receive a symbolic burial and be remembered for his military service Saturday in Bartow, Fla.
The Buffalo Soldiers Florida will hold a symbolic funeral and headstone dedication for Johnson at 11 a.m. Saturday at Evergreen Cemetery, located near State Road 60 and Baker Avenue.
Lakeland resident Richard Wilder, president of the Col. Charles Young Chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Florida, said it’s an honor that’s long overdue.
“It’s important to give this fallen soldier a final resting place in a cemetery that has so much history,” he said.
Johnson was a member of the U.S. 10th Cavalry Unit, one of two Black cavalry units established after Civil War, who was stationed in Lakeland during the Spanish-American War. He died of tuberculosis in Bartow on Nov. 26, 1898, while awaiting trial.
Wilder said he first heard of Johnson’s story when William Harris wrote about Lakeland’s history involving the Spanish-American War in an article “Soldiers in the Sand” in May 2020 for the Polk County Historical Society.
Harris’ article recounts the events of May 16, 1898, when several soldiers went into town allegedly to get drinks and were refused service under Jim Crow-era segregation laws. An argument followed, and Johnson was one of two Buffalo soldiers accused of shooting a civilian, Joab Collins.
“Here in Lakeland, as one of the troopers wrote, it was hotbed of hatred,” Wilder said.
Harris’ article and Wilder’s own research show there are several different accounts of what events happened leading up to Collins’ death.
Wilder said he thinks the conflict was fueled by racism and a tense social environment for the troops, given their lengthy service in the Midwest. There, they acted as military police with authority, which conflicted with the South’s Jim Crow laws.
“At that time, when the men came to Lakeland, they had a sense of pride and strength that the Black residents of Lakeland did not possess,” he said, “Because when they walked the streets, they had to get off sidewalks and couldn’t look white residents in the face when they talked.”
Johnson was put on trial and was found guilty of second-degree murder, while his fellow trooper was acquitted and released, according to Harris’ article. Johnson filed an appeal for a new trial but died before it was granted.
Wilder said he questions whether Johnson truly died of tuberculosis, or consumption, as the records show.
“That’s a big question mark for me,” he said. “He was waiting on trial for his appeal, all his witnesses were on ship going to Cuba, and he mysteriously died before his appeal could become active.”
A funeral was held for the soldier at Bartow’s First Providence Church before he was buried. Johnson’s exact burial site has not been located, according to Wilder.
Buffalo Soldiers of Florida had purchased a headstone that will be dedicated, and the group has been trying to find whether Johnson has any living descendants.
“We must do everything we can for fallen troopers, and even today,” Wilder said.
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