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One of the last surviving Buffalo Soldiers dies at 99: ‘He was a fighter’

Buffalo Soldiers (Unknown/WikiCommons)

Steve Lewis of Bradenton, who was one of the last surviving members of the Buffalo Soldiers, an all-Black cavalry regiment, died Tuesday, Dec. 28. He was 99.

Lewis served in the Ninth Cavalry Regiment of the U.S. Army in the early days of World War II. It was a unit that gained fame after the American Civil War patrolling the American frontier in the Old West. Native Americans called the cavalrymen “buffalo soldiers” historians believe, for their appearance and bravery.

Lewis, who was born in Dade City on Jan. 27, 1922, was raised in Palmetto. He was a senior at the all-Black Memorial High School in Palmetto, when the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941, drawing the United States into World War II.

“The principal, W.J. Anderson, had the students gather around a radio to listen to President Roosevelt,” Lewis said in a 2014 Bradenton Herald interview, as he recalled the “Day of Infamy” speech, asking for a declaration of war on the Japanese empire.

Lewis spent most of 1942 in college at Florida A&M, and in 1943 entered the Army.

He was initially assigned to the 9th Cavalry Regiment at Fort Clark, Texas. The unit was originally organized to escort settlers and to keep the peace in the Old West.

“At Fort Clark, Lewis was told to go to the corral and get a horse. He was issued a saddle, bridle, horse blankets, stirrups” and more, according to his citation from the Buffalo Soldiers Association. “Lewis fed, watered, and took care of his horse before himself.”

He also learned how to ride a horse and to fire a .45 pistol from horseback.

But facing the reality of blitzkrieg tactics in World War II, the Army deactivated the 9th Cavalry Regiment and reassigned Lewis to the U.S. Army Transportation Corps.

Lewis and his unit landed in Casablanca, and played an essential role in delivering war materials to the front in Italy, France, and Germany.

After the war, Lewis returned to civilian life and earned a degree in agriculture from Florida A&M. He taught school for more than 30 years in the Palmetto area.

Lewis never sought attention and rarely talked about his wartime experiences, aside from wearing his buffalo soldier baseball cap wherever he went.

“He was a fighter to the end,” his daughter, Jennifer Lewis, said Wednesday. “Old age is not for the faint of heart. You have to be a soldier, and he was.”

Belated honors

Through the efforts of Lewis’ friend, Henry Blyden, Lewis received belated attention for his service and was honored by the Woods and Wanton Chapter of the 9th and 10th Horse Cavalry Association-Buffalo Soldiers. He was also honored in 2014 by the Manatee County NAACP.

In 2019, the former Army corporal rode through the streets of Bradenton in the DeSoto Grand Parade as grand marshal.

Robert Powell, president of the Manatee NAACP, said he grew up in the same church that Steve Lewis attended.

“We have lost a true legend. He would talk to us for hours about the history of Manatee County, and his experiences growing up here. He was a great man,” Powell said.

Keenan Wooten knew Steve Lewis as a mentor, as well as a fraternity brother.

“Steve Lewis was a visionary, and a class educator. He taught everybody, especially in the Black community,” Wooten said.

In 2018, Wooten accompanied Lewis on an Honor Flight to Washington, D.C., to see the World War II Memorial for the first time.

“It was a glorious event,” Wooten said.

In addition, Steve Lewis memorabilia is included in the Heritage House exhibition at State College of Florida, Wooten said.

“The man has a heart of gold. He goes out of his way even at his age to help his fellow man,” Blyden told the Herald in 2014.

And he has a prayer at night that goes something like, “Lord, I’m not ready to come home tonight, but I have had a good life,” Blyden said.

Lewis died about one month short of his 100th birthday.

“The old soldier just gave out,” Wooten said. “He will be greatly missed.”

Mr. Lewis is survived by his daughter Jennifer Lewis. His wife, Caldonia Middleton Lewis, preceded him in death.

“Many people ask me to what I attribute his long life? And I always say it was the women in his life,” Jennifer Lewis said.

“He was always surrounded by caring strong women — his mother, his aunts, his older sisters from his father’s first marriage. He had an older cousin, Annie Craddock, who took his hand and walked him to the first day of school, and his younger sisters from the union between his mother and father,” Lewis said.

Viewing is set for 11 a.m. — 1 p.m. Tuesday, Jan. 4, 2022, at Turner Chapel AME Church, 316 11th St Drive. W., Palmetto. Graveside service will follow at 1:30 p.m. at Mansion Memorial Park, 1400 36th Ave. E., Ellenton. Covid protocols will be followed.

In lieu of flowers, tax deductible donations are invited on behalf of the Sarasota FL Alumni Chapter of Kappa Alpha Psi Fraternity, Inc” to Sarasota-Bradenton Project Guide Right Inc., P.O. Box 573, Tallevast, FL 34270.

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(c) 2021 The Bradenton Herald

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