The pride of the Buffalo Soldiers; Southboro man's collection honors early fighters.
When he tells the story of Col. Benjamin H. Grierson, Peter R. DePina's eyes fill with tears.
Just trying to comprehend why, in 1866, a white man with so much potential in the military would give it all up to lead the all-black 10th U.S. Calvary known as Buffalo Soldiers is too much for the 78-year-old.
It is what makes him choose "Tracking Victorio," a Don Stivers painting, as the favorite of his Buffalo Soldier-related collection of artwork. It depicts Col. Grierson leading the soldiers.
"I get emotional," he said. "Do you know what I'm saying? To give it all up? Grierson gave up everything, and his family was involved."
Mr. DePina's extensive collection is on display at the Massachusetts National Guard Museum, 44 Salisbury St., Worcester. The collection will be displayed until June 12 and is open to the public at no charge from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. weekdays.
Moving the collection from place to place is no small feat. Mr. DePina has been gathering dozens of paintings, books and figurines depicting African-American soldiers for more than 30 years and has amassed enough items to fill two rooms in his Southboro home. His wife of more than 50 years has learned to deal with her husband's ways.
Part of the reason for the collection and "Buffalo Soldier Heritage," which he and Russell A. Horne, also of Southboro, operate together is to spread the little known story of African-American soldiers and their role in American history. Only about 1 percent of the people they meet can tell them what a Buffalo Soldier is - though many have heard the Bob Marley song of the same name.
The men travel to schools dressed in replica uniforms and teach children about the Buffalo Soldiers. Mr. Horne plays the part of Col. Grierson. They talk about how the name, given to the soldiers by American Indians, may have come from the tenacity of the buffalo or perhaps because the men's dark skin and coarse hair was like that of the sacred animal. And they tell how some black soldiers of today still call themselves Buffalo Soldiers because it is such an honorable term.
Mr. DePina was a soldier in the 1940s and 1950s as the army was being desegregated.
"I was always in trouble," he said, laughing. "I didn't like it (segregation). You didn't get treated right."
He remembers eating away from the white soldiers, seeing movies in a separate area and being frowned upon by some white troops. He remembered that as the changes were being made, black soldiers were told it would take 20 to 25 years for attitudes to change.
Having a black president makes him proud, but he's quick to point out that so many others paved the way for the election of Barack H. Obama.
He enjoys history, but if he had a chance to meet anyone, living or dead, he'd choose retired Gen. Colin Powell.
"He has a way about him," Mr. DePina said. "He's a city kid who went a long way without going to West Point."
He figures that as long as there are people on the planet, there will be some form of prejudice, but things have gotten better. Still he worries that the legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers will be lost with no one to pass on their stories.
He and Mr. Horne are working with the Southboro Historical Society and the state to acquire a building that would house Mr. DePina's collection and would offer other temporary exhibits about lesser-known aspects of American history.
It's something Mr. Depina hopes he'll see, though after four years at work on the project, he wonders.
"I probably won't live to see the museum open," he said. "But that's part of life."
CUTLINE: (1) The photograph above was taken at Fort Robinson, Neb., of non-commissioned officers from the U.S. Army's 9th Cavalry Regiment in 1889. (2) The cover photo (by staff photographer Dan Gould) shows Russell A. Horne, left, and Peter R. DePina in the National Guard Museum where DePina's Buffalo Soldier collection is on display. (3) Buffalo soldiers from the 10th Cavalry Regiment.
PHOTOG: (2) T&G Staff/DAN GOULD
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|Publication:||Telegram & Gazette (Worcester, MA)|
|Date:||May 10, 2009|
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