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Bedford’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’

By ZOË HAGGARD - zhaggard@t-g.com
Posted 2/8/22

While preserving County papers found in old Woodruff file cabinets at the Courthouse, Bedford County archivist Carol Roberts came across the estate of Albert William Ray.

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Bedford’s ‘Buffalo Soldier’


While preserving County papers found in old Woodruff file cabinets at the Courthouse, Bedford County archivist Carol Roberts came across the estate of Albert William Ray.

Through a mix of deeds, enlistment papers, hand-written speeches and receipts, Roberts has pieced together the life and “complicated estate” of the former Bedford slave turned “Buffalo Soldier” turned education advocate.

“There was every level of hardship to society,” said Roberts. “So, I wouldn’t say that it was perfect, but I know that there were many families that felt that education was the key as well as being good, solid businessmen.”

Roberts says Albert Ray’s estate papers were detailed and extensive since Ray kept most of them with him as he traveled among Tennessee, Michigan, and Georgia. She has all his papers—yellowing and wrinkled but otherwise preserved—in neatly labeled manila envelopes, chronological to the expanse of his seven-decade life.

With only blue skies

Ray was born in the Shelbyville area in 1848. He and his mother, Fannie Ray, were slaves. Where exactly they were enslaved is unknown for now, according to Roberts.

What is known is that Ray and his mother gained their freedom after the American Civil War, which took the lives of an estimated 620,000 men in the North and South.

In a later speech titled “Preface,” handwritten in excellent penmanship, Ray recounts the moment he gained freedom.

Roberts, who has the actual paper of Ray's speech as part of his estate, read from the document, “My old mistress handed my mother our freedom papers saying, ‘You and your boy are now free. The North has

freed you and you will have to provide for yourself. I have nothing left to do with you.’ We looked at each other with nothing to cover us but blue skies...not an inch of ground we stood on belonged to us.”

In a couple lines down in the speech, Ray even admits at that moment that he wished he were enslaved again. But Ray said he “yearned for more.”

Ray pursued a life for himself. He may have been married at one point, Roberts said, but she must have died early on. Ray never remarried or had any children.

Where the buffalo roam

In 1875, at the age of 26, Ray enlisted in the Army and was assigned to the 25th US Infantry, Co. F, which traveled through Texas, the Dakotas, Montana, and Minnesota. The African American regiment was nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers” by Native Americans, who likened the fierce fighters with dark, curly hair to buffalos, according to the National Parks Service official government website.

There are no known pictures of Ray, but his military papers described him as 5 ft 10 in, brown complexion with brown eyes.

From his enlistment papers, Roberts could tell Ray started on as a “teamster” and was promoted from Sergeant to First Sergeant. He then became Company Clerk and received letters of recommendation for his work and “well-known excellent penmanship.”

Ray retired from the Army in 1890, just a few months before the unit’s involvement at Pine Ridge and Wounded Knee.

After his military career, Ray did not settle back in Bedford. Instead, Roberts said Ray settled in Sault Sainte Marie, Michigan where he worked as a pullman porter or sleeping car conductor for the Canadian Pacific Railroad based in Duluth.

Roberts said Ray could have possibly joined the Army and settled up North to escape the South’s reconstruction era, which presented a decimated economy and tense relations between blacks and whites.

Whatever the reason, it’s clear Ray pursued education and remained a fervent advocate for educating young African Americans as he was a supporter of black author, orator, and presidential advisor Booker T. Washington.

‘Blessing of education’

Roberts is unsure where Ray received his education. She speculates part of it may have come from the military. However, she has no existing documents to support where he received his reading, writing, and arithmetic skills.

There’s another speech by Ray entitled the “Blessing of Education,” which Roberts says he prepared for a correspondence course. Roberts read from the document, “Of all the Blessings which it has pleased Providence to allow us to cultivate, there is not one which breathes purer fragrance or bears a heavenlier aspect than education...Without it, what is man?”

Looking at the “philanthropic” side of his education advocacy, Ray paid tuition, books and board for a young woman named Hattie Leach to attend Howard University from the fall of 1917 to 1918.

However, Ray died of pneumonia while in Bedford in 1918 at the age of 70.

To the courts

But one of the most interesting correspondences Ray dealt with before he died involved nine and half acres of land in Ocilla, Georgia.

Roberts said he “invested” in the land and contracted shares that were part of the “Booker Washington Colony Company” in 1909.

As far as researchers can tell, there were three Booker Washington colonies in Georgia, Alabama, and Minnesota established between 1900 and 1920 as an “investment for the black community to establish small towns and businesses,” according to Roberts.

But by 1914, Ray sends a letter to Bedford County Judge—and fellow acquaintance—John McDowell, stating he had been “unjustly dealt with” and that he was being “cheated” by this company.

Bedford County judicial officials did inquire into the legitimacy of this Booker Washington Colony only to receive snarky comments back from the company’s lawyer. Roberts read from the 1915 letter by Howard Oxford, “Your letter came as a surprise to me. I am going to write you frankly. I am tired of being bothered by your letters when there is absolutely no semblance of truth contained in them.”

There are no documents that state if Ray officially received any money from settlement. Ray had passed away before the case was settled.

Roberts believes Judge McDowell did pursue the inquiry out of respect for Ray.

Though relations were by no means perfect, local legal representation for the African American community was not rare here. “I have seen where numerous people of the legal field, including lawyers, consistently worked with the black community to have fair, legal representation...such as through asking detailed research questions,” Roberts said.

Dividing the estate

Ray did have land here in Bedford—a one-acre lot between North Main and Midland Road, according to Roberts. But if the property lines still exist today, they just barely exist, she said.

Ray died without a will, leaving his estate to be distributed among his half siblings’ children identified as James Turner, son of Virgie Brittain, and Virginia and Reva May Brittain, daughters of Joe Brittain.

Roberts said Ray is buried at Mount Ararat Cemetery, however, he has no head stone. She hopes his remains may one day be identified and that a military headstone may be erected for Bedford’s own “Buffalo Soldier” to remember his service and his support for the local African American community.