Lost Brooklyn: The Buffalo Soldier’s House

February 21, 2017

This article by Dr. Tim Gilmore of jaxpsychogeo.com examines the history of one of the last surviving American Civil War era structures in urban Jacksonville.

My license lies in the slight anachronism of the phrase “Buffalo Soldier.” Early in 1864, the Union’s 1st and 2nd South Carolina Infantry Regiments, which held Jacksonville against the Confederacy in March 1863, were designated the 33rd and 34th U.S. Colored Infantry. The former slaves and black soldiers who resettled in Brooklyn were “Buffalo Soldiers,” but not yet. The term “Buffalo Soldier” first applied to the U.S. Army’s 10th Calvary Regiment formed in 1866, then spread to all United States Colored Troops, even retroactively. People still argue fiercely both the origin and application of the term.

Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana (Wikipedia)

Joe “Hot Wing” Tillmon, former president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Motorcycle Club and present president of the Jacksonville chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Historical Society, takes great offense to the confusion of terms. Tillmon staunchly believes that only the black troops who fought native tribes in the U.S. Indian Wars should be called “Buffalo Soldiers.”

“When people call United States Colored Troops ‘Buffalo Soldiers,’” he says, “they discredit the specific history of those other units by lumping all of them together.”

photo by Hurley Winkler

Other post-Civil War Brooklyn cottages stood until recently at 344 Chelsea and 364 Spruce. Now only 328 Chelsea is left. “Hall-and-parlors” spanned no larger than shotgun houses, built of heart pine and nebulous hard “crackerwood.” Their rooflines protruded at right angles to those of shotgun shacks and dogtrot houses.

Shotgun houses bear gables toward the street, with one long side hallway, front door to back, through which you could shoot the eponymous shotgun. Dogtrots bear rooms to either side of a central breezeway. Hall-and-parlor houses took root in the Southern countryside, which inner-city Brooklyn was in the 1870s, but rarely in cities.

344 Chelsea Street, early 1980s, now demolished, courtesy Wayne Wood

The gables of 328 Chelsea, as with other hall-and-parlors, face the buildings on either side as the roof declines across a prominent porch toward the street. The porch yields to the parlor, and the parlor to the hall to the bedroom.

328’s front plaster falls away in clumps to show fiberglass panels underneath that cover original hardwood walls. The tin roof dates back far before suburbia. The sky breaks into the hallway through the holes in the roof and the rafters. Long ago, someone enclosed the front porch as annex to the parlor.

The waxen dark green leaves of Bleeding Heart vines, their recently red blooms detumesced to fallen browns, reach up through plywood-sheeted windows, their roots in the Emancipation Proclamation.

Most of Brooklyn has fallen and disappeared. Les Paul Garner sold 150 to 200 copies of the black newspaper The Florida Star, walking door to door in Brooklyn in the late 1970s, when Brooklyn’s population had declined from more than 6,000, just 25 years prior, to around 800.

photo by Hurley Winkler

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