U.S. Army soldier
In the wake of the Civil War, Congress created a handful of all-Black regiments within the U.S. Army. The members of these units—the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiment—were dubbed "Buffalo Soldiers" by Native Americans of the West because of the texture of their hair. They served with distinction across the Western United States over the next few decades in the face of overt discrimination in the military. The Buffalo Soldier regiments remained intact for more than 80 years, until the armed forces were finally desegregated after World War II. First Sgt. Mark Matthews exemplified the courage and dedication of the Buffalo Soldiers. By the time he died in 2005, Matthews was the oldest living member of this much-honored group of military men.
Matthews was born on August 7, 1894, in Greenville, Alabama. His twin sister, Kaybera, died when she was still an infant. Matthews was raised in Mansfield, Ohio, though he also spent parts of his childhood in Kentucky and West Virginia. He learned to ride horses at an early age. As a youth in Mansfield, Matthews delivered the local newspaper on his pony. At age 12, he began working at Kentucky racetracks.
When Matthews was working as a horse exerciser at a racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky, at age 15, he encountered a group of Buffalo Soldiers from the 10th cavalry. As soon as the soldiers told Matthews that they went everywhere on horseback, he was hooked. Although the law required that a young man be 17 years old to enlist, Matthews' employer fabricated documents adding a couple of years to his age. The documents were good enough for the recruiter in Columbus, Ohio, and at 16 Matthews joined the U.S. Army.
Matthews was initially stationed at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, where he learned how to ride different kinds of horses and how to jump properly. He also became an expert marksman. "There couldn't hardly anybody beat me shooting," Matthews was quoted as saying in a 2003 Parade magazine interview. "Every time I got in a contest where I shot at a target or something, I usually won."
One of Matthews' main assignments during his early military career was border patrol. With the 10th Cavalry, he monitored the U.S.-Mexican border as part of the effort led by Gen. John Joseph "Black Jack" Pershing to track down Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa. During the 1920s, with several years of military experience under his belt, Matthews helped train younger soldiers. "I had a whole troop of my own," he was quoted as saying in the 2003 Parade interview. "I trained them how to ride the horses, what to do and what not to do."
Assigned to Fort Myer, Virginia, in 1931, he continued to train new recruits in horsemanship there. He also played on the unit's polo team, and helped tend Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidential stable. While stationed at Fort Myer, Matthews met and married Genevieve Hill. They remained married until Genevieve's death in 1986.
By the time the United States entered World War II, Matthews was in his late 40s. He nevertheless saw action on Saipan, the largest of the Northern Mariana Islands in the South Pacific. Matthews never forgot the peril of serving on Saipan in the crosshairs of snipers' guns. "A soldier I knew—a lieutenant who had been in the Army six years, fighting in Europe—got shot that first doggone day," he was quoted as saying in Parade.
Matthews retired from the Army as a First Sergeant a few years after the end of World War II, and shortly after that the units that made up the Buffalo Soldiers were phased out with the desegregation of the armed forces, made official by a 1948 executive order from President Harry S Truman. Upon retiring, Matthews took a job as a security guard at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, Maryland.
Matthews retired from NIH in 1970, having worked his way up to chief of guards. He settled into a quiet retirement life, remaining with Genevieve in the same Washington, D.C., neighborhood in which they had raised their four daughters. Fishing was one of his main hobbies, and he enjoyed taking his grandchildren out to cast a line. He was also well known in the neighborhood for his storytelling, as he sat on the porch and regaled friends and family with tales of his experiences in the West and in the South Pacific. "Growing up, I heard a lot about the Indian guides at Fort Huachuca and all about Pancho Villa," Matthews' oldest daughter, Mary Watson, was quoted as saying in the 2003 Parade article. "They were good stories, but at the time I didn't appreciate that this is really history. It wasn't until I learned about the Buffalo Soldiers at school that I realized how important my daddy was."
Matthews' wife Genevieve died in 1986, and two years later one of their daughters, Shirley Ann Matthews Mills, passed away. In 2002 Matthews celebrated his 108th birthday by paying a visit to Secretary of State Colin Powell. Powell had long advocated for establishing a monument honoring the Buffalo Soldiers, and had succeeded in 1992 in having such a monument placed at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, the original home of one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments.
By his 111th birthday in August of 2005, Matthews was believed to be the oldest living man in Washington, D.C., (an older woman was still living) in addition to being the oldest living Buffalo Soldier. Although his eyesight had been failing for the last ten years due to glaucoma and cataracts, he was in remarkably good health for a person at the extreme upper range of the human lifespan. According to an article in the Washington Informer, he was still able to walk without a cane or walker, and even managed to navigate the stairway in his home unassisted, albeit slowly. "I don't have to fix any special foods for him," his daughter and chief caretaker Mary Watson was quoted in the Informer as saying. "I just mash up whatever we have for dinner."
Soon after celebrating that birthday, however, Matthews was forced to move into a nursing home. He died of pneumonia on September 6, 2005. He was survived by his three remaining daughters, one son, nine grandchildren, and 17 great-grandchildren. Matthews was laid to rest in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors. Nobody knows if other Buffalo Soldiers outlived Matthews, but the piece of United States history they forged will survive in America's collective memory forever.
At a Glance …
Born on August 7, 1894, in Greenville, Alabama; on died September 6, 2005, in Washington, DC; married Genevieve Hill; children: four daughters. Military Service: U.S. Army, 1910–47. Religion: African Methodist Episcopal.
Career: Horse exercise, various racetracks, c. 1906–10; U.S. Army, 1910–47; National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD, security officer, 1948–70.
Memberships: Prince Hall Masonic Temple; Washington DC Chapter of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Association.
Parade Magazine, August 3, 2003.
Washington Informer, August 25, 2005.
Washington Post, September 13, 2005; September 20, 2005.
"Oldest Buffalo Soldier Marks 108th Birthday," CNN, http://archives.cnn.com/2002/US/08/07/oldest.buffalo.soldier/index.html (January 8, 2007).
"Tribute to Trooper Mark Matthews," Greater Washington DC Chapter 9th & 10th (Horse) Cavalry Assn., www.buffalosoldiers-washington.com/new_page_1.htm (January 8, 2007).