Exclusive: Blair Underwood on the Buffalo Soldiers, Growing Up in a Military Family and Telling the Untold Stories of Black People

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·8 min read
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Photo:  Bruce Glikas/WireImage (Getty Images)
Photo: Bruce Glikas/WireImage (Getty Images)

Everyone knows Blair Underwood right? Golden Globe-nominated and award-winning actor, he’s known for his roles in popular TV shows like L.A. Law and Sex and the City. He’s beloved by many for his iconic roles in the movies Set It Off, Deep Impact, and Something New.

But, did you know the man is a history buff? He loves learning about the untold stories of Black people that affect the way we live today. So it only makes sense he was picked to narrate the upcoming documentary from the HISTORY Channel, Black Patriots: Buffalo Soldiers.

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This documentary tells the untold story of the Nations’ first, all-Black peacetime regiments who are responsible for fighting to expand America’s presence in the West. They laid the groundwork for Black people to join and thrive in the military, including Underwood’s father.

“My father is a retired Army colonel who served for nearly three decades, so highlighting and honoring our veterans is a cause that I care deeply about,” said Underwood.

The Root talked with Underwood about the importance of telling untold Black stories, growing up in a military family and the Buffalo Soldiers.

If you’d like to watch Black Patriots: Buffalo Soldiers, the one-hour documentary premieres on The HISTORY Channel on Tuesday, May 31 at 10:30 p.m. EST.

The Root: What led to you wanting to work on this documentary as a narrator?

Blair Underwood: One of the places we lived growing up was Colorado Springs. My dad was stationed at Fort Carson, where I lived in the mid-early 70s. We owned a ranch up in the Rocky Mountains and the ranch was 720 acres. We had ponds, cattle and horses. So at a very young age, I was introduced to the West. It’s always been in my roots and DNA. I’ve always been intrigued by cowboys and Black cowboys, especially. But when you fast forward to my dad in the military and a couple of uncles, within the military as well. The fusion of the West, and the military has always piqued my interest. The initial onslaught of Buffalo soldiers in the 24th and 25th infantry, their job was to aid in the westward expansion of the United States.

TR: Because you grew up in a military family, does this documentary hit close to home or change the way you see the history of the military?

Blair Underwood: I wouldn’t say it changed anything, it just reinforced more of what I knew. It was always a challenge for Black military men, and later women. There was always tension between your need for dignity and respect, and to show your citizenship. As a man, as a human being, as a soldier, and for many of them, it started with being a soldier. It helped mitigate some of the barriers to full acceptance.

TR: Throughout the making of this project was there something you learned that you did not previously know?

Blair Underwood: I think I learned a great deal. I knew very little about the Buffalo Soldiers, so I was really taken aback by how much the Buffalo Soldiers aided Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders in that final battle in San Juan Hill during the Spanish-American War.

The fact that it was George Jordan and 18 other Buffalo Soldiers who were awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor our country can give, during the Indian Wars. In this documentary, there are so many places you can delve into with each one of these stories.

I also learned a lot about Henry Flipper, the first Black man who graduated from West Point and lead a Buffalo Soldiers regiment. Up to that point, only white men led those regiments.

Specifically, during the Indian War, Buffalo Soldiers had to help relocate a lot of Native Americans from their homelands to reservations. It was tough to do that to other men and women of color, but you had to do what your country told you to do. For some, the line was difficult to walk and for others, not so much.

TR: Many historical figures who were incremental in the Buffalo Soldiers were mentioned such as George Jordan, Henry Flipper, Horace Bivens, Charles Young, etc. Whose story resonated with you the most or made the biggest impact on you?

Blair Underwood: Henry Flipper jumps out at me because of what he had to go through. Just to get through West Point is difficult for anybody, much less a Black man in 1870.

When you’re in prison and they put you in solitary confinement, that’s the worst punishment they can give you. Just to be ostracized from people and not spoken to, that’s what he went through at West Point. Unless he was being ordered to do something, they would not engage with him socially, they would not talk to him and see him. So he was ostracized and shunned. But yet, he made it through. So often in my life, in very different circumstances, there have been very few Black folks, and you have to uphold the mantle for your race or your people because you are one of few representing you in a situation like that.

Photo:  The HISTORY Channel
Photo: The HISTORY Channel

TR: People know you for acting and being on screen. Were there any challenges or adjustments in solely using your voice to convey the emotions and importance of this documentary?

Blair Underwood: It was different because I had no images to look at. Usually, there is footage I can look at and I kind of get a sense and feel of the documentary accordingly. But this time, I just had a great director and producer, who told me while I was in the booth that this is a somber moment or this is an uplifting moment or this is an adventurous moment based on the music that they knew would be used in the documentary. So I had to rely on them to get a feeling and tone of the documentary.

TR: What impact do you hope for this documentary to have on the people who watch it?

Blair Underwood: I hope people see it and understand that Black people have always loved and fought for this country. If you listen to some of the rhetoric today, you would think that some Black folks don’t like our country, we don’t stand up for our country, and we don’t believe in our country. I’ve always looked at it as a very dysfunctional family, but a family, nonetheless, our country. So it’s very highly imperfect. But I think it’s the greatest country in the world. I have a father who literally risked his life and was injured in Vietnam, and received the purple heart, so it’s personal to me.

I don’t want to downgrade or leave my country, there are people who have fought, died for and helped build this country. It’s important that people see that not only today because there are so many of us African Americans in the armed forces, but they’ve been there for a long time. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first official regiments in the cavalry that the government put into place. Crispus Attucks was the first man killed in the Revolutionary War, so we’ve been there. Revolutionary War, Civil War and other skirmishes throughout history.

I hope people will see that there’s a long, proud and storied history of African Americans fighting on behalf of our country, for our country, and deserve the dignity that every human being deserves.

TR: Were there any parallels between what the experiences of the Buffalo Soldiers and military people in your family?

Blair Underwood: There’s that one story about the 24th Infantry Regiment in Houston. There was a construction site the Buffalo Soldiers were guarding and local police were insulting them and looking down on them, even though their job was to support and protect that space. After an incident where local police officers arrested and assaulted many of the Black soldiers, many of the soldiers mutinied and started shooting and killing civilians and police officers. They went to trial, and a lot of them went to prison and were out as Buffalo Soldiers.

Again, it illustrates the hardship that it takes to bite your lip. When you’re a trained soldier, you’re trained to kill. So to have weaponry in your hands, and people are looking at you and talking mess about you, human beings can only take so much. But I think that that is just an illustration of what they had to do but also what we have to do oftentimes in society. Sometimes you just have to bite your tongue so the next generation can have a better leg up.

TR: How does your work with this documentary rank out of all the work you’ve done in your career?

Blair Underwood: It’s pretty high up there because one of the things I wanted to do when I became an actor, and then later producer and a director, is to tell stories, is to tell great stories that affect all humanity. But more specifically, tell stories that affect African Americans and can inspire us in so many ways. A lot of those are historical shows, movies and books that haven’t been told or touched on.

The Buffalo Soldiers are heroic, historical and iconic. So to be a part of telling this story on The HISTORY Channel is special. Many documentaries have been done before but it’s nice to have the platform and the reach of an A&E and The HISTORY channel where you can reach more people to tell those stories so they can fall on different ears and eyes. So for me, it’s way up there because when I’m dead and gone, people can say I helped share some of the stories that weren’t told before.