Gravestone to commemorate Buffalo soldier 120 years after his death in Polk County

Polk County

BARTOW, Fla. (WFLA) – A Buffalo soldier who died in Polk County in 1898 will get a proper headstone and marking in the cemetery where he is believed to be buried.

“We know he was buried in this cemetery but there’s no evidence of his grave and or headstone,” said Richard Wilder, president of the Col. Charles Young Chapter of the Buffalo Soldiers Florida.

For Wilder, who lives in Lakeland, Buffalo soldiers represent heritage and the importance of setting goals and persevering.

“This is what I take from these men of old, this same sense of pride, this same moral values and apply it today. It hasn’t changed,” he said.

Buffalo soldiers made up the all-black 10th Cavalry Regiment that served on the western frontier in the late 19th century.

Courtesy Richard Wilder

Private James Johnson was stationed in Lakeland during the Spanish-American War.

Johnson was blamed for the shooting death of a local business owner following an altercation, Wilder said. The case involved multiple versions of what happened, tinged with racism.

He died from tuberculosis in a Bartow jail awaiting an appeal. Records show he was approximately 30-years-old when he died.

Saturday morning at Evergreen Cemetery, known as Polk County’s oldest black cemetery, Johnson will receive a symbolic burial and a headstone will be unveiled.

The cemetery plot was donated by the L.B. Brown House in Bartow.

The event serves as a way to shed light not only on Private Johnson but all Buffalo soldiers.

“They played a huge role in the founding of America if you will, going out west,” said Cynthia Haffey, executive director of Platform Art Inc.

Courtesy Platform Arts Inc.

Haffey’s organization has a mission to support the creation of public art.

Platform Art is coordinating efforts to add a Buffalo soldier and Spanish American War monument to Lakeland’s Veterans Memorial Park.

The statue, sculpted by Pennsylvania-based Becky Ault, is set to be dedicated on Veterans Day 2021.

Starting in Janaury, Polk County high school students will have the chance to help design portions of the monument.

“This is probably only the fourth or maybe the fifth public arts sculpture or monument that’s been created to recognize Buffalo soldiers,” said Haffey.

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