POLK COUNTY, Fla. — A Polk County man is pushing to rename Freedom Park in Lakeland to Buffalo Soldiers Park.
- Richard Wilder wants Freedom Park renamed Buffalo Soldiers Park
- Buffalo Soldiers were all-black regiments of the U.S. Army
- Wilder plans to present proposal during July 15 Lakeland commission meeting
Currently, a plaque sits on the northern shore of Lake Wire, briefly detailing the history of the Buffalo Soldiers encampment in 1898 for three weeks before heading to Ybor City and then Cuba to fight in the Spanish American War.
“Visitors coming to Lakeland (don’t) even know it’s here. The residents of Lakeland doesn’t even know it’s here,” said Richard Wilder, a Buffalo Soldier re-enactor.
The plaque is the reason Lakeland is on the Florida Black Heritage Trail.
The United States Army’s 10th cavalry was one of four all-black regiments who camped in Lakeland.
Back then, Jim Crow laws were in full effect, and white people were not accustomed to seeing black men with guns in a position of authority.
“When these men came to Lakeland, they had a swagger about them. If you can imagine being out west for 30 years and all the adventures they had been on, they carried weapons and they knew how to use them. They had to go out and apprehend white outlaws. They had to go and assist the sheriffs and arrest white men,” Wilder explained.
He continued, “They weren’t about to let someone make them get off a sidewalk or hold their heads down when they passed them or refused them something to drink, and this is what happened.”
There was an incident where the soldiers were confronted about not following Jim Crow laws while in Lakeland. Various historical accounts describe an argument transpiring.
“Troopers of the 10th cavalry (were) refused service buying a drink. There were words. The merchant didn’t want to sell it to them. Another merchant became involved. He retrieved his revolver and before he could cock it, he was shot dead,” Wilder said.
Wilder believes during their time in Lakeland, the soldiers showed African Americans a different mindset.
“When these troopers came, they showed them something different — that you no longer have to act that way. You no longer have to go around with your head bowed. You can stand up straight, hold your head straight up, and show you’re as good as the next person,” Wilder said.
It’s the reason he believes these veterans deserve more prominence than a plaque.
He wants Freedom Park, which is on the eastern shore of Lake Wire nearby, to be renamed Buffalo Soldiers Park. The plot of vacant grassy land was originally federal property. The National Parks Service donated it to Lakeland and in 2013, the city named it Freedom Park, upon residents’ request.
“The buffalo soldiers had a footprint across this nation and for Lakeland, there’s a historical value there that the buffalo soldiers were here. These men of color were here. Freedom Park does not give you the historical value of that particular piece of property,” Wilder explained.
Maria Mahoney, one of the people who pushed to have the plot of land named Freedom Park, said the park's name is a tribute to all who fought in any war to preserve freedom. She said the renaming it to Buffalo Soldiers Park would be too narrow.
Wilder plans to present his proposal during the July 15 Lakeland commission meeting.
On July 28, in celebration of Buffalo Soldiers Day, Buffalo Soldiers Florida will host an event at Lake Wire and Freedom Park, from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. with Ret. Brig. Gen. Robert Crear as the guest speaker.