A Bellevue man says a buffalo soldier and Medal of Honor recipient who was buried in Nebraska needs to be moved to Arlington National Cemetery. U.S. Rep. Adam Smith may clear a path for him to do just that.
The headstone of 1st Sgt. Emanuel Stance, a buffalo soldier and Medal of Honor recipient, has stood in Fort McPherson National Cemetery in Maxwell, Neb., for over a century. The site is about 1,400 miles from Arlington National Cemetery in Virginia, where 75-year-old James Nelson, of Bellevue, thinks Stance deserves to be buried.
Nelson, who first ran across Stance’s name on a sales trip to Nebraska almost five decades ago, said Stance should have been moved a long time ago “by people with more power and better means than I have.” “They didn’t leave Custer out there, did they?” he said.
Nelson — a self-professed “old white geezer” — is fascinated by the history of the buffalo soldiers, black servicemen who served in segregated regiments from 1866 to 1951. He has made it his mission to do whatever it takes to have Stance’s remains exhumed and laid to rest at Arlington, the nation’s most prestigious burial ground. Nelson says he would pay all reburial costs himself, if necessary.
At first, Nelson sought out potential relatives for permission, a difficult task given that Stance enlisted in the Army right after the Civil War and never married or raised children. Current federal laws forbid disinterment from national cemeteries without permission from the deceased’s nearest kin.
After a year of research turned up nothing but dead ends, Nelson lobbied U.S. Rep. Adam Smith, D-Bellevue, a ranking member of the House Armed Services Committee, to add an amendment to this year’s National Defense Authorization Act that would create a way for people like Nelson to relocate the remains of military personnel with no living or known family.
Smith followed through, adding the amendment to a defense-budget bill that has passed the House of Representatives. Yet even if the Senate approves it, too, the National Cemetery Administration, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and the U.S. Army still have to decide whether they will allow such reburials.
So far, military officials have shown no interest in allowing Nelson to relocate Stance or a Medal of Honor buffalo soldier buried in Vancouver, Wash., that Nelson recently decided he wants to take to Arlington as well.
Sara Elton, chief of operations for several national military cemeteries in the Midwest, said officials in charge of Arlington National Cemetery are against moving Stance. The prestige of being buried at Arlington is largely overblown, she said, noting that most of the nation’s 3,492 Medal of Honor recipients are buried all over the country in private cemeteries and national ones. Arlington didn’t become a popular burial ground until the late President John F. Kennedy was buried there in 1963, she added.
“Being buried at another national cemetery isn’t a second choice — it is the choice,” she said. “It’s not a travesty that Stance isn’t buried at Arlington. I want to hug this veteran for taking this on as a cause, but I promise: We are taking care of Emanuel.”
Stance’s 21-year career in the Army’s Ninth Cavalry included fights and demotions, but also a Medal of Honor, which he was awarded in 1870 after leading a mission to rescue two kidnapped white children from a tribe near Fort McKavett, Texas. He was among the first black soldiers to be awarded that honor.
He had enlisted in the service after the Civil War, along with other emancipated black men who found that the Army was their best ticket out of the South, where most freed slaves became sharecroppers still at the mercy of white plantation owners.
Called buffalo soldiers, the black servicemen were on the front lines of some of the military’s toughest missions on the Western frontier, including ultimately futile attempts to keep white settlers out of Indian territory.
According to BlackPast.org, an online black-history archive, authorities suspected it was Stance’s own men who shot him to death on Christmas Day in 1887 near Fort Robinson, Neb., but no one was ever charged for the murder.
When Nelson first learned about Stance in 1966, he knew then he wanted to do something to rectify what he considers a dishonor. He has even sought support from Pope Francis. He has an ally in Jackie Jones-Hook, executive director of the Buffalo Soldiers Museum in Tacoma, who agrees that Stance should be reburied — if only to raise greater awareness of all the other buffalo soldiers.
“The buffalo soldier story is such an untold story about people who were mistreated, but still showed a great love for America,” she said. “Being buried at Arlington is an American tradition — it’s one of the highest honors that there is,” she added. “Burying him at Arlington would be the proper way to give him honor and respect.”
In 2009, Cpl. Isaiah Mays, another buffalo soldier, was moved to Arlington from the graveyard in Arizona. That reburial was easier to process, though, because Mays was in a hospital cemetery, not a national one — and he didn’t even have a headstone with his name on it.
Stance, in contrast, had an honorable burial at what Elton, the military cemeteries official, called a “gorgeous national shrine.” Still, Nelson is unsatisfied. “I’m a nobody, and I don’t know exactly what I’m doing,” he said. “But nothing is going to stop me from giving these heroes the honor they deserve.”