DES MOINES, Iowa — A page of Des Moines history is also part of Black history. In 1917, a thousand African American college-educated young men came to Des Moines for the Officer Training Program. They were joined by 250 Black non-commissioned officers for training from May through October.
“Des Moines has a really proud legacy of having Fort Des Moines, which is a camp where the first Black officers for the U.S. Army were trained,” said Leo Landis, curator of the State Historical Museum of Iowa.
One of the soldiers who came back after his military days was James B. Morris. He is remembered still at the State Historical Museum of Iowa.
“We do have a number of other items related to James Morris. We have his dog tags from when he served in World War I,” said Landis. “We have other materials connected to his service. His identification badge. We really were grateful to the Morris family for having donated these to the State Historical Museum several years ago.”
The museum also has his uniform jacket he wore in World War I.
“One of the features of the uniform of course is that the patch that these men chose to put on their jacket was the buffalo or bison patch,” said Landis. “That was because in the 1870s and 1880s and 1890s, Black men were serving in the western areas were often referred to as the ‘Buffalo Soldiers.'”
At the Fort Des Moines Museum, there is a large display dedicated to the Fort Des Moines Black Officers Training. There were several reasons the U.S. Army chose Des Moines for this training.
“It was established as a cavalry base, but the cavalry was deployed elsewhere, so this was essentially an empty base,” said Jeff Kluever of the Fort Des Moines Museum. “Another reason was because it was far away from major metropolitan areas and potential distractions for the men who were going to train there. The third reason was because Iowa was willing to welcome them.”
The Fort Des Moines Museum is paid for by donations. They get no kind of government subsidy, except a few local grants. If you would like to know more about the museum, check its Facebook page.