Sam Allen served nearly 40 years as a police officer and administrator before retiring in 2008 and joining the police department of Balch Springs, near Dallas, as a community service director. He’s tasked with creating and expanding programs and events that bring people together: crime-watch units, a citizen-police academy, public celebrations of the Fourth of July, Cinco de Mayo and Juneteenth. It’s the Juneteenth event, on June 19, where he’ll wear the uniform he’s worn hundreds of times: robin-egg blue wool trousers, a navy blue coat with yellow piping and cavalry hat. Allen has volunteered since the 1980s as a living-history educator and youth leader, telling the rarely heard stories of the black soldiers—nicknamed “buffalo soldiers” by Native Americans—who fought in America’s Civil War and Indian wars.
“My brother got me started on this. He was a City of Dallas police officer and started a youth program there. We started working with these kids, teaching them life skills, teaching them how the buffalo soldiers had taught themselves how to read, how to live. We taught everything from personal hygiene to how to use a fork and a knife. Some of these kids, the only time they ate at a restaurant was fast food. They had no clue how to use a fork and knife. We took them everywhere, fishing, camping. We bought a couple of wagons and would buy horses and teach the kids how to maintain the saddles and take care of their horse. There’s something about a kid and a horse, especially a kid with problems. If he had that 1,200-pound animal that he could control, it made him think that he could control more in his life.
“We do living histories at schools, events, parades, different programs. Sometimes we set up a whole encampment. What we do is we pick a certain buffalo soldier, and we’ll give a bit about the history of the soldier and the Indian wars. We would always choose somebody we could read about or know a little bit about so we could match them with our personalities and impersonate the officers. There was a soldier that was with the 10th Cavalry a little over 10 years. He got promoted to the rank of sergeant. His name was Samuel Allen. This guy was a good leader, so I saw myself in this position. We even have the same name. The irony of it all is that I can’t trace any family members back to the buffalo soldiers.
“What I know about Sam Allen the buffalo soldier is what I found in the military records. He started in the military because he felt that is what he needed to do. In fact most of the colored soldiers, as they were called in that time, felt they had to prove something to this country. That they were good, they were brave, they cared about this country. A lot of them were ex-slaves, couldn’t read or write, had never been off the plantation. Kind of like the kids we dealt with. The more they ventured out, the more they learned. So sergeant Samuel Allen of the 10th Cavalry, I don’t know where he came from other than Tennessee. And what happened to him after that, I don’t know yet.
“We used to have a bunch of volunteers working with us, but it’s tapered off. I’ve been trying to wind down after 25 years. I’ve sold most of my wagons. I have one left, and I keep telling my wife I need to sell that one. But I haven’t. If given the opportunity, I’ll talk about the buffalo soldiers until your ears fall off. But now if you want to know something you can just pull it up on the Internet. What I want to be able to do is tell as much as we can so we can find someone like myself that will want to carry it on.”
Interview has been edited and condensed.