When he died in 1866, Thomas Smith was posted to a dusty New Mexico fort, fighting Apache and Navajo. He was in his early ’20’s, about 5 feet tall, and had been a slave before he joined the Army. He was called a “buffalo soldier”-the name given to the few African American units allowed after the Civil War. And you will soon be able to look him in the eye at the Buffalo Soldier National Museum in Houston.
“This is the nasal spine right here, and it defines just how long your nose is…”
Amanda Danning is a forensic anthropologist who works with the Smithsonian. For the first two weeks of February, visitors to Houston’s museum can watch her recreate Thomas Smith’s face in clay, using a replica of his skull as a guide. Danning says the skull can give clues to almost every detail in the face.
“There are little tiny bumps that show us where the muscles of the eye attach, that tells us exactly what shape the eye was. The only thing we have to kind of guess at, is how much flesh, whether it’s kind of fatty here or not.”
Smith’s skull has had quite a journey. Recently, officials at the U.S. Bureau of Reclamations got a tip that some remains had been looted from the Fort Craig, New Mexico cemetery, but they couldn’t locate them. Then archaeologist Mark Hungerford got a call from a colleague who said:
“‘I think I’m looking at the face of a buffalo soldier. Can you come out here and see what you think about this?’ And so me and the other archaeologist Jeff Hanson went out and in a field Thomas Smith’s skull had been dropped off in a brown paper bag.”
Forensic anthropologists at the Smithsonian analyzed the skull and other bones found later for clues to race, gender, and disease. Then, Dr. Ali Kamrani of the University of Houston used a CT scan to create a replica of Smith’s skull. For Hungerford, bringing Smith to life is an act of profound respect.
“It’s important that Thomas Smith be given a face because once a people lose their history, they’re lost in time. I hope that they will look into the eyes of a human and understand the sacrifices these men made, and understand just a little piece of American history.”
Cherri Washington, executive director of the Buffalo Soldier National Museum, says that buffalo soldiers are a source of enormous pride in African American history.
“The buffalo soldiers got their name from the Native Americans because of their curly hair and fighting spirit. You have to understand, when a buffalo is cornered he never backs down, he never gives up.”
Even in death, Thomas Smith is not backing down. He and the other buffalo soldiers were reinterred in the Santa Fe National Cemetery, to rest in peace.
From the KUHF NewsLab, I’m Melissa Galvez.
For more information on the exhibit, please visit: http://www.buffalosoldiermuseum.com/.