To the U.S. Army, she was William Cathey.
The only female Buffalo Soldier inverted her name, originally Cathay Williams, so she could serve. Now she will be honored with a memorial that was unveiled Friday at the Richard Allen Cultural Center and Museum in Leavenworth.
During the time, women weren’t allowed to serve in the military, so Williams changed her name so she could serve as a man.
The tribute to Williams will be the newest addition to several monuments to Buffalo Soldiers in Leavenworth. The Buffalo Soldiers were the first African-American regiments formed after the war and included the 10th Cavalry, formed at Fort Leavenworth in 1866.
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The monument is a bronze bust of Williams outside the museum. It includes biographical information about Williams and her service and a small rose garden around the monument. She was stationed at both Fort Riley and Fort Harker in Kansas.
The dedication was held inside Bethel AME Church in Leavenworth and was attended by several state lawmakers as well as the mayor of Leavenworth. Rep. Tony Barton, a Leavenworth Republican, read a proclamation from Gov. Sam Brownback declaring July 28 as Buffalo Soldier Day in Kansas.
Carlton Philpot, a U.S. Navy veteran who serves on the board of directors for the museum, said the memorial has been a long time coming. He said they originally started thinking about a monument to Williams about 20 years ago but ran into issues financing the project. He said some in the area didn’t believe that a female Buffalo Soldier existed.
But when he spoke to the crowd of 200 on Friday, he said it was emotional for all those involved to finally see it come together.
“When the time is right, it’s right,” he said.
Gen. Barbara Lynne Owens, one of two current black female generals in the Army Reserve, said she learned about Williams a long time ago and has a picture of her in her office. Owens called Williams an early trailblazer who set the path for all black female soldiers who have followed.
“If she had not done what she did, I would not be standing here doing this today,” Owens said.
Williams was born a slave and was forced to serve in the Union Army as a cook, then served two years in the Army as a man. Her gender was eventually discovered during a medical exam and she was dismissed from service.
She was originally from Independence and was also the only known black woman to serve in the U.S. Army during the 19th century.
Once she was discharged from the military, she eventually settled in Colorado, where she worked as a cook and seamstress until her death in about 1892.