Note: This is a reprint of an article published years ago on Junction City’s BSA Troop 117, the first African American scout troop in Kansas. This article was written by Susan Franzen.
This article was originally published in The Daily Union on Feb. 20, 2000.
About a month ago, James F. Warren sent me a picture dated February 1938, showing Boy Scout Troop 117. While lettering at the bottom of the photograph listed the names and stated that the troop was sponsored by “Luke Steed” American Legion Post 159, Warren said this was the post in Junction City made up mostly of Buffalo Soldiers. The legion commander and past commander were among those pictured, but the representation from the Ninth Cavalry Regiment included a white officer, Major Limbocker, and the director of the Ninth Cavalry Band, WO Clarke. The Scout committee was a joint effort by men from Junction City and Fort Riley.
Warren said he believes the story of the only black Boy Scout troop in Kansas is something that should be part of the lore of the Buffalo Soldiers. The retired sergeants who lived in Junction City, as well as those on active duty at Fort Riley, were inspiring fathers and citizens. The dignitity of these men encouraged the youths to show personal honor and compassion as well as worldly achievement. The Scout troop was the most concrete example of their concern for the younger generation. Because Warren has kept in touch with many members of Troop 117, he was able to give me names and phone numbers of several, including assistant Scout Master William (Potsy) Hurd Jr.
While serving as assistant Scout Master, “Potsy” Hurd joined the Rifle and Pistol team at Fort Riley. He was one of three men representing Fort Riley in the national marksmanship competition for military personnel. In the qualifying championship at Fort Riley, he placed third, behind two white soldiers from the Second Cavalry. But in the national contest, he placed first overall, winning the “Fort Bliss Trophy.” The traveling trophy he brought with him back to Fort Riley bore the names, regiments and posts of all previous winners. The engraving clearly showed that Hurd was not only the first winner from Fort Riley, he was also the first from any black unit. It is not hard to imagine how proud the Boy Scouts were to have such a leader.
Capt. Hurd, who was Pvt. Hurd in 1938 and only a few years older than the Scouts he led, was known to be from a proud Ninth Cavalry family. Both his father and uncle had served as officers during World War I. The uncle, Robert Porter Hurd, fought with such courage that he was awarded the Croix de Guere by the French government.
In those days, there was no lack of combat veterans from World War I and the Spanish American War among the retired Ninth Cavalrymen in Junction City. Warren heard many of their stories on front porches, at the barber shop and especially at the ROTC camp where he and his friends shined shoes. Retired soldiers were their supervisors. “The stories were usually humorous and sometimes exaggerated. There were a couple of sergeants who usually exaggerated, and there were some good old barbershop arguments about who did what.”
For Warren, who lived in Junction City with his mother and grandparents, the retired sergeants were role models as well as story tellers. Sgt. Scott, Sgt. Lallis and Sgt. Barbour were three he recalled with special fondness. Leo Scott was the same age as Jim Warren, so he spent a lot of time with the Scott family. The Lallis brothers, Jack, Phil and Alonzo, were all outstanding athletes. Growing up, Warren was particularly impressed with Phil Lallis, who lettered in three sports for four years in high school—a total of twelve letters. Warren admired Sgt. Barbour because he raised several sons by himself after his wife died and “they all turned out great.”
The extended family aspect of the black community of the 1930’s is something that many recall with nostalgia. Warren’s memory is “All the elders in Junction City were surrogate parents. Any of them would call my parents if they saw us doing wrong.” The sergeants also took the young boys fishing with them in Clarke’s Creek or Three-mile Creek.
By joining the Scout troop, Warren also got to know the sergeants who were still on active duty, for several of them were on the Scout committee. One of these was Norris Gregory Sr., the committee chairman. Norris Gregory Jr., believed uniting the boys from Junction City and those from Fort Riley was one of the most valuable things the Scout troop accomplished. While Fort Riley children went to school in Junction City from kindergarten through high school in those days, the activities of the Boy Scout troop provided an opportunity for building friendships and teamwork. The camaraderie served them well in high school and college sports and lasted throughout life for many.
One aspect of the troop that was treasured in many recollections was its diversity. Not only did it bring together Junction City and Fort Riley youths, but it taught boys of from ages 11 to 16 to work together. They were also proud of the multiracial aspect of the group. Warren was quite sure that Clarence Saunders and the Murphy brothers were Filipino in spite of their names. In fact, their fathers were African-American, but they looked like their Filipina mothers. He believed Scout master Don Mosley was Native American, through he could not tell which tribe. Both Hurd and Warren proclaimed proudly the Sgt. Scott was “full blood Cherokee” with a strong resemblance to Cherokee Chief Loco.
Perhaps one of the most ironic aspects of the troop, which was made up of poor, black youths in a segregated society, was that the military sponsorship gave the scouts opportunities that few other troops enjoyed. This fact alone made them feel special. Few, if any, of the families had access to cars, so the Scout committee made arrangements for an army truck to come to each Scout’s house to pick him up and drive him to the meeting at Fort Riley. They enjoyed cocoa and donuts for refreshments. When the troop met in the West Riding Hall, the Scouts were allowed to ride the horses around the track. The regiment provided food, transportation and tents so they could attend camps and jamborees. They were exposed to a group of men who cared for them and had high expectations for them. “Get an education and keep up your grades,” was a phrase they often heard from Scout masters. It must have made an impression because six members of the troop graduated from college and most of the others were successful in whatever line of work they chose. Most, if not all, served in World War II because they graduated from high school while the war was going on.
All of the former scouts I reached said they believed their experience in Troop 117 had been a vital influence in their lives, but each had a different impression of what it did for him. Jim Warren thought it was Scouting itself that was important. It gave him a permanent appreciation of the outdoors, cooking over a camp fire, pitching tents, blazing a trail, finding your way back, flag signals, Morse code, woodcarving, outdoor games and sports that developed cooperation. His favorite activities were night hikes. For him, the teamwork developed on the football field enabled him to effectively organize civil right activities in Junction City High School and years later, in Civil Rights with the Colorado Civil Rights Commission, Equal Economic Opportunities Commission and the Office of Federal Contract Compliance.
Richard Wells, the youngest member of the troop, said he thought he learned “soldiering” from the Scouts. They pitched their tents in rows and submitted to military discipline and drill. They developed athletic ability and leadership. He admired his soldier leaders so much that he wanted to join the Ninth Cavalry. Instead , he served with a black company in the invasion of Germany in 1945 and took ROTC when he went to college on the G.I. Bill. After he was commissioned, he spent five years on active duty, including service with an artillery unit in Korea, and served 27 years in the reserves.
Norris Gregory Jr. stressed a different aspect of Scouting. It taught him to be trusting and trustworthy. It gave him experience with democracy. By being treated with respect he learned to treat others with respect, gained self-confidence, learned public speaking and developed leadership qualities. He made use of these skills and attitude as a teacher in Topeka and San Bernadino, California. He was elected to the San Bernadino City Council and served from 1968 to 1975.
John Murphy, whose father retired from the military in 1938 and moved his family to California, was the most surprise to receive a call about the Boy Scout troop. He had been the troop’s bugler. “I didn’t play the bugle, I played the slide trombone. Most likely he was drafted as bugler. Reveille wouldn’t sound quite right on a slide trombone.
Murphy’s recollections about music bring out another aspect of life in the 1930’s at Fort Riley. There were two jazz bands in the Ninth Cavalry, as well as the military band that marched. Since the married band members lived in the small area known as Rileyville, the children were surrounded by musicians. One was an especially close friend of the Murphys, which inspired John’s parents to seek a musical education for their sons. While John played trombone, his brother Joe played saxophone. “Poor as we were our parents paid for instruments and music lessons for a couple of years.”
John Murphy was the scout who remembered riding horses. He also told about rounding up the stray dogs at Fort Riley to hunt jackrabbits through the hills. They had no guns, so the youths ran down the rabbits. In an economy where a chicken on Sunday was the major meat for the week, the young hunters were proud of putting meat on the table. When asked what he learned in Scouts, Murphy replied, “I learned to be prepared and to help people.” According to Warren, John Murphy has expressed his concern for others through out his life. Warren recalls that Murphy made a special stop at Fort Riley to put flowers on his mother’s grave because he’d promised her he would. Character made up of many acts that few people know.