Riding Through History

The blanket-sized photo that greets people entering the Mansfield Library at the University of Montana is stunning. The image, taken by renowned UM Professor Morton J. Elrod around 1900, depicts five African-American soldiers sitting on rocks at Fort Missoula. The men are part of the U.S. Army’s 25th Colored Infantry, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers.

The photo is part of the Mansfield Library’s new exhibit honoring African-American History Month, which focuses on the achievements of African-Americans and the integral role they played in U.S. history. The library’s exhibit specifically features the history of African-Americans both in Missoula and at UM.

“We wanted to do something big for African-American History Month,” says exhibit curator Susanne Caro, the Mansfield Library’s government documents librarian and business liaison. “There are some amazing pieces of history here, and we wanted to showcase them.”
Glass cases display compelling photos, newspaper clippings, books, maps, and information cards telling the story of the exhibit throughout the library’s main floor.

The 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, in 1897. (Photo: umt010069, Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, the University of Montana)

A major theme is the 1897 Great Bicycle Ride of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, which went from Fort Missoula to St. Louis. The infantry tested a theory that bicycles would replace horses in transporting men for the Army. The ride took forty-one days and covered more than 1,900 miles. The exhibit shows photos from the ride, an article from The New York Times about the infantry, and maps of the route, among other items. A pamphlet cover from Spalding, the company that provided the bicycles, also is displayed.

Another historic element the exhibit explores is the re-creation of the infantry’s ride that UM’s Black Studies Proram undertook in 1974. Images from the trip are displayed, along with humorous captions such as “Everybody say cheese,” “Let’s go, gang,” and “How far to St. Louis?”
An excerpt from the 1974-75 Watani, the Black Studies Program’s yearbook, describes the trip:

“…To feel a portion of histories untold past, the Black Studies Program decided to re-enact that famed trip of 1897. We created the new 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, departing on their anniversary date of June 14th, 5:50 a.m. but of course 1974. We were fortunate enough to follow the original route, and arrived in St. Louis as did the original Corps, July 24th at the ‘Gateway to the West.’

“The trials and tribulations of the 25th Infantry Bicycle Corps, both old and new could not fully be understood unless one were to actually partake in such a venture. To those who took part in this historic vanguard, may your arising be broadened with each new awakening.”

Naseby Rhinehart (Photo: umt011749, Archives & Special Collections, Mansfield Library, the University of Montana)

Other items in the exhibit include profiles of Ulysses S. Doss, who in 1968 founded the Black Studies Program at UM, one of the first of its kind in the country. He led the program for twenty-five years. Doss’ younger brother, Pferron, also is profiled. He organized the students’ bicycle ride and was one of the first African-American smoke jumpers.

The story of UM legend Naseby “Doc” Rhinehart is told as well. He came to Missoula in 1931 from Milwaukee, Wis., to play football and basketball. He also competed in track and field. After graduating in 1935, Rhinehart was asked if he was interested in becoming the UM head certified athletic trainer. He accepted and stayed at UM for forty-seven years, retiring in 1982. He was one of the first people in the nation to develop an athletic training curriculum at a university. He passed away June 11, 1991, at the age of eighty. UM’s athletic training room was named in his honor in 1993, as well as the Naseby Rhinehart Scholarship, which is given annually to the most outstanding athletic training student.

Caro says the exhibit took about four months to complete, and she collaborated with UM’s Black Student Union, the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, and Archives & Special Collections at UM. She and the BSU students came up with the ideas, the design, the color scheme, and the informational pieces.

The exhibit is free and open to the public and available for viewing during normal library hours. For those who can’t visit the library, the exhibit is online at http://libguides.lib.umt.edu/content.php?pid=301000. For more information, call Caro at 406-243-4548 or email susanne.caro@umontana.edu.