African-American freedom fighter
On June 12, 1898, the first democratic Republic outside of the Western Hemisphere was established in Asia, the result of a revolution that overthrew Spanish rule after centuries of colonial domination. It was a short-lived Republic with many heroes who fought against the new colonizer bent on annexing the Philippine Islands as part of a global economic empire.
Not all the freedom fighters were Filipinos.
In June 1898, about the same time as independence was being proclaimed in Kawit, Cavite, David Fagen, the youngest of former slaves in Florida, enlisted in the US Army, joining a regiment of black regulars known as the “Buffalo Soldiers” under white officers. The “Buffalo Soldiers” was a name given them by Apache Indians during the Indian Wars in the United States because “their hair was curly and kinky, much like the hair of the buffalo.” Fagen was a member of the 24th Cavalry Regiment that sailed for the Philippines in June 1899, a few months after hostilities broke out between US forces and the revolutionary army of Gen. Emilio Aguinaldo.
At the time of Fagen’s enlistment in the Army, life for black Americans in the south had entered a new and difficult phase. Although emancipated from slavery, life for the typical black southerner was one of poverty, illiteracy, discrimination and subservience to whites with the possibility of lynching and burning at stake a daily danger. It was the beginning of the “Jim Crow” era, and the implementation of the “separate but equal” conditions in southern society similar to the later apartheid policy of South Africa under white rule.
While serving in the Philippines, Fagen detested his white officers who treated him more like a southern slave rather than a soldier belonging to the same Army. In November 1899, Fagen defected and joined the Filipino revolutionaries. He was not alone in making this decision. Fifteen other “Buffalo Soldiers” left the US Army and linked up with Filipino guerrillas. Fagen was the most successful and famous of those who defected. With his military training, he led ambushes and attacks against US Army units all the time, evading capture and becoming a hero to Filipino freedom fighters who bestowed on him the title “General Fagen.” He served for two years under Gen. Jose Alejandrino’s command in Central Luzon and was cited for bravery in assaults against US troops. In a front-page story, a New York Times news report referred to him as “a cunning and highly skilled guerrilla officer who assisted in harassing large, conventional American units.” His most daring action was the capture of a river launch full of firearms and ammunition that supported Filipino forces.
In many respects, the Philippine-American War has been
cited as America’s first Vietnam. The tactics were the same, the atrocities were just as bad, and a racist undercurrent covered many aspects of both wars.
In death, David Fagen continued to inspire controversy. An April 2019 article by Michael Morey on African-American soldiers in the Philippines indicated that Fagen lived on for at least five more years after his supposed death in 1902. The US Army was not too keen on detailing the story of “Buffalo Soldiers” in the Philippines.
Another “Buffalo Soldier” who arrived in the Philippines at around the same time as Fagen was Pvt. Lisbon Brawner. Lisbon fell in love with a pretty lady from Umingan, Pangasinan, as American units were pushing north in hot pursuit of General Aguinaldo. He was court-martialed but was merely reprimanded and allowed to stay on. A few months later, he decided to leave the US Army.
One of his sons was Felix Brawner Sr., father of Gen. Felix Brawner Jr., valedictorian of the Philippine Military Academy (PMA) Class 1957, and commanding general of the 1st Scout Ranger Regiment. Aside from Felix Jr., three other brothers finished at the PMA: Libbie, Class 1967, an Air Force pilot who later retired and joined United Airlines; Franklin, Class 1971 (deceased); and Percival, Class 1972. Another brother is Romeo Brawner Sr., former presiding justice of the Court of Appeals. His son Romeo Brawner Jr., Class 1989, was recently promoted to brigadier general. Romeo Jr. was the face of the Marawi conflict during the siege of the city. Gen. Felix Brawner Jr. is married to Rita Brawner, Ph.D., University of San Carlos.
They have served our nation well and we owe them a debt of gratitude.
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