Two years after World War II ended, President Harry Truman desegregated the United Stated Armed Forces with Executive Order 9981.
But four years before that, Aquebogue native Thomas Watkins was in the trenches in Italy with the all-black 92nd Infantry Division, better known as the Buffalo Soldiers, fighting alongside all-white divisions to help the Allied Forces liberate Italy.
The memory of Mr. Watkins — one of Long Island’s last Buffalo Soldiers, who actually died three years ago at the age of 94 — was honored last month by Tyre Lodge No. 91, a fraternal group based in Riverside, which handed out its first Thomas Watkins Buffalo Soldier Awards.
Mr. Watkins was a founding member of the Flanders Road lodge, which was established in 1947 and is one of 75 lodges that fall under the Most Worshipful Prince Hall Grand Lodge of New York, a group of Freemasons dating back to the 18th century.
“We really just wanted to reach back and honor one of our own as well as somebody who was a pillar in the community,” said Roderick Farmer, Worshipful Master of the lodge and a veteran himself. “With him being in the forefront, proving black men could fight and hold their own with Caucasians, it paved the way for people like me later on.”
Born in 1918, Mr. Watkins was one of nine children of farmers from Virginia who had made their way north. Upon graduating from Riverhead High School, he enlisted in the military. His widow, Emma Alston, recalled that he was sent to Little Rock, Ark., where “even the animals were treated better than he was.”
Discrimination was commonplace in the military at the time, according to recollections gathered from surviving Buffalo Soldiers.
In an interview with the Library of Congress, which has captured oral histories from many of the country’s veterans, 92nd Division member Isham Benton recalled that white soldiers wouldn’t swim in the same waters as black soldiers while training.
Fellow Long Island native and Buffalo Soldier Elvyn Davidson said, “Everybody sort of had their eyes on us. Everybody kind of was watching to see what we were going to do, if we were able to stand up under the pressure of combat. I think we proved to them that we can probably do a better job than you.”
After returning from the war, Mr. Watkins worked for 25 years at the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs and later with the Town of Huntington, where he met his wife.
“He would say back in those days, you know, they were all segregated, but when they were in combat on the battlefield and in the foxholes, they did not see any colors,” Ms. Watkins said. “They were just fighting for their lives and for our country.”
Tyre Lodge No. 91 honored three recipients with its first Buffalo Soldier Awards, recognition the lodge intends to bestow on an annual basis. Fellow lodge members Rudy Funn and George Hughes were honored, as was Hempstead native Dorian Glover, who serves as grand master of the Prince Hall lodges across New York State.
Mr. Funn, a Riverhead High School graduate, served in the Air Force in the late 1960s before returning to Riverhead, where he worked as a longtime postman. He also served as a past Worshipful Master of Tyre Lodge. Mr. Hughes, born in Riverhead and raised in Mattituck, also served in the U.S. Air Force and later worked for decades at Brookhaven National Lab. He currently serves as Junior Warden of Tyre Lodge.