By Julie Fiedler, Fort Riley Public AffairsFebruary 8, 2013
FORT RILEY, Kan. -- When Albert Curley was a noncommissioned officer in the Army, he taught his Soldiers to take advantage of opportunities to better themselves.
"Nothing is given to you," said Curley, a retired first sergeant. "You've got to earn it."
Curley remembers the days of segregation when the Officers' Club was all white simply because there were no African American officers.
"The biggest change now is you have qualified black officers and they'll get promoted," Curley said. "We have qualified black officers as generals now."
Into his 90s, Curley has continued to share his experience as a Buffalo Soldier, a member of one of the all African-American cavalry and infantry units activated between the late 1800s and the mid-1900s, in the hopes that others will seize opportunities to better themselves.
"The opportunity is there if you're qualified," he said.
Curley joined the Army in 1940. Drawn in by a sign hanging in the post office that advertised a wage of 50 cents a day, Curley and several friends went to the recruiter.
"We couldn't find a job for 50 cents a day," Curley remembered. "We got free housing. We got free food. We got free clothing. So that's why we joined the Army."
Curley, fresh out of 11th grade, had to get parental consent to join.
"My mother wouldn't -- she refused to sign, saying I shouldn't go to the Army; I should finish high school," Curley said. "But my older brother signed the papers."
"He forged my mother's signature," he added. "She chewed him out, but it was too late then."
Curley and his friends were shipped by bus from their hometown of Helena, Ark., to Kansas -- first Fort Leavenworth and then Fort Riley. To Curley it may as well have been a whole different world.
"They put us up in tents," Curley remembered.
Curley had to pass literacy tests and a physical before being sworn in.
"They swore us in and they put us in Troop A of the 9th Cavalry (Regiment) at Fort Riley. And this is the horse cavalry, now. It was more horses and mules out there than there was Soldiers," Curley said.
As a member of the 9th Cavalry, Curley became one of the storied Buffalo Soldiers.
"The Indians gave 'em the name the Buffalo Soldier because the buffalo was hard to kill and the horse cavalry -- the Soldiers -- was hard (to kill) … and because their hair was similar to the manes on the buffalo," Curley said.
When asked if he had a sense that he was part of history, Curley shook his head.
"We just went along with it," he said.
Curley remembered his early days at Fort Riley being separate, but equal.
"It was all segregated then," he said. "You was treated as a Soldier."
From equipment to food to clothing, "you didn't get any different from the white Soldiers," Curley said.
Like any Soldier, Curley remembered following orders and staying out of trouble.
"We went where we was told to go and we followed orders," he said.
In 1943, Curley was sent to Italy to fight in World War II.
"Wherever they needed you, they would ship you. And you would remain there. It wasn't no year rotation. You stayed with that unit," Curley said.
In Italy, Curley was wounded in action while clearing an enemy machine-gun nest. He was sent to a hospital, recovered and returned to the front.
"If you was wounded, and they can patch you up, they'd ship you back to the front," Curley said. "So I went back to the front."
As the war in Europe ended, war in Japan continued to rage on. Curley went directly from Italy to Japan to finish out the war, before returning to the U.S. and Fort Riley in 1947.
Curley was serving with the 571st Field Artillery Regiment at Fort Riley when segregation officially ended.
"President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on the 26th day of July, 1948, ending the practice of segregation in the military," Curley read from a note card.
"It was wonderful," he said, looking up with a smile. "We celebrated."
Looking back on his 28 years of service in the Army, Curley summed it up: "Times is changed."
Curley lives in Junction City where the walls of his basement are lined with photos, certificates, plaques and mementos from his storied career in the Army.
Pointing out photos of him posing with Lt. Gen. Vincent Brooks, former commanding general, 1st Infantry Division and Fort Riley and current commander, Third Army; and Gen. Colin Powell, retired Army officer and former secretary of state, Curley's face lit up.
For a Buffalo Soldier who moved up the ranks during the days of segregation, these fellow African Americans embody Curley's message: "Nothing is given to you. You've got to earn it."
"That's why we've got black officers today," Curley said. "They earned it."
With tours in Italy, Germany, Japan, Korea and Vietnam, Curley has earned a great deal himself. His awards and decorations include: the Purple Heart, Bronze Star, Army Commendation Medal with Oak Leaf Cluster and Good Conduct Medal.
Curley's fighting spirit is alive and well. He is still sharp -- feisty, even -- and keeps current on world news. He freely shared his opinion on current events ranging from women in combat zones to children in the educational system. Curley's legacy seems to be one of opportunity, experience and change.
Looking back on old photos, he remarked how most everyone from his days as a Buffalo Soldier had passed away.
"I'm the only one that I know of that's in Junction City," he said.