David Fagen and the African Americans Who Fought in the Philippine-American War

There has been a relatively unknown chapter in Philippine history where our fight against foreign invaders intertwined with African-American struggle


Editor's Note: There has been a relatively unknown chapter in Philippine history where our fight against foreign invaders intertwined with the African-American struggle against racism and segregation. There were African-American soldiers deployed to a distant land to fight people who are also fighting to secure their country from an emerging imperialist nation. A nation that was supposed to uphold freedom and democracy.

The United States' entry into the Philippine shore was brought about by the USS Maine incident at Havana harbor in Cuba thereby precipitating the Spanish-American War of 1898. Eventually, the Americans dispatched more military units to move in and secure the islands from other foreign powers hoping to replace the Spanish. With the Treaty of Paris signed (without representation from Filipino leaders), the Americans received the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and other former Spanish possessions. The so-called liberators have become the new colonial masters pursuant to the racist idea of "white man's burden."

As more reinforcements arrived in big numbers, tensions have risen as the Filipino military leaders realized that the Americans won't be leaving anytime soon. The way they subjugated the Native Americans back in the West, the Americans were implementing the same military strategy they did back home. They even brought in their Buffalo Soldiers, a unit composed of African-American soldiers.

When the Filipino-American War began after Private William Grayson fired at a Filipino soldier, pitch battles flared up and the overwhelmed Filipino units fought ferociously against all odds. Some African-Americans who fought under white officers have eventually realized that the Filipinos that they are fighting against are like them continuing the struggle against another white-domination.

Collaborations

Although there were a lot of cases of collaboration on the Filipino side with local elites looking to convince everyone that it's better to get the Americans in. Some of President Emilio Aguinaldo's closest aides like Pedro Paterno advocated the incorporation of the country as a US state. Other American sympathizers included Trinidad Pardo de Tavera, Benito Legarda, Gregorio Araneta, and Felipe Buencamino. The Americans even formed the Macabebe Scouts to be used against our own countrymen.



Despite the turncoats and traitors inside the government and military, there were African-Americans that went to the point of deserting their units and moved to join the struggling Filipino armed forces to help continue the fight against the American occupiers. One of the prominent figures was David Fagen (1875-1901?).

The Tampa, Florida-born Fagen of the US Army 24th Regiment defected to the Filipino army on November 17, 1899, after he repeatedly clashed with his white commanding officer Lt. James Alfred Moss. With the forfeitures of pay and the time in the guardhouse mounted, Fagen deserted and joined the Filipino guerrillas. In that same month, has tried to stand up to the Americans in set-piece battles for a disastrous nine months, Aguinaldo ordered a shift to guerrilla warfare. Fagen, with his army training, would prove invaluable to the guerrillas under General Urbano Lacuna.

David Fagen dominated the headlines in US newspapers

Referred to as “General” Fagen by his men, The New York Times paid the Black rebel the same compliment in a front-page headline after his exploits became known. 
Soon, he developed a reputation of a successful guerrilla leader. His repeated success eventually became an obsession with the US military and the American public back home. He reached legendary status for his ability to harass and evade American forces sent against him.

As the war progressed, casualties mounted, especially on the Filipino side. Americans were forced to do "concentration camp"-like tactics to control the movement of civilians and rebels alike. On the other hand, many Black soldiers increasingly felt they were being used in an unjust racial war. The white man's prejudice has followed the African Americans to the Philippines, ten thousand miles from where it originated.

Leaflets were used to convince Black soldiers to switch sides
Leaflets were used to convince Black soldiers to switch sides

The Filipinos would use such animosity to convince other Black soldiers to defect to the Filipino side. Posters and leaflets would describe the lynching and discrimination of African Americans in the US and discouraged them from being the instrument of their white masters' ambitions to oppress other "people of color." Blacks who deserted to the Filipino nationalist cause would be welcomed.

From August 1900 to January 1901, he battled eight times with American troops. One of the Americans most frustrated by Fagen was General Frederick Funston, known as one of the best “guerilla hunters in the Philippines.” Twice he clashed with Fagen’s forces and both times came up empty-handed. Funston was so agitated with his lack of success that he began to make excuses for it in his memoirs. Funston eventually captured Aguinaldo to end the war officially a year later.


Although the US gave out amnesties to those who fought against them at the end of the war, Fagen was a special case and so a substantial reward was offered for his capture. There hasn't been a clear-cut story as to the fate of Fagen but there were two possible conflicting stories: he died a gruesome death as his decomposed severed head was presented to claim that reward while another version is he married a Filipina and lived peacefully in the mountains into anonymity.

Tagalog hunters with Aeta tribesmen
Tagalog hunters with Aeta tribesmen

On December 5, 1901, a Tagalog hunter Anastacio Bartolome delivered to American authorities the severed head of an African American deserter he claimed to be Fagen. While traveling with his hunting party, Bartolome reported that he had spied upon Fagen and his Filipina wife accompanied by a group of Aetas bathing in a river.

The Black soldiers of the 24th Infantry Regiment in formation at Camp Waller in Cebu, 1902

During the war, 20 American soldiers, six of them Black, would defect to Aguinaldo. Two of the deserters Private Edmond Dubose and Private Lewis Russell of the 9th Cavalry were hanged by the US Army on Feb. 7, 1902, before a crowd of 3,000 at Guinobatan, Albay.

After the two Black deserters were captured and executed, President Theodore Roosevelt announced he would stop executing captured deserters.

Legacy

Although Fagen's fascinating story happened more than a century ago, the fight against racism, prejudice, and injustice continues to this day with the rise of the Black Lives Matter movement. It doesn't matter what race you are or where you from, the fight continues.

Sources:
"An African American Soldier in the Philippine Revolution: An Homage to David Fagen," by E. San Juan Jr.

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Istoryadista | History Blog | Cebu Blogger: David Fagen and the African Americans Who Fought in the Philippine-American War
David Fagen and the African Americans Who Fought in the Philippine-American War
There has been a relatively unknown chapter in Philippine history where our fight against foreign invaders intertwined with African-American struggle
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