April 17, 2023

A 22-Year Overnight Success Story: The Preservation of Camp Naco

Located hundreds of yards from the United States border with Mexico, at the edge of the arts community of Bisbee, Arizona, are the remains of Camp Naco—one of the 35 camps built along the border from 1910-1920 to maintain order during the Mexican Revolution. Today, Camp Naco is a testament to the history of southwest Arizona, the Black military units known as the Buffalo Soldiers, the Mexican Revolution, and World War I.

Since the camp was decommissioned in 1923 it suffered from a variety of different challenges—vandalism, exposure to weather, erosion, and fire. However, for over 20 years, a group of local advocates fought to ensure that the deep legacy of this border camp was not lost. In May 2022, the National Trust for Historic Preservation listed Camp Naco as one of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places. The result, as Rebecca Orozco, the community coordinator for the Naco Heritage Alliance, said, was a “22-year overnight success story.”

A black and white image of historic adobe buildings laid out for a military camp.

photo by: Bisbee Mining and Historical Museum

View of Camp Naco from the top of the watertower, just before the camp was completed in 1919.

The Legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers

After the Civil War, the 179,000 African American troops in the Union Army were consolidated into the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. These soldiers served in the wars of westward expansion where they received the moniker “Buffalo Soldiers.” In 1877, as the United States' interests in the region instigated conflicts with the Chiricahua Apache tribe, the army built Fort Huachuca in Arizona, which became the home of the Buffalo Soldiers.

For the duration of its existence, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 25th Infantry were assigned to Fort Huachuca and rotated to Camp Naco (which was about 35 miles away) as required, playing a pivotal role in protecting the border during the Mexican Revolution. While the role of the United States in the revolution in Mexico was substantial, the Buffalo Soldiers ensured that the violence did not spread across the border. Later these same soldiers were sent into Mexico, as part of the unsuccessful Punitive Expedition to capture or kill Pancho Villa, and spent up to 17 hours a day on horseback in grueling conditions.

In 1917 British intelligence intercepted the infamous Zimmerman telegram, which proposed an alliance between Mexico and Germany. A few months later, partially due to the telegram, the United States entered World War I. For Camp Naco, the telegram’s threats encouraging Mexico to instigate uprisings across the border had a lasting impact. After the war, the structures at Camp Naco were reinforced, transforming their temporary structures into more durable buildings made from adobe.

As Charles Hancock, vice president of the Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers, said, “The legacy of the Buffalo Soldier cannot be denied. Given the opportunity to serve, African Americans came through time and time again, even in the face of racism and prejudice. The history of these men goes hand in hand in the expansion into the West, the establishment of our National Parks, protection of our borders and the fight for freedom.”

Tell the Full Story: Rediscovering Camp Naco

Camp Naco in Arizona

Explore the cultural landscape of this Buffalo Soldier military camp and the full history of the role in played in the Mexican Revolution, World War I, and more.

Protecting Camp Naco

While the work to preserve Camp Naco has been ongoing for decades, it was only in 2008 that Rebecca Orozco and Deborah Jones started the nonprofit Naco Heritage Alliance (NHA), dedicated to preserving the camp and its story. Four years later, the National Park Service listed the site on the National Register of Historic Places.

After purchasing the Camp Naco site in 2018, the City of Bisbee stabilized the 23 remaining adobe structures. That work, coupled with the enduring efforts of advocates at NHA, The Southwest Association of Buffalo Soldiers (SWABS), the Black Motorcycle Clubs (BMC), and others ensured that the camp did not disappear into the desert.

While the National Trust had provided earlier funding for the conception of a master plan for the site, it wasn’t until May 2022, with Camp Naco’s inclusion on the list of America’s 11 Most Endangered Historic Places, that things began to change. In October 2022, Camp Naco received an $4.6 million from the state of Arizona as part of the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), and in January 2023 they received an additional $3.5 million from the Mellon Foundation’s Monument Project Initiative.

R. Brooks Jeffery, the strategic planner and startup executive director for the Naco Heritage Alliance, said, “The 11 Most Endangered List designation was a watershed moment. That was the thing that made it national. It brought attention to all the right people who understood the importance and impact of that site and its potential for creating an amazing story and destination for arts and culture in Southern Arizona.”

A group of people dressed as members of the Buffalo Soldiers holding a sign thanking various organizations for their financial support for Camp Naco.

photo by: Jim Peters

A group of advocates celebrate Camp Naco's success. Pictured left to right Eric Reed, Charles Hancock (SWABS), Billie J. Holloway Sr. (SWABS), Allyne McFalls (SWABS), Demetria Warren (SWABS), Virgil (Mufasa) Bandy, (Sierra Vista Motorcycle Club), Carlos (Lobo) Bazan (Sierra Vista Motorcycle Club), and Charles Long.

For the Community and Beyond

As the NHA plans for the future, these funds will help not only with the essential needs of preserving the structures of the site, but also the development of public programming and interpretation.

Jeffery noted that “we’re talking about creating a new social use for the buildings that had a previous historic use.” The brick-and-mortar funds from the state of Arizona will help to fund further building stabilization and rehabilitation, while the funds awarded by the Mellon Foundation will allow the organization to focus on community programming. He continued, “We want to create a destination for people to come to Camp Naco, learn about the Buffalo soldiers and the legacy of African Americans in Arizona, while also creating a place for arts and culture.” The hope is that all of this will lead to Camp Naco becoming an economic driver for the region.

A detail look at adobe buildings in Arizona.

photo by: Jim Peters

A closer view of three of the remaining adobe buildings at Camp Naco.

For those working to save Camp Naco, everything is an opportunity to engage visitors and the local community.

For example, the Alliance plans on using the preservation of the adobe buildings to “teach vocational skills about traditional building methods, that would then supplement the industry of [historic trades] in the southwest,” Jeffery said.

Just as important to Jeffery and Hancock is how the funds open avenues for research and interpretation on some of the lesser-known stories of Camp Naco, specifically the connection between the Buffalo Soldiers, Native American tribes, and Hispanic people who lived in the area. NHA also plans to continue building relationships with descendant communities, so as to connect to issues relevant today while ensuring sharing Camp Naco’s legacy well into the future.

In the end, it is not just about this one site in isolation. As Jeffery said, “The Buffalo Soldiers weren’t only at Camp Naco or Fort Huachuca. They were at multiple sites throughout Southern Arizona, and more organizations are advocating for them to be preserved. There is a constellation of efforts in Southern Arizona related to this incredible legacy, and we are hoping that the preservation of Camp Naco will help build the whole as greater than the sum of the parts.”

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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