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Bringing a Buffalo Soldier back to life

L.A. historical tour will feature tale of Edward Lee Baker, a Medal of Honor recipient who died in 1913.

September 26, 2008|Bob Pool | Times Staff Writer

The honor is all theirs, say those who are memorializing Los Angeles' most decorated hero of the Spanish-American War 106 years late.

All-but-forgotten Buffalo Soldier and Medal of Honor recipient Edward Lee Baker Jr. will be recognized Saturday by the West Adams Heritage Assn. A costumed look-alike will reenact his life, standing above his grave in the Angelus Rosedale Cemetery.

Baker died in 1913 at age 47.

But until this year his burial site was marked by a weathered marble headstone that cryptically identified him as a member of the "Phil. Scouts."

There was no mention of his being awarded the nation's highest honor for wartime valor or of his climb out of the vestiges of slavery in the difficult post-Civil War period of the late 1800s.

That was remedied six months ago by an amateur historian from Baltimore whose hobby is tracking down the final resting places of Medal of Honor recipients.

Don Morfe, a retired accountant, has traced and visited some 2,800 of the heroes' graves. At Morfe's request, authorities placed a new granite marker above Baker's grave. It is engraved with a depiction of the Medal of Honor and identifies his presence in the 10th Cavalry unit and participation in the Spanish-American War.

Leaders of the West Adams Heritage Assn. say they were stunned when they noticed the new marker and learned of Baker while planning this year's "Living History Tour" of the cemetery at 1831 W. Washington Blvd. in Los Angeles.

The neighborhood group -- which watches over historic preservation of the community's Victorian and Craftsman homes southwest of downtown -- has conducted the graveyard tours for 18 years. A highlight each year is the reenactment of the lives of prominent citizens buried there.

"They tell the stories of L.A.," explained Laura Meyers, this year's coordinator.

Meyers, a writer, jumped at the chance to commemorate the cemetery's newfound hero. And a West Adams neighbor, Albert Edmund Lord III, was more than happy to portray Baker, who had lived on nearby Fedora Street.

"I was blown away that somebody of this stature exists so close to us," said Lord, who works as a field deputy to City Councilman Herb Wesson. "I appreciate history and understand the plight and circumstances of soldiers of color."

On Wednesday, Lord was fitted for the authentic-looking cavalry uniform by his sister, Yvette Ammon, a fellow West Adams resident and professional TV and film costumer. Another neighbor, professional television makeup artist Lisa Berns, applied a fake beard and mustache that turned Lord into an uncanny reincarnation of Baker.

Standing over the hero's grave, Lord practiced performing a script written for the tour by Michelle Basche, a novelist and screenwriter from North Hills who has researched Baker's life.

Baker, Basche said, "was born in Wyoming in a wagon train that was on its way to the Rocky Mountains." He joined the cavalry at 16 and had a 28-year Army career.

"He was a sergeant-major during the battle of July 1, 1898, near Santiago, Cuba, when a Pvt. Marshall was shot and fell in a river," Basche said. "His pack was pulling him down and he was wounded and drowning." Baker ran through a hail of bullets fired by Spaniards shooting from a nearby hill, she said. He was wounded twice in the arm. But he managed to save Marshall.

Four years later, he was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions.

Others who will be portrayed by costumed actors on Saturday include silent movie actor Monroe Salisbury; the Rev. Asahel Morgan Hough, a founder of USC; Francisca de Paula Dominguez Alexander Fleming, a pioneering early L.A. resident who was queen of the 1897 Fiesta de Los Angeles; actress Ernestine Wade, who played Sapphire on the old "Amos 'n' Andy" show; and 1860s photographer Valentine Wolfenstein.

Descendants of both Wolfenstein and Baker have said they plan to attend Saturday's tours, which are scheduled every 25 minutes between 9 a.m. and noon. The association is asking for $30 donations to help support the West Adams group's preservation efforts, Meyers said.

The resting place of more than 100,000, the cemetery was popular with early Los Angeles leaders and local dignitaries. It was the first in the city to open its gates to people of all races and religions.

That may be why it appealed to Baker, said the man who will bring him to life Saturday.

"Capt. Edward Baker was an educated man. He pushed to be educated at a time when picking cotton replaced slavery," Lord said.

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bob.pool@latimes.com

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