There are many historic photographs in GBH WORLD’s Buffalo Soldiers: Fighting on Two Fronts: A Local USA Special. One in particular, though, perfectly frames the whole story.

It is a photo taken in 1898 at the Battle of San Juan Hill, a decisive victory for the U.S. in the Spanish-American War. In most reproductions of the image seen in history books, the photo is cropped to focus on Colonel Theodore Roosevelt and his regiment, dubbed the “Rough Riders,” gathered triumphantly around a planted flag. Buffalo Soldiers, though, reveals the untrimmed version, in which a number of Black soldiers can also be seen at the outermost edge of the assembled crowd. As the film explains, these men of the 10th U.S. Cavalry bravely breached Spanish defenses to crown the hill with flags before the Rough Riders arrived—and yet, in the telling of history, they are often relegated to the fringe or left out of the picture entirely.

No more. The auspicious and award-winning feature-length debut of filmmaker Dru Holley fixes its lens and focuses overdue attention directly on the African American regiments that were formed in 1866 during the process of ratifying the 14th Amendment, which granted full citizenship to Black men. For the formerly enslaved, enlisting in the U.S. Army was a path to reliable income and, ostensibly, respect. Ultimately, six all-Black regiments—collectively nicknamed the “Buffalo Soldiers” by the American Indians they fought during the westward expansion of the Indian Wars— would wage battles in the Spanish-American War, Philippine-American War, both World Wars and others on behalf of a country that continued to subjugate them throughout the Jim Crow era.

They struggled then to be treated fairly in the segregated U.S. Army, and their story struggles to be widely recognized today. According to its director, that’s why a documentary like Buffalo Soldiers is so necessary right now. “I saw it as a mission to tell this story,” said Holley. “It’s part of the fight to pass on the history of African American contributions to the United States.”

It’s poignant that these premieres coincide with Juneteenth, which commemorates the emancipation of enslaved African Americans. After all, Holley first conceived of the film at a Juneteenth festival in 2018, when his young daughter was awed by the sight of reenactors playing Buffalo Soldiers on horseback. He was sad that she had never learned of the Black soldiers, and disappointed that his own knowledge of their history was so limited.

Holley, a Vancouver, Washington-based filmmaker with experience producing promotional web content, threw himself into making his first documentary. Exactly five years later, Buffalo Soldiers will premiere as part of the Local, USA series on GBH WORLD, which recognized both the importance of the subject matter and the powerful promise of its director.

“This film is coming at a really good time,” said Chris Hastings, executive producer of GBH WORLD, who met and mentored Holley through longstanding relationships with Black Public Media and Firelight Media, a nonprofit supporting works by filmmakers of color. “People trust public media to put truth out into the world. This is American history, and it must be learned by the young so we can reckon with our past.”

Indeed, besides offering rare tribute to America’s earliest Black soldiers, and as its subtitle Fighting on Two Fronts suggests, Buffalo Soldiers also considers how these new freemen participated themselves in the oppression of Indigenous people and others through the settlement of the American West and colonialism abroad.

Acknowledging this painful complexity, as well as their patriotism, was crucial to telling the full story of the Buffalo Soldiers, said Holley. “I don’t think I would have truly honored them without addressing this complicated legacy. At first, I worried that it might bring things down. But it doesn’t. It opens up a conversation to talk about the truth.” The film can be seen Monday, June 12 at 10pm on GBH 2 and on Juneteenth, June 19, at 8pm on GBH WORLD.

Watch a preview here.