BLACKS IN THE MILITARY
by Dr. Leroy Vaughn
Television images of General Colin Powell in specific, and Black, well trained, energetic soldiers in general, are a great source of pride for most African Americans. These television images represent the fruits of over two hundred years of struggle by African Americans for equality, integration, and respect in the military service. There is probably no irony in American history more pointed than the American Black soldier fighting and dying for basic American democracy and freedom, while being denied most of those same freedoms at home and in the military since the founding of this country.
Until recently African Americans begged for the privilege to fight and die for this country in hopes that a more equitable society would await them at the end of the war. However, Black soldiers and sailors were strictly prohibited from participation in virtually every American war until a severe manpower shortage made this country desperate. In 1792, laws were passed by Congress to exclude Blacks from the Army and Marines. The Marine Corp did not accept an African American for its first 150 years of existence, up to and including World War II, when White politicians and generals finally became desperate enough to encourage Black military participation. Black soldiers were frequently poorly trained, unequally paid and equipped, and forced to participate in all Black regiments with White southern officers in charge.
When Blacks were allowed to participate in American wars, they invariably performed exceptionally well. Over 5,000 African Americans, both slave and free, served in the army during the Revolutionary War, and almost all of them received their freedom in appreciation after the war. In fact, most northern states abolished slavery because of their contribution. The outstanding contributions of over 200,000 African American soldiers and sailors during the Civil War led to the 13th Amendment freeing all slaves.
Between 1869 and 1890 Black soldiers in the West, nicknamed the Buffalo Soldiers, won 14 Congressional Metals of Honor, 9 Certificates of Merit and 29 Orders of Honorable Mention while fighting Native Americans. President Theodore Roosevelt credits these same Buffalo Soldiers for saving his famous "Rough Riders" from extermination in Cuba during the Spanish American War of 1898.
About 160,000 of the 200,000 African Americans sent to Europe during World War I were forced to work as laborers in unloading ships and building roads. The remaining soldiers were not even allowed to fight along side White American soldiers but rather were assigned by General Pershing to French Divisions. These Black soldiers had to fight in French uniforms with French weapons and French leadership until the end of World War I. Over 3,000 casualties were sustained by these Black soldiers, who subsequently were awarded over 540 medals by the French government including the Legion of Honor - for gallantry in action.
The plight of Blacks in the military did not improve significantly until President Franklin Roosevelt and President Harry Truman made concessions to Black leaders in exchange for Black votes. On October 15, 1940, Roosevelt announced that Blacks would be trained as pilots, that Black reserve officers would be called to active duty, and that Colonel Benjamin Davis would be named the first Black Brigadier General.
In 1948, Truman was even more desperate for Black votes and issued Executive Order 9981, ending military segregation and demanding "equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the Armed Services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin." After two hundred years of struggle, African Americans can now look upon Black military men and officers with a great since of pride and accomplishment.
BLACKS IN THE MILITARY
Nalty, B. (1986) Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. NY: Free Press.
Rogers, J. (1989) Africa's Gift to America. St. Petersburg, FL: Helga Rogers Publishing.