“Honoring Accomplishments” Series – African-Americans in the Armed Forces

An illustration by Jean Baptiste Antoine de Verger showing the uniforms of soldiers from different regiments in the Continental Army in the American Revolutionary War, 1781. The African soldier on the far left side is from the 1st Rhode Island Regiment. (Library of Congress)
“The Death of General Warren at the Battle of Bunker’s Hill, June 17, 1775” painting by John Trumbull, 1834. Some scholars have argued that Peter Salem – a free African who fought with the Continental Army – is depicted in the right bottom section of the painting right behind another soldier. (Public Domain)

As far back as the American Revolutionary War, African-Americans have served and fought in the nation’s conflicts through the centuries. In the first year of the American Revolutionary War, leading figures in the British Army – as well as loyalist leaders in the colonies – made formal announcements to African slaves that if they were willing to enlist and fight for the Crown, then they would be promised complete emancipation after their term of service was completed. Over 100,000 African slaves fled to British lines during the war, but very few of them saw actual combat in service to the British Empire. The most notable of the British Army’s African units was the Black Company of Pioneers, working primarily in construction and sanitary services. Due to the increasing numbers of Africans turning to the British – as well as to address their own recruitment shortages – Commander-in-Chief George Washington eliminated the ban on African enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. The new regiments of American-allied African soldiers were founded with the similar promises of emancipation in exchange for military service. In the northern colonies, the new African regiments were largely centered around the New England colonies. The most well-known of these was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which is now recognized as the very first official military unit of African-American soldiers in the history of the U.S. Armed Forces. Dressed in white uniforms and composed primarily of African and Native American soldiers, the regiment saw combat in numerous engagements from the Siege of Boston to the Battle of Yorktown. Although African enlistment was significantly more restricted in the southern colonies, they still saw recruitment for both the Continental Army and British Army. Francis Marion – commonly nicknamed “the Swamp Fox” – was one of the many generals in the Continental Army who made strategic use of African soldiers in the southern theater of war in the Revolution. As the African soldiers proved to be more resistant to tropical illnesses such as malaria and yellow fever – and some would have better knowledge of navigating the local areas – these American regiments made use of guerilla tactics to consistently attack and evade the patrolling British military forces in the southern wilderness. This doctrine of irregular warfare against the British, implemented by both White and African soldiers in battle during the Revolution, were widely-recognized for their effectiveness in military circles, and are still taught today by the U.S. Army’s 75th Ranger Regiment.

A lithograph by “Kurz and Allison” depicting the 54th Massachusetts charging against the defending Confederates at the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863, 1890. (Library of Congress)
Photograph of I Company of the 36th Colored Regiment from the United States Colored Troops, c. 1863. (Public Domain)

In the United States’ wars and conflicts between 1783 and 1861, African-Americans continued to serve in limited numbers in specific circumstances. The War of 1812 saw a significant increase of African-American sailors in the United States Navy, including under the command of Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie. The American Civil War was the first conflict in the nation’s history that saw massive numbers of African-Americans serve in the military. Recruiting African-Americans to fight against the secessionist Confederate States of America was met with divided reception and controversy in both the government and military. Certain military leaders questioned the hypothetical effectiveness of Black soldiers in combat, while abolitionist leaders such as Frederick Douglass considered it hypocritical for a nation to demand manpower to fight, but not from a population as willing and able as African-Americans fighting to free their brethren from slavery. Congress eventually approved the enlistment of African-Americans in the American military in July 1862, but it was not officially activated until January 1, 1863, the day President Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation – which legally freed every African slave in the Confederacy – was activated. With the future of slavery being one of the central tenets of the fighting, large numbers of free African-Americans in the north and escaped slaves from the secessionist Confederacy came to the service of the United States. Concerns that African-American soldiers would not measure up to White soldiers in battle were reduced with the 1st Kansas Colored Infantry Regiment, the first black regiment to be raised by the Union Army for the war. The regiment successfully repelled the Confederate-allied Missouri State Guard at the Skirmish at Island Mound in October 1862. A newspaper report from The New York Times later remarked that the African-American soldiers fought with “desperate bravery,” and the nationwide attention that was brought to the battle’s victory helped justify the creation of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) in 1863. As reports of African-American skill in battle and discipline in military instruction increased, the general public in the United States slowly grew more receptive to the notion of Black soldiers fighting in the war. Major General Benjamin Butler praised the African-American soldiers in his writings, remarking that his own “drillmaster could teach a regiment of Negroes that much of the art of war sooner than he could have taught the same number of students from Harvard or Yale.” The most famous unit of African-American soldiers in the Civil War was the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, under the command of Colonels Robert Gould Shaw and Edward Needles Hallowell. Numbering 1,100 soldiers, the regiment received widespread publicity throughout Boston, Massachusetts, where the regiment was assembled. Their most notable military action was their participation in the Battle of Fort Wagner in July 1863. Out of the 600 54th Massachusetts soldiers who were involved in the fighting, 270 were either killed, wounded, or captured, with Colonel Shaw as one of them. Although the Confederates successfully defended the fort against the Union, and with the high casualties suffered by the regiment, the 54th Massachusetts received high praise and respect from the American public. A surge in African-American enlistment followed the news reports of the regiment’s fighting, with President Abraham Lincoln later noting that the increase in Black soldiers fighting for the Union helped contribute to their victory in the war. William Harvey Carney – an African-American sergeant in the 54th Massachusetts – was later awarded the Medal of Honor for grabbing the U.S. flag after its previous holder fell, and holding onto it throughout the battle. The legacy of the 54th Massachusetts – as well as the service of other African-American regiments – has been sustained by several public and private functions. A memorial to the regiment’s service was created in Massachusetts by Augustus Saint-Gaudens for the Boston Common public park in 1898, and it was reactivated as the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Regiment, a ceremonial unit of the Massachusetts Army National Guard. Out of the 2,128,948 soldiers who served in the northern Union Army in the Civil War, 178,895 were African-Americans, and the Union Navy’s force of 84,415 sailors included within their ranks approximately 20,000 African-Americans.

Photograph of African-American soldiers from the “Harlem Hellfighters,” 1919. The soldiers pictured are nine of the 171 who received the Croix de Guerre by the French Army. (National Archives and Records Administration)
Photograph of the two sisters of Freddie Stowers – an African-American soldier – receiving a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions in World War I, 1991. (Public Domain)

The first half of the 20th century not only saw the First and Second World Wars take place in quick succession, but also had African-Americans once again come to the service of the United States in both conflicts. The U.S. Armed Forces’ policy on racially-separated units was still in effect as the country was drawn into World War I in 1917. Progressive organizations such as the National American Woman Suffrage Association (NAWSA) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) expressed their support for the war effort, each respectively trying to showcase that if women and African-Americans could prove their loyalty to the country in times of conflict, then they should all be entitled to the natural-born rights of all Americans. While the efforts of women in both the industrial and medical services helped them to achieve the right to vote in 1919, the calls for social change by African-Americans for their military service went largely ignored, and in worse cases were met with open hostility at home and abroad. There were notable recorded instances of African-American courage in World War I in spite of the prevailing discrimination against them, however. The 369th Infantry Regiment of the New York Army National Guard – best known by their nickname of the “Harlem Hellfighters” – served alongside the French Army on the Western Front, with 171 of its African-American soldiers earning the Legion of Merit. In September 1918, the 371st Infantry Regiment – composed of segregated African-American soldiers – was engaged in battle against a fortified German defense on Côte 188, in the Ardennes region of northern France. After coming under severe machine gun fire, African-American corporal Freddie Stowers took command of a squad of fellow soldiers and led them toward the German defensive lines. In spite of the heavy casualties suffered by his unit, Stowers continued to lead his fellow soldiers until he was mortally wounded by the German gun fire. The soldiers he directed managed to successfully attack the German emplacements and take the entire hill for the American unit. Stowers was one of four African-American soldiers who were recommended for the Medal of Honor for their actions in battle. The three other soldiers were instead given the award directly below it, the Distinguished Service Cross. Decades later in 1990, the Department of the Army conducted an official review and analysis of Stowers’ actions in 1918, returning to the original battlefield where he was killed to receive more specific information. Upon receiving all the information they required, the Army approved Stowers to posthumously receive the Medal of Honor. In April 1991, President George H.W. Bush formally bestowed the Medal of Honor to Stowers seventy-three years after his death, with his still-living sisters receiving it on his behalf.

Photograph of Doris Miller after receiving the Navy Cross from Admiral Chester W. Nimitz, May 1942. (Naval History and Heritage Command)
Photograph of African-American pilots from the 332nd Fighter Group attending a briefing in Italy, 1945. (Library of Congress)

The Second World War saw the beginning of the end of segregation in the U.S. Armed Forces, owed in large part to individual and group displays of heroism in battle. One of the most popular African-American newspapers of the early twentieth century was the Pittsburgh Courier, which introduced the political and social proposals that led to the Double V Campaign, symbolizing the desire to achieve victory against the Axis Powers in the war, as well as victory against discrimination and racism at home. Mirroring the advocacy by the NAACP in World War I, the Double V Campaign was instrumental in raising support from the African-American community in the war. Historically black colleges and universities (HBCU) promoted the campaign among their students and faculty, while trade unions such as the United Automobile Workers used it to promote worker cohesion in the defense industry. In the Army, African-Americans were enlisting in greater numbers than in previous conflicts. The Tuskegee Airmen – composed of the 332nd Fighter Group and the 447th Bombardment Group – were the first African-Americans in the Armed Forces to serve as aviators. Activated in 1940, the Tuskegee Airmen operated under the United States Army Air Forces, with 355 of its 992 pilots directly serving overseas in the war. By the war’s end in 1945, the Tuskegee Airmen had earned three Distinguished Unit Citations, one Silver Star, 96 Distinguished Service Crosses, 14 Bronze Stars, 744 Air Medals, and 60 Purple Hearts. Among the Army’s armored warfare forces, the 761st Tank Battalion was composed of African-American soldiers fighting in Europe. Nicknamed the “Black Panthers,” the 761st Tank Battalion faced several incidents of harassment and discrimination by white soldiers as they trained in segregation-era Texas. Among the leading officers of the battalion, the most widely known was First Lieutenant Jack “Jackie” Robinson. After refusing to leave his seat on a segregated bus, Robinson was arrested and put through a series of court-martial proceedings. While Robinson was acquitted of all charges in 1944, the 761st Tank Battalion had already been deployed to Europe without him, making his entire military career purely stateside. Robinson was honorably discharged in November 1944 and concentrated his post-military career on pursuing athletics, where he would ultimately become the first African-American to play Major League Baseball since the nineteenth century in 1947. Meanwhile, the 761st Tank Battalion landed in France in October 1944, whereupon they were attached to the U.S. Third Army under the command of Lieutenant General George S. Patton Jr. Under Patton’s command, the 761st Tank Battalion had its first engagement in the Battle of the Bulge, experiencing relentless daily engagements against German forces as they made their way to relieve the 101st Airborne Division in Bastogne. As they breached through several towns across Germany, the Battalion breached the Siegfried Line, allowing the 4th Armored Division to pass through. The 761st Tank Battalion was deactivated in June 1946, having earned by then 296 Purple Hearts, 11 Silver Stars, and 69 Bronze Stars. Decades after the racial discrimination in the Armed Forces was removed, President Jimmy Carter awarded the 761st Tank Battalion the Presidential Unit Citation. The Battalion’s only Medal of Honor recipient – Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers – received it posthumously by President Bill Clinton in 1997. In the United States Navy, African-American sailor Doris Miller served as a cook aboard the USS West Virginia. During the Empire of Japan’s surprise attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Miller rescued several sailors and Marines from the sinking ship. Despite not receiving any training to use it beforehand, Miller took control of an anti-aircraft gun and shot down several Japanese fighter planes. Miller’s courage amid the surprise attack placed him in the national spotlight, with several African-American newspapers highlighting him as an example of Black courage, even in the face of ongoing discrimination. For his courage in the defense of Pearl Harbor, Admiral Chester W. Nimitz awarded the Navy Cross – the second-highest decoration in the Navy – to Miller. A famous photograph of Miller with the Navy Cross on his uniform was widely-circulated in the United States, and was incorporated into recruitment posters for the Navy across the country. After conducting a war bond tour in the United States, Miller was assigned to the USS Liscome Bay in November 1943, leaving Pearl Harbor to deploy to the South Pacific. The Liscome Bay was struck by a Japanese torpedo while sailing through Makin Atoll, detonating the ordinance below the ship’s deck. As the ship sank, only 272 sailors and Marines out of 900 were reported as having survived the attack, with Miller counted among the missing. His death was confirmed by the Navy a year later, survived by his parents and his brothers, one of whom was currently in the military as well. A series of memorials were raised in Miller’s honor over the decades after World War II, including several schools, community centers, and parks named after him. In 2020, the United States Navy announced that one of its planned aircraft carriers – CVN-81 – will be named the USS Doris Miller after its construction is completed.

Newspaper report by “The Chicago Defender” announcing President Truman’s desegregation of the Armed Forces, 1948. (Library of Congress)
Photograph of a racially-integrated squad of American soldiers in the Korean War, 1950. (Public Domain)

In the years after the Allied victory in World War II, the process of eliminating racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces remained a topical concern. For veterans who were nearing the end of their service obligation, one of the many military discharges that they could receive was the blue discharge, otherwise known as the “blue ticket.” Originally created in 1916 as a replacement for two previous discharge classifications, the “blue ticket” was designed to be a general military discharge that was neither explicitly honorable or dishonorable. Although a veteran’s benefits could only ever be denied if they specifically received a “dishonorable discharge,” the “blue ticket” became a frequently-used instrument by the Veterans Administration (VA) to deny certain service members their benefits, particularly among African-Americans and individuals identified as “homosexuals.” The blue discharge eventually developed a negative connotation in the domestic work force in the United States, as employers who had veterans apply for work not only had to deal with more bureaucracy while providing their service records, but also the implication that the veteran was considered “undesirable” because they had the discharge, even if they had a completely positive service history. Negative press against the blue discharges increased in 1944, as the American Legion – a fraternal organization of American war veterans – called for Congress to provide all discharged veterans with benefits in the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944, the lone exception being those who were specifically dishonorably discharged. The Servicemen’s Readjustment Act – better-known as the G.I. Bill – was signed into law by President Franklin D. Roosevelt in June 1944. With the law’s new provisions in place, tens-of-thousands of veterans who received blue discharges for reasons considered “unreasonable” or “trivial” were upgraded to honorable discharges, to which they were officially entitled to the military benefits that they had earned through their service. Despite the G.I. Bill resolving the issues raised by many figures in the government and military, the blue discharges were still being issued at a disproportionate rate toward African-American veterans. An investigative news story by The Pittsburgh Courier – an African-American newspaper from Pennsylvania – condemned the blue discharge as “a vicious instrument that should not be perpetrated against the American Soldier.” The Courier published voluminous instructions to readers on how to appeal a blue discharge and upgrade it to an honorable discharge, as the news report joined the growing body of organizations who called for reforms in the distribution of military benefits, including the American Legion, the NAACP, and the Congress of Industrial Organizations. Responding to the increasing criticisms of the blue discharges and the discrimination that it fostered, the House Committee on Military Affairs proposed a series of solutions in 1946 that they urged the VA to implement. The overall goal was to have the VA reduce the number of blue discharges and give more American veterans the benefits that they were legally entitled to. On July 1, 1947, the blue discharge was officially discontinued, and the Armed Forces was formally desegregated by President Harry S. Truman through Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948. President Truman’s order heralded an era of an increasingly-desegregated military in the Cold War era. One of Executive Order 9981’s provisions made it illegal for military service personnel to make any racist remarks against anyone. 

Photograph of Specialist Lawrence Joel receiving a Medal of Honor certificate from President Lyndon B. Johnson, 1968. (Public Domain)
Portrait photograph of General Colin Powell as the newly-appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, 1989. (National Archives and Records Administration)

In 1963, Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara issued Directive 5120.36, making it the responsibility of every military commander to “oppose discriminatory practices affecting his men and their dependents and to foster equal opportunity for them, not only in areas under his immediate control, but also in nearby communities where they may gather in off-duty hours.” African-Americans in the Armed Forces have served in larger numbers since its desegregation, and have frequently broken different barriers in different times and places. The Korean War – the first major conflict of the Cold War era – saw the U.S. military serve in integrated units for the first time. In the Vietnam War, larger attention was focused on the heavy casualties suffered by African-Americans in combat, highlighted by the then-ongoing civil rights movement in the country.  Lawrence Joel – a soldier in the U.S. Army who fought in the Vietnam War – became the first living African-American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Mexican-American War 119 years earlier. Under President George H.W. Bush, General Colin Powell became the first African-American to hold the title of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989. President Barack Obama – the nation’s first African-American president – also became ex officio the first to be the Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces in 2009. In 2021, Lloyd Austin III – a veteran of the United States Army – was selected by President Joe Biden to serve as the Secretary of Defense, becoming the first African-American to do so

Written by Nicholas J. Dilley, Ronald Reagan Presidential Library & Museum

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