Online Exhibit

African Americans in the U.S. Military

In celebration of Black History Month, Nauticus recognizes and honors the sacrifice, service, and memory of African-Americans who have served or are serving in the United States Military.

Watch the D.O.D. video "African-Americans in WWII: Legacy of Patriotism and Honor"

Major James A. Ellison returns the salute of Mac Ross of Dayton, Ohio, as he passes down the line during review of the first class of Tuskegee cadets; flight line at U.S. Army Air Corps basic and advanced flying school, with Vultee BT-13 trainers in the background, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941 Peace Celebrations at Naval Amphibious Base, Manus, Admiralty Islands, 15 August 1945

Members of the 22nd Special Naval Construction Battalion cheering news of Japan's acceptance of peace terms.
Note sign: "War is over! Good-Bye Pacific. Hello USA".

In February 1944, the Navy commissioned its first African-American officers. This long-hoped-for action represented a major step forward in the status of African-Americans in the Navy and in American society. The twelve commissioned officers, and a warrant officer who received his rank at the same time, came to be known as the "Golden Thirteen". Born into slavery in Thomasville, Georgia, on March 21, 1856, Henry Ossian Flipper was appointed to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1873. Over the next four years he overcame harassment, isolation, and insults to become West Point's first African American graduate and the first African American commissioned officer in the regular U.S. Army.
Lt.(jg.) Harriet Ida Pickens and Ens. Frances Wills, first Negro Waves to be commissioned. They were members of the final graduating class at Naval Reserve Midshipmen's School (WR) Northampton, MA. Somewhere in England, Maj. Charity E. Adams,...and Capt. Abbie N. Campbell,...inspect the first contingent of Negro members of the Women's Army Corps assigned to overseas service." 6888th Central Postal Directory Bn. February 15, 1945
The 761st Tank Battalion, referred to as the Black Panther Tank Battalion, was activated on April 1, 1942, at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana, and deployed to Europe, landing at Omaha Beach in France on October 10, 1944.

As a result of their great fighting abilities they spearheaded a number of Patton's moves into enemy territory. They forced a hole in the Siegfried Line, allowing Patton's 4th Armored Division to pour through into Germany.

Several Tuskegee airmen at Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945.
African American sailors of the U.S.S. Mason (DE 529) commissioned at Boston Navy Yard on 20 Mar. 1944 proudly look over their ship which is the first to have [a] predominately African American crew. On parade, the 41st Engineers at Ft. Bragg, NC in color guard ceremony.

The military history of African Americans spans from the arrival of the first black slaves during the colonial history of the United States to the present day. There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African Americans did not participate, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican-American War, the Civil War, the Spanish American War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other minor conflicts.

Revolutionary War

African-Americans as slaves and free African-Americans, served on both sides during the war. African-American soldiers served in northern militias from the outset, but this was forbidden in the South, where slave-owners feared arming slaves. Lord Dunmore, the Royal Governor of Virginia, issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British; Sir Henry Clinton issued a similar edict in New York in 1779. Over 100,000 slaves escaped to the British lines, although possibly as few as 1,000 served under arms.

In response, and because of manpower shortages, Washington lifted the ban on African-Americans enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many were slaves promised freedom for serving in lieu of their masters; another all-African-American unit came from Haiti with French forces. At least 5,000 African-American soldiers fought as Revolutionaries, and at least 20,000 served with the British.

Peter Salem and Salem Poor are the most noted of the African American Patriots during this era, while Black Loyalist Colonel Tye became one of the most successful commanders of the war.

War of 1812

During the War of 1812, about one-quarter of the personnel in the American naval squadrons of the Battle of Lake Erie were black, and portrait renderings of the battle on the wall of the Nation's Capitol and the rotunda of Ohio's Capitol show that African-Americans played a significant role in it.

Mexican War

A number of African-Americans in the Army during the Mexican War were servants of the officers who received government compensation for the services of their servants or slaves. Also, soldiers from the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men of Color participated in this war. African-Americans also served on a number of naval vessels during the Mexican War, including the U.S.S. Treasure, and the U.S.S. Columbus.

U.S. Civil War

The history of African Americans in the U.S. Civil War is marked by 186,097 (7,122 officers, 178,975 enlisted) African American men, comprising 163 units, who served in the Union Army during the Civil War, and many more African Americans served in the Union Navy. Both free African Americans and runaway slaves joined the fight. On the Confederate side, blacks, both free and slave, were used for labor, but the issue of whether to arm them, and under what terms, became a major source of debate amongst those in the South. At the start of the war, a Louisiana Confederate militia unit composed of free blacks was raised, but never accepted into Confederate service.

Indian Wars

From the 1870s to the early 20th century, African American units were utilized by the United States Government to combat the Native Americans during the Indian Wars. Perhaps the most noted among this group were the Buffalo Soldiers.

At the end of the U.S. Civil War the army reorganized and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry with the designations 9th and 10th U. S. Cavalry. Two regiments of infantry were formed at the same time. These units were composed of black enlisted men commanded by white officers such as Benjamin Grierson, and, occasionally, an African-American officer such as Henry O. Flipper, the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in 1877 at the age of 21 and earn a commission as a 2nd Lieutenant in the US Army.

From 1866 to the early-1890s these regiments served at a variety of posts in the southwest United States and Great Plains regions. During this period they participated in most of the military campaigns in these areas and earned a distinguished record. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from these four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.

Spanish American War

After the Indian Wars ended in the 1890s, the regiments continued to serve and participated in the Spanish-American War (including the Battle of San Juan Hill), where five more Medals of Honor were earned. They took part in the 1916 Punitive Expedition into Mexico and in the Philippine-American War. The Spanish-American War's General Shafter preferred his "Buffalo Soldiers" to their white counterparts.

World War I

The U.S. armed forces remained segregated through World War I. Still, many African Americans eagerly volunteered to join the Allied cause following America's entry into the war. By the time of the armistice with Germany on November 1918, over 350,000 African Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.

Most African American units were largely relegated to support roles and did not see combat. Still, African Americans played a notable role in America's war effort. One of the most distinguished units was the 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the "Harlem Hellfighters", which was on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit in the war. 171 members of the 369th were awarded the Legion of Merit.

Corporal Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment that was seconded to the 157th French Army division called the Red Hand Division in need of reinforcement under the command of the General Mariano Goybet was posthumously awarded a Medal of Honor—the only African American to be so honored for actions in World War I. During action in France, Stowers had led an assault on German trenches, continuing to lead and encourage his men even after being twice wounded. Stowers died from his wounds, but his men continued the fight and eventually defeated the German troops. Stowers was recommended for the Medal of Honor shortly after his death, but the nomination was, according to the Army, misplaced. Many believed that the recommendation was intentionally ignored due to institutional racism in the Armed Forces. In 1990, under pressure from Congress, the Department of the Army launched an investigation. Based on findings from this investigation, the Army Decorations Board approved the award of the Medal of Honor to Stowers. On April 24, 1991–73 years after he was killed in action—Stowers' two surviving sisters received the Medal of Honor from President George H.W. Bush at the White House. The success of the investigation leading to Stowers' Medal of Honor later sparked a similar review that resulted in six African Americans being posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor for actions in World War II. Vernon Baker was the only recipient who was still alive to receive his award.

World War II

Despite a high enlistment rate in the U.S. Army, African Americans were not treated equally. Racial tensions existed. At parades, church services, in transportation and canteens the races were kept separate.

Many soldiers of color served their country with distinction during World War II. There were 125,000 African Americans who were overseas in World War II. Famous segregated units, such as the Tuskegee Airmen and 761st Tank Battalion proved their value in combat, leading to desegregation of all U.S. Armed Forces by order of President Harry S. Truman in July 1948 via Executive Order 9981.

Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. served as commander of the famed Tuskegee Airmen during the War. He later went on to become the first African American general in the United States Air Force. His father, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., had been the first African American Brigadier General in the Army (1940).

Doris Miller, a Navy mess attendant, was the first African American recipient of the Navy Cross, awarded for his actions during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller had voluntarily manned an anti-aircraft gun and fired at the Japanese aircraft, despite having no prior training in the weapon's use.

In 1944, the Golden Thirteen became the Navy's first African American commissioned officers. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. became a commissioned officer the same year; he would later be the first African American to command a US warship, and the first to be an admiral.

The Port Chicago disaster on July 17, 1944, was an explosion of about 2,000 tons of ammunition as it was being loaded onto ships by black Navy soldiers under pressure from their white officers to hurry. The explosion in Northern California killed 320 military and civilian workers, most of them black. The aftermath led to the Port Chicago Mutiny, the only case of a full military trial for mutiny in the history of the U.S. Navy against 50 Afro-American sailors who refused to continue loading ammunition under the same dangerous conditions. The trial was observed by the then young lawyer Thurgood Marshall and ended in conviction of all of the defendants. The trial was immediately and later criticized for not abiding by the applicable laws on mutiny, and it became influential in the discussion of desegregation.

In 1945, Frederick C. Branch became the first African-American United States Marine Corps officer.

Medal of Honor recipients

Main article: List of African-American Medal of Honor recipients

On January 13, 1997, President Bill Clinton, in a White House ceremony, awarded the nation's highest military honor—the Medal of Honor—to seven African-American servicemen who had served in World War II.

The only living recipient was:

First Lieutenant Vernon Baker.

The posthumous recipients were:

Major Charles L. Thomas
First Lieutenant John R. Fox
Staff Sergeant Ruben Rivers
Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter, Jr.
Private First Class Willy F. James, Jr.
Private George Watson

Integration of the armed forces

On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 integrating the military and mandating equality of treatment and opportunity. It also made it illegal, per military law, to make a racist remark. Desegregation of the military was not complete for several years, and all-black Army units persisted well into the Korean War. The last all-black unit wasn't disbanded until 1954.

Korean War

Jesse L. Brown became the U.S. Navy's first black aviator in October 1948. He was killed when his plane was shot down during the Battle of Chosin Reservoir in North Korea. He was unable to eject from his crippled F4U Corsair and crash-landed successfully. His injuries and damage to his aircraft prevented him from leaving the plane. A white squadron mate, Thomas Hudner, crash-landed his F4U Corsair near Brown and attempted to extricate Brown but could not and Brown died of his injuries. Hudner was awarded the Medal of Honor for his efforts. The U.S. Navy honored Jesse Brown by naming an escort ship after him—the U.S.S. Jesse L. Brown.

Two enlisted men from the 24th Infantry Regiment (still a segregated unit), Cornelius H. Charlton and William Thompson, posthumously received the Medal of Honor for actions during the war.

Vietnam War

The Vietnam War saw many great accomplishments by many African Americans, including twenty who received the Medal of Honor for their actions. African Americans during the conflict suffered casualty rates slightly higher than their percentage of the total population.

In 1967, President Lyndon B. Johnson presented the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Specialist Five Lawrence Joel, for a "very special kind of courage—the unarmed heroism of compassion and service to others." Joel was the first living African American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Mexican–American War. He was a medic who in 1965 saved the lives of U.S. troops under ambush in Vietnam and defied direct orders to stay to the ground, walking through Viet Cong gunfire and tending to the troops despite being shot twice himself. The Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum in Winston-Salem, North Carolina is dedicated to his honor.

On August 21, 1968, with the posthumous award of the Medal of Honor, U.S. Marine James Anderson, Jr. became the first African-American U.S. Marine recipient of the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions and sacrifice of life.

On December 10, 1968, U.S. Army Captain Riley Leroy Pitts became the first African American commissioned officer to be awarded the Medal of Honor. His medal was presented posthumously to his wife, Mrs. Eula Pitts, by President Lyndon B. Johnson.

Post-Vietnam to present day

In 1989, President George H. W. Bush appointed Army General Colin Powell to the position of Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making Powell the highest ranking officer in the United States military. Powell was the first, and is so far the only, African American to hold that position. The Chairman serves as the chief military adviser to the President and the Secretary of Defense. During his tenure Powell oversaw the 1989 United States invasion of Panama to oust General Manuel Noriega and the 1990 to 1991 Gulf War against Iraq. General Powell's four-year term as Chairman ended in 1993.

General William E. "Kip" Ward was officially nominated as the first commander of the new United States Africa Command on July 10, 2007 and assumed command on October 1, 2007.

The previous Sergeant Major of the Marine Corps, Carlton W. Kent, is African American; as were the previous two before him.

The American military and Affirmative Action

Since the end of military segregation and the creation of an all-volunteer army, the American military has seen the representation of African Americans in its ranks rise precipitously.

Text from Wikipedia