From the beginning of our history, Black men and women have made tremendous contributions to our society—and particularly to the success of the U.S. military. As we begin Black History Month, also known as African American History Month, it seems fitting to take a quick tour through history, reviewing highlights of these remarkable military achievements made by Black service members who often faced difficult roadblocks. Their service was, and is, invaluable.
The American Revolution
In 1776, as the colonists began fighting for independence from British control, thousands of Black men joined the fight on both sides. Their goal differed, however the majority were fighting for freedom from slavery.
When the fight over the fate of slavery began, African Americans were banned by federal law from enlisting. The Emancipation Proclamation in 1862, however, opened the door for their participation to fight for their own freedom. Many served in the Union artillery and infantry, while others served in crucial non-combat support roles, such as cooks, laborers and teamsters. By the end of the war, an estimated 180,000 Black people had joined the fight, making up approximately 10 percent of the Union Army, helping change the course of history.
In 1866, an Act of Congress created six all-Black peacetime regiments. Assigned to protect settlers on the Western frontier as the country expanded, they also built roads, guarded the U.S. mail and created other infrastructure. They were key participants in the Indian Wars, earning the nickname Buffalo Soldiers from the Native American tribes. Different theories exist about the origins of the nickname, but because of respect the Indians had for the buffalo, the soldiers proudly adopted the name Buffalo Soldiers, eventually making it part of their official crest.
The Buffalo Soldiers distinguished themselves during the Indian Wars, with 18 earning the Medal of Honor, and all of them breaking down resistance to the idea of Black Army officers.
WWI and the 369th Infantry Harlem Hellfighters
First to arrive in France and the most highly decorated when it returned, the all-Black 369th Infantry was better known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Assigned to the 16th Division of the French Army, these men fought gallantly at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood. They spent more days in combat, at 191, than any other American unit in the war.
WWII and the Tuskegee Airmen
The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black aviators to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the predecessor to the U.S. Air Force. They distinguished themselves by flying more than 15,000 individual sorties across Europe and North Africa, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
More importantly, they paved the way for the future integration of the U.S. Armed Forces by countering stereotypes that Black people could not possibly learn to operate sophisticated aircraft. In fact, in 1948, President Harry S. Truman abolished racial discrimination in the U.S. Armed Forces via executive order, eventually ending segregation.
WWII and the “Black Rosies”
We’ve all seen the iconic image of “Rosie the Riveter,” flexing her bicep, wearing a red bandana and blue coveralls. While “Rosie” is white, did you know there were more than a half million “Black Rosies,” too? They left their jobs as domestics and sharecroppers to learn all new skills. They became sheet metal workers, shipbuilders, railroad conductors, welders, administrators, electricians, and munitions and explosives assemblers, working side by side with white women in the war effort.
Noteworthy “Firsts” for Black Service Members
It’s impossible to cover every significant contribution by Black service members throughout our history. Here’s just a sample of more “firsts” achieved by Black people in the service of our country:
- Doris “Dorie“ Miller received the Navy Cross for actions during the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor.
- In 1940, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., achieved star rank in the U.S. Army and in the armed forces.
- Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., was founder and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen, eventually working his way up to general, earning his fourth star in 1998.
- Samuel L. Gravely, Jr., became commander of a major naval warship, rising to rank of vice admiral and eventually commanding a U.S. fleet.
- In 1979, Frank E. Peterson, Jr., became brigadier general in the Marine Corps. In 1983, he advanced to the rank of major general, and in 1986, he was promoted to lieutenant general.
- Starting her military career in 1955 as a nurse, Hazel Johnson-Brown was promoted in 1979 to general in the Army. She also became a Chief of the United States Army Nurse Corps.
- From 1989 - 1993, Colin Powell served as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff to presidents George Bush and Bill Clinton. In January 2001, he became secretary of state for President George W. Bush.
- Vernice Armour joined the Marines as an officer candidate in October 1998. She was the branches the first female Black naval aviator. In 2003, during the invasion of Iraq, she became a combat pilot.
- In 2020, Madeline Swegle became the Navy’s first Black female tactical fighter pilot. She diligently earned her “Wings of Gold” by the Chief of Naval Air Training.
Click to learn more about these and other Black military heroes.
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