Black Military History
Despite not always being afforded America's promised freedoms, Black people have fought wars for it since the American Revolution. Even so, the American military remained segregated until 1948. Today we acknowledge some important firsts for Black people in American military history.
Day 22 - V is for Veterans
Morgan Freeman served in the U.S. Air Force from 1955-59 and was a radar technician. During fighter pilot training, he had a "distinct feeling he was sitting in the nose of a bomb … I had this very clear epiphany -- You are not in love with this; you are in love with the idea of this."
Ice-T: After high school, Ice-T struggled to support his girlfriend and daughter so he joined the Army where he served four years in the 25th Infantry Division.
Sheryl Underwood joined the Air Force Reserve in the 1980s. "[My commanding officers] seemed to get me to do things that I was afraid of, like fear of heights. They looked at me as a leader all the time.”
Berry Gordy and Marvin Gaye:
Gordy dropped out of school to pursue a career as a boxer. But his boxing career was cut short when he was drafted to serve in the U.S. Army during the Korean War. Gaye left home at 17 to join the Air Force in 1956. Gaye quickly learned he didn’t like the military lifestyle and according to his biography, he faked mental illness and was discharged shortly afterward.
MC Hammer: Long before he wore the infamous "Hammer Pants," MC Hammer wore a U.S. Navy uniform. After a brief time at a local college in Oakland, CA. Stanley Kirk Burrell spent three years as an Aviation Storekeeper 3rd Class.
Black Military Stats
- There are 2.15 million Black military veterans nationwide.
- 30% of active-duty enlisted women in 2016 were Black.
- 23% of active-duty enlisted men in 2016 were Black.
- Black people are most represented in the Army, least represented in the Coast Guard.
Source (Council on Foreign Relations)
"The Black Regiment"
From "The Black Regiment"
George H. Boker, 1863
“Now,” the flag-sergeant cried,
“Though death and hell betide,
Let the whole nation see
If we are fit to be
Free in this land; or bound
Down, like the whining hound –
Bound with red stripes of pain,
In our cold chains again!”
Oh, what a shout there went
From the black regiment!
Hundreds on hundreds fell;
But they are resting well;
Scourges, and shackles strong
Never shall do them wrong.
Oh, to the living few,
Soldiers, be just and true!
Hail them as comrades tried;
Fight with them side by side.
Never, in field or tent,
Scorn the black regiment!
First to Fight - The American Revolution
The First Rhode Island Regiment, the first Continental Army unit largely comprised of Black New Englanders, showcased African Americans’ skill as soldiers and commitment to their brethren on the battlefield. In the late 1770s, dwindling manpower forced George Washington to reconsider his original decision to ban Black people from the Continental Army. So in 1778, a Rhode Island legislature declared that both free and enslaved Black people could serve. To attract the latter, the Patriots promised freedom at the end of service. according to aFrench military officer there, as “most neatly dressed, the best under arms and the most precise in all their maneuvers."
The 54th Infantry - Civil War
Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment: The 54th Regiment Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, nicknamed the "Swamp Angels", was an infantry regiment that saw extensive service in the Union Army during the American Civil War. The regiment was one of the first official African-American units in the United States during the Civil War. Of the regiment, Governor John A. Andrew said: I know not where, in all of human history, to any given thousand men in arms there has been committed a work at once so proud, so precious, so full of hope and glory." The 54th Regiment was the subject of the 1989 film Glory.
Buffalo Soliders were African American soldiers who mainly served on the Western frontier following the American Civil War. In 1866, six all-Black cavalry and infantry regiments were created after Congress passed the Army Organization Act. Their main tasks were to help control the Native Americans of the Plains, capture cattle rustlers and thieves and protect settlers, stagecoaches, wagon trains and railroad crews along the Western front. They were also among America's first national park rangers.
The Harlem Hellfighters - World War I
The Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated African-American regiment in World War I, confronted racism even as they trained for war, helped bring jazz to France, then battled Germany longer than almost any other American infantry men. Like their predecessors in the Civil War and successors in the wars that followed, these African-American troops fought a war for a country that refused them basic rights – and their bravery stood as a rebuke to racism, a moral claim to first-class citizenship.
Tuskegee Airmen - World War II
The Tuskegee Airmen: The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces. They were the subject of the 2012 film Red Tails.