May is National Military Appreciation Month, so let’s take time to recognize and celebrate our military. Unfortunately, throughout history, Black members of the military have not gotten the same appreciation as their counterparts. The military wasn’t officially integrated until 1948. Despite this, Black people still had great achievements and made great contributions in all branches of the military. In 2017, 16% of active-duty service members were Black.
America’s First Black Soldiers
Black people have been fighting for the United States since before the United States existed. Black soldiers took part in every major battle that took place during the Revolutionary War. There was even an all-Black regiment. They were called the 1st Rhode Island Regiment and the group was formed in 1778. They would go on to defeat the British in the Battle of Rhode Island and in the Battle of Yorktown, which ended the war. Even though they played such a crucial role in winning the war, they did not receive any compensation afterward. Here are two standouts that are well worth noting.
James Armistead Lafayette
James Armistead Lafayette was born into slavery in Virginia around 1760. He was originally known as James Armistead. He was given permission to enlist with Marquis de Lafayette’s French Allied units. After enlisting, he served as a spy. He convinced enemy forces that he was a runaway slave and gained access to General Cornwallis’ headquarters. Once he gained the trust of the British, he was able to share important information with Marquis de Lafayette. He even went as far as informing Marquis de Lafayette and George Washington about incoming British reinforcements. Because of this, they were able to make a blockade to stop the British’s advancements.
Armistead remained a slave after the end of the war and tried for several years to petition Congress to grant him his freedom. Once Marquis de Lafayette learned that Armistead was still a slave, he wrote a letter to Congress on his behalf and Armistead finally became free in 1787. Armistead then began a new life on his own 40-acre farm in Virginia. He would go on to get married, have children, and add Lafayette to his name as a token of gratitude to his friend Marquis.
Cathay Williams joined the army under the name William Cathay in 1866. She used this name because at the time, women weren’t allowed to enlist in the military. She was the first documented African-American woman to enlist and serve in the U.S. Army. It took a lot of bravery for her to disguise herself as a man and serve in the military. Williams served in the 38th Infantry regiment and would later become the only female member of a legendary all-Black regiment that became known as “The Buffalo Soldiers.” Native Americans gave them nicknames because the soldiers had curly black hair that was similar to a buffalo’s coat.
After being discharged, Williams found work as a cook in Fort Union, New Mexico, then later as a seamstress in Trinidad, Colorado. In either 1889 or 1890, Cathay Williams requested a pension for her service at a local hospital, but she was denied. It is believed that she died shortly after. Cathay Williams is the only known female Buffalo Soldier.
Even though Black soldiers have a long history of serving in the military they have consistently been ignored and cast aside. We should honor them for their commitment and bravery. More importantly, we should make sure that Black military members aren’t mistreated, neglected, or overlooked as they have been in the past.