Veterans Day pays homage to the men and women who served in our country’s armed forces. It is a time to reflect on all that veterans have done to protect our country’s well-being and to reflect on the historical progression that has brought us to the here and now. More specifically, it is important to reflect on the change that African American veterans have shepherded in, especially during times when little to no appreciation was shown for their effort. Remembering the times when African Americans were pushed, kicked, and spat on as they served. Remembering the times that we were separated from and forbade from activities and duties that our white counterparts always had access to. Reflecting on the times that we pushed through to arrive at the place that we are now. And while we gained traction against the discrimination, hatred, and disempowerment that we suffered and still fight against today, it is important to give thought to the steps our veterans took.
The Black presence in the U.S. Army stretches back to the 18th century, starting with the Battle of Lexington, which occurred on April 19th, 1775. This battle marked the beginning of the Revolutionary War, the war that an estimated 5,000 Black slaves and freemen fought, in an effort to permanently gain their freedom. Initially, there was a great amount of resistance against Blacks being able to fight in the war, but the soldiers wouldn’t take no for an answer. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment unit even got George Washington to agree to allow Black soldiers to earn their freedom through enlisting in the service. This unit was also known for their great bravery, most notedly during the Battle of Newport in 1778. During this battle, the unit fought so hard that the Hessian officers forfeited the fight. Still, this was just the very beginning of the efforts that Black soldiers made to bring change.
Fast forward to the Civil War, a time when Blacks were still fighting to be freed and thousands took the opportunity to join the war effort to become so. This was also a time when Blacks were not officially allowed to fight in the war. Still, many took the opportunity to hope and fight for change that eventually came with the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation on January 1st of 1863 by President Abraham Lincoln, which officially allowed Black Soldiers to participate in the armed forces. It has been reported that about 186,000 Black soldiers, which includes 94,000 former slaves, served in the army and 38,000 were killed in action.
Despite the lives lost, and the traction that had been made, much more needed to and would be done for the Black community. Fast forwarding again to 1867, the Buffalo Soldiers took rise and continued to make a name for the Black community, defining what the community had to offer and what was deserved for their great effort. Buffalo Soldiers, the name used for all the Black soldiers that served during the Indian Wars, continued to face racial prejudice. Most commanding officers, namely George Armstrong Custer, even rejected commanding Black regiments. Blacks were also only allowed to serve on the west side of the Mississippi River because whites did not want them near their communities. Despite this, the soldiers had the lowest desertion rate, even given the poor living conditions on the frontier.
Continuing to serve and prove their strength, whilst fighting against racial barriers, many Blacks also chose to fight in World War I. One honorable mention, Dr. Louis Tompkins Wright, a Harvard high honors graduate, rose to the rank of lieutenant colonel. Dr. Wright was the first to introduce the injection method of the smallpox vaccine, which was later adopted as the medical standard for soldiers. In 1919, he was also appointed to be the first Black physician staffed in a white hospital in New York. Despite all of this, it is important to remember that the Army was still operating under the policy of racial segregation, which made it so that Black soldiers were mostly assigned to supply and labor jobs. Still, there were Black combat units that made notable contributions.
Moving on to World War II, which magnified the racial inequality Blacks faced, especially given that the war was to defeat fascism and protect freedom. Simply, Blacks were fighting for what they did not attain in their homeland. Several contributions were made by Blacks, and in turn, certain changes were gradually made. For example, Executive Order 8802 was issued by Franklin D. Roosevelt, which banned discrimination in the defense industry and helped give rise to the Fair Employment Practice Committee. An amendment to the nurse’s training bill was also among these changes, which Mabel Staupers, executive secretary of the National Association of Colored Graduate Nurses, lobbied for. Staupers did this to change the discriminatory policies of the Army Nurse Corps. Let’s also not forget to mention the first national hero of World War II, Doris Miller, the first African American Tank Unit to see combat, the 761st Tank Battalion, aka the “Black Panthers,” and the first African American in women’s auxiliary corps, Major Charity Adams.
African American’s made exuberant contributions over the centuries and made it so we are able to have the freedom that we have today. Before writing this article, I never really paid much attention to Veterans Day – mostly because I don’t agree with certain policies and the way African Americans are still being treated inside and outside the Army to this day. But I, as a Black woman, can say that I now want to make more of an effort to acknowledge the contributions that our people made. The paths they paved, the mountains they climbed, and the defeats they overcame were not in vain! So on Veterans Day, make more of an effort to reeducate yourselves and your loved ones about Black Veterans and their contributions of the past.
The United States Army (2021). Black-Americans: The United States Army. Black-Americans | The United States Army. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://www.army.mil/blackamericans/timeline.html
National Museum of African American History and Culture. (2018, February 8). The proud legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers. National Museum of African American History and Culture. Retrieved October 31, 2022, from https://nmaahc.si.edu/explore/stories/proud-legacy-buffalo-soldiers
World War II Museum, T. N. (2020). African Americans in World War II: The National WWII Museum: New Orleans. The National WWII Museum | New Orleans. Retrieved October 29, 2022, from https://www.nationalww2museum.org/war/topics/african-americans-world-war-ii