The History of African Americans in Military Service
Pictured Above: The 369th Infantry Regiment, the Harlem Hellfighters
Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons
The history of the United States has been punctuated with armed conflict. From the Revolution to the World Wars, many Americans gave their lives serving their country, and we try to honor those who served. Among them, African Americans played an integral part in the military, both before the United States was formed and after. Despite the racism and inequality that they faced, thousands of African Americans stepped to the challenge to defend their nation and help keep their country safe.
Before the official beginning of the United States, the story of the Revolution was also woven by African Americans. One of the first casualties of the American Revolution was Crispus Attucks, a sailor of mixed African American and Native American descent (History). On March 5th, 1770, amid already heightened tensions between American colonists and British soldiers, a scuffle turned deadly when British soldiers fired into a crowd of angry Boston townspeople, killing five and wounding six (military.com). Attucks was believed to be the first to die. This incident would stoke the fires of outrage and lead to the American Revolution. During the Revolution, thousands of African Americans, both free and enslaved, served in the Revolution, mostly in integrated units (army.mil). These units played a part in every major battle in the war. Sadly, only 20% of the black soldiers who served in the war received freedom after the fact, and worse still, some offers of freedom to black soldiers who fought in the Revolution were taken away.
After the American Revolution, African Americans remained an integral part of the military. In World War I, many African Americans voluntarily signed up for the war effort to fight for democracy in Europe and to prove they deserved greater rights on the home front. For a long time, military units were segregated by race, with black regiments being lead by white commanders (PBS). Many African American regiments did not see combat and were relegated to service positions due to their race. However, there were some notable exceptions; some African American regiments, despite the prejudice against them, were able to make major battle contributions to the war. One example was the 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters. General John Pershing sent the regiment to help repel the German offensive along with the French army (military.com). They fought at Chateau-Thierry and Belleau Wood for a total of 191 days, longer than any other American unit in the war. Corporal Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts were the first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre, and 171 of the men in the regiment received medals for their brave efforts in battle.
Throughout the World Wars, African Americans were recognized more for their expertise and bravery in battle. African Americans were given more opportunities to fight on the front lines, including elite positions in the Air Force, Navy, and Marine Corps. In 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was promoted as the first African American general. Despite all of his promotions at first being declared as temporary, through his brave service in Mexico, the Philippines, and Liberia, he was elevated to a starred general (military.com). He would also receive a Distinguished Service Medal in 1945. In 1948, Harry S Truman ordered the desegregation of military units, though it wasn’t until 1953 that the last all-black unit was officially abolished (PBS).
The history of African American service in the military is one of sacrifice and bravery. It's important to remember and celebrate these brave soldiers who contributed to all American's freedom and peace at home, even when they were not afforded the same privilege.