Skip to main content

Military Experience, African-American

Military Experience, African-American


African-American military history is inextricably linked with the struggle of black people for social and political equality in the United States. Since the Civil War, African Americans have seen participation in the armed forces as a vehicle for the establishment of true democracy. America's legacy of racial discrimination has likewise shaped the nature of black military service and the opportunities afforded to African Americans to fight on the nation's behalf. Black soldiers have thus symbolized both the denial and promise of equal citizenship in the United States.

In 1866, the U.S. Congress reduced the size of the regular army and reorganized the approximately 12,500 African-American soldiers of the former Union army into the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry regiments. The four infantry regiments were later combined to form the 24th and 25th Infantries. Throughout the late 1870s and the 1880s, black soldiers of the regular army were stationed in the American West and served in the Dakota, Platte, and Missouri military departments. Labeled "buffalo soldiers" by the Plains Indians, black soldiers fought in the so-called Indian Wars to make the frontier secure for continued settlement.

The Spanish-American War coincided with the erosion of African-American citizenship rights. The explosion of the battleship USS Maine in Havana Harbor on February 15, 1898, with twenty-six African Americans among the casualties, created an opportunity for African Americans to determine if patriotic service would transform white racial attitudes and loosen the grip of systemic discrimination and violence. While questioning the imperialist aims of the United States, African Americans identified racially with the Cubans, who were struggling for independence from Spain, and supported the use of black soldiers in the war. African Americans responded to the call for volunteers by President McKinley by forming National Guard militias in Illinois, Ohio, Massachusetts, Kansas, Indiana, North Carolina, and Virginia, although the short duration of the war prevented their incorporation into the regular army. The War Department ordered the 28,000 black soldiers to Florida for embarkation, where they endured virulent racial abuse from southern whites. The black army regiments, in only three days of fighting at El Caney, Las Guásimas, and San Juan Hill, performed extremely well. On June 23, the 10th Cavalry rescued Theodore Roosevelt's famed "Rough Riders" 1st Volunteer Cavalry Regiment from severe casualties at Las Guásimas, the first battle of the war. Black soldiers later fought in the Philippines to quell the anti-American insurgency led by Emilio Aguinaldo (18691964). The guerilla warfare here was much more vicious than the fighting in Cuba had been, as was American racism. The United States racialized Filipinos in their efforts to undermine the insurgency and in the process tested the loyalties of black soldiers.

Following the Spanish-American War the black army regiments were transferred to duty in Texas along the United StatesMexico border. Racial tensions with white Texans ran high, culminating in an incident at Brownsville, Texas. After shots rang out on the night of August 13, 1906, local whites accused black soldiers of the 25th Infantry's 1st Battalion of killing one man and wounding several others. Although they steadfastly denied involvement in the shooting, President Theodore Roosevelt gave dishonorable discharges to 167 soldiers without a public hearing. Brownsville further fueled the perception among whites, particularly in the South, of black soldiers as a source of violent racial unrest.

When the United States entered World War I in April 1917, Woodrow Wilson's pronouncement that the United States would fight to make the world "safe for democracy" spurred African-American hopes that the conflict would lead to a social and political transformation of American society on a par with Reconstruction following the Civil War. African Americans quickly appropriated Wilson's rhetoric of freedom and democracy to connect military service to demands for civil rights. However, instead of offering hope, the war exacerbated social relations and heightened racial tensions. The prospect of black soldiers stationed in the South aroused opposition and anxiety about their potential negative influence. White fears came to fruition in Houston, Texas, where the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry was stationed at nearby Camp Logan. On the night of August 23, 1917, after enduring persistent racial abuse and fueled by rumors that Houston police had killed Corporal Charles Baltimore, over one hundred armed soldiers marched to the city and killed fifteen whites, including five policemen. Following a summary court-martial, the military hastily executed thirteen soldiers without due process, while forty-one others received sentences of life imprisonment.

The events in Houston served as an omen of the broader treatment of black soldiers in the United States military, which replicated the racial customs of civilian life in the wartime army. The War Department, in response to pressure from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), created a segregated training camp for black officer candidates at Des Moines, Iowa. Of the initial 1,250 candidates, 639 received officer commissions, although none higher than the rank of captain. The military made a concerted effort to undermine the opportunities for black officers to excel, most notably evidenced in the forced retirement of Colonel Charles Young (18641922), at the time the highest-ranking African American in uniform. Approximately 387,000 African Americans served in the United States army during the war. The majority of black soldiers toiled in stevedore and other service units both in France and the United States. Of the 200,000 black soldiers who served overseas, approximately 40,000 were combat soldiers in the 92nd and 93rd Divisions. Soldiers in the 92nd Division, which comprised drafted black men, waged a constant battle against the racism of white officers throughout the duration of their service, and military effectiveness suffered as a result. The 93rd Division, comprising mostly national guardsmen, served with the French military. They received more equitable treatment from the French and fought with distinction. The 369th Infantry from New York performed exceptionally well and earned international acclaim for its regimental band, led by Lieutenant James Reese Europe (18811919).

World War II yet again tested the loyalties and patriotism of African Americans. African Americans were less idealistic than previously, however, as the United States readied itself for war. The unfulfilled hopes of World War I caused black social leaders to accompany support for the war with explicit demands for African-American civil rights, as captured in the "Double V" slogan popularized by the Pittsburgh Courier and symbolizing the dual defeat of fascism and American racism. Asa Phillip Randolph (18891979), head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, organized the March on Washington movement, intended to pressure President Franklin Roosevelt to end discrimination in wartime contracting. On June 25, 1941, one week before the march, Roosevelt issued Executive Order 8802, banning racial discrimination in defense industries, and created the Fair Employment Practices Commission. The order was largely symbolic, however, as little enforcement occurred.

Roughly one million African Americans served in the various branches of the armed forces during World War II, nearly half engaged in overseas duty. Many facets of the military did not change from World War I. African Americans represented only five of the military's five thousand officers at the beginning of the war. Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (18771970) was the only black general. Although the Selective Service Act of 1940 forbade racial discrimination, local draft boards initially turned away African-American volunteers and later routinely denied exemption claims when manpower was needed. African Americans continued to serve in segregated units, as military officials continued to question the fighting capabilities of black soldiers. The War Department reactivated the all-black 92nd and 93rd Divisions established during the First World War and combined the 9th and 10th Cavalry to form the 2nd Cavalry Division. The 93rd Division served in the Pacific theater, along with the 24th and 25th Infantries, but saw little combat. The 2nd Cavalry Division served in North

Africa. The 92nd Division served in the Italian campaign, but, after performing poorly in their first combat action, racist military officials derided the division for the remainder of the war. On the home front, black soldiers were subjected to dangerous work conditions. In July 1944, 258 black sailors stationed at Port Chicago refused to work following two explosions. Forty-four men who refused to return to work were court-martialed and received sentences of eight to fifteen years hard labor and dishonorable discharges.

Military necessity ushered in new opportunities for African Americans during the war. These opportunities tested traditional institutional prejudices. Officer training camps allowed African-Americans to enlist and by the end of the war over seven thousand black men received commissions. African Americans distinguished themselves in various combat units, most notably the 761st Tank Battalion. The War Department authorized the creation of the 99th Pursuit Squadron of the United States Air Force, stationed at Tuskegee, Alabama. The "Tuskegee Airmen" of the 99th, which later became part of the 332nd Fighter Group, dispelled the myth that African Americans could not become effective aviators. On April 7, 1942 the U.S. Navy announced that African Americans could enlist in positions other than mess attendants. Although the navy's legacy of racial discrimination deterred enlistment, by the end of the war 150,000 African Americans served. One ship, the Mason, had a majority black crew. The war also created increased opportunities for African-American women, who served in the Women's Army Corps (WACs) and as WAVES (Women Appointed for Volunteer Emergency Service) in the Navy.

Despite these gains, southern whites greeted returning black soldiers with violence reminiscent of the First World War. The federal government, however, took decisive action to institutionalize the racial progress made within the military during the war. On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which immediately outlawed racial segregation in the United States armed forces. The executive order was seen as a turning point in the fight for African-American racial equality and equal citizenship.

Against the backdrop of Cold War politics, Korea represented the first test of the United States military's commitment to racial desegregation. In 1950, American military forces were hastily assembled to stop the North Korean advance into South Korea, and, as a result, integration was far from complete. The 24th Infantry, stationed in Japan prior to deployment to Korea, remained completely segregated and suffered from a lack of preparation and poor leadership. In addition, resistance by General Douglas MacArthur and other white officers slowed the pace of integration. Nevertheless, several regiments began to integrate their ranks based on manpower necessity and reported improved military effectiveness. MacArthur's predecessor, General Matthew Ridgeway, actively enforced Truman's executive order, resulting in 90 percent of the black soldiers in Korea serving in integrated units by the time of the cease-fire of July 27, 1953. By the end of the war, 220,000 black soldiers served in the army, 13 percent of total American forces.

The modern civil rights movement spurred the Eisenhower and Kennedy administrations' commitment to enforcing integration of the armed forces. At the beginning of American involvement in Vietnam, the army touted itself as the most racially democratic institution in the United States. Military service in Vietnam initially went hand in hand with the expansion of African-American civil rights, for the armed forces provided opportunities unavailable to African Americans in civilian life. Many black men volunteered for combat units, and blacks reenlisted at a higher rate than whites. However, as the war dragged on and black casualties mounted, African Americans became increasingly critical of the war and their participation in it. By 1968 the war had reshaped the tenor of the civil rights movement, as Black Power coincided with the antiwar movement to fuel increased pessimism regarding the high cost of American citizenship.

Approximately 275,000 African Americans served in Vietnam, and race remained a persistent feature of the military experience of black soldiers, just as it did in civilian life. The racial composition of the military reflected the social and economic disparities African Americans faced in civilian life. The draft targeted poor and working-class Americansgroups in which black people were heavily representedwhile upper- and middle-class whites obtained deferments or served in National Guard units. Sixty-four percent of eligible African Americans were drafted in 1967, as opposed to 31 percent of whites. In 1966, faced with troops shortages, the War Department established Project 100,000, which enlisted men previously declared ineligible because of low intelligence scores. Project 100,000 indirectly targeted African Americans, and between October 1966 and June 1969, 40 percent of the 246,000 men inducted through the program were black. Higher numbers of African Americans on the front lines led to disproportionate casualty rates. Between 1965 and 1967, African Americans represented 20 percent of battlefield casualties, though pressure to remove black soldiers from the front lines resulted in their casualty rate dropping to 13 percent for the entire war. Despite racial inequities, African Americans served valiantly, receiving 20 of the 237 Congressional Medals of Honor awarded during the war.

In the years following Vietnam, the military transformed itself into an exclusively volunteer army in order to avoid the problem of low morale associated with conscription. During the late 1970s and 1980s, the armed forces continued to offer African Americans employment, educational opportunities, and an escape from the postindustrial ravages of inner-city life. Thus, by the time of the 1991 Gulf War, the face of the military had become increasingly black. African Americans made up nearly 25 percent of the army during Operation Desert Storm, and General Colin Powell, an African-American and chair of the Joint-Chiefs of Staff, was arguably the most recognizable face of the war. Concerns regarding the overrepresentation of African Americans in the armed forces have persisted into the twenty-first century. In January 2003, as the United States again prepared for war against Iraq, Congressman Charles Rangel of New York introduced legislation to reinstitute the draft in order to rectify racial and class inequities within the military. Thus, African-American military service remains tied to the dilemma of true racial equality.

See also Civil War, U.S.; Davis, Benjamin O., Jr.; Europe, James Reese; Randolph, Asa Philip

Bibliography

Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African Americans in the Military. Novato, Calif: Presidio, 1998.

Barbeau, Arthur E., and Florette Henri. The Unknown Soldiers: Black American Troops in World War I. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1974. Reprinted as The Unknown Soldiers: African-American Troops in World War I. New York: Da Capo, 1996.

Bowers, William T., et al. Black Soldier, White Army: The 24th Infantry Regiment in Korea. Washington, D.C.: Center of Military History, U. S. Army, 1996.

Brandt, Nat. Harlem at War: The Black Experience in WW II. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1996.

Buckley, Gail. American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm. New York: Random House, 2001.

Bussey, Charles M. Firefight at Yechon: Courage and Racism in the Korean War. Washington, D.C.: Brassey's, 1991. Reprint, Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2002.

Christian, Garna L. Black Soldiers in Jim Crow Texas, 18991917. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1995.

Dobak, William A., and Thomas D. Phillips. The Black Regulars, 18661898. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2001.

Donaldson, Gary. The History of African-Americans in the Military: Double V. Malabar, Fla.: Krieger, 1991.

Edgerton, Robert B. Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America's Wars. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press, 2001.

Earley, Charity Adams. One Woman's Army: A Black Officer Remembers the WAC. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1989.

Gatewood, Willard B., Jr. "Smoked Yankees" and the Struggle for Empire: Letters from Negro Soldiers, 1898-1902. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1971. Reprint, Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 1987.

Goff, Stanley, and Sanders Robert. Brothers: Black Soldiers in the Nam. Novato, Calif.: Presidio Press, 1982.

Hargrove, Hondon B. Buffalo Soldiers in Italy: Black Americans in World War II. Jefferson, N.C.: McFarland, 1985.

Leiker, James N. Racial Borders: Black Soldiers along the Rio Grande. College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 2002.

Motley, Mary Penick, ed. The Invisible Soldier: The Experience of the Black Soldier, World War II. Detroit, Mich.: Wayne State University Press, 1975. Reprint, 1987.

Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.

Powell, Colin. My American Journey. New York: Random House, 1995.

Putney, Martha S. When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps during World War II. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow, 1992.

Terry, Wallace. Bloods: An Oral History of the Vietnam War by Black Veterans. New York: Random House, 1984.

Westheider, James E. Fighting on Two Fronts: African Americans and the Vietnam War. New York: New York University Press, 1997.

Wynn, Neil A. The Afro-American and the Second World War. New York: Holmes and Meier, 1975.

chad williams (2005)

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Military Experience, African-American." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. 21 Jul. 2019 <https://www.encyclopedia.com>.

"Military Experience, African-American." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Encyclopedia.com. (July 21, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/military-experience-african-american

"Military Experience, African-American." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved July 21, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/history/encyclopedias-almanacs-transcripts-and-maps/military-experience-african-american

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles

Encyclopedia.com gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, Encyclopedia.com cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use Encyclopedia.com citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

http://www.mla.org/style

The Chicago Manual of Style

http://www.chicagomanualofstyle.org/tools_citationguide.html

American Psychological Association

http://apastyle.apa.org/

Notes:
  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most Encyclopedia.com content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.