By Randy Saunders
50th Space Wing Historian
February is Black History Month and is a good time to recall the vast contributions African Americans have made throughout the nation’s military history. Most are aware of the Tuskegee Airmen and their heroic contributions during World War II. Some may be familiar with the Buffalo Soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments (later consolidated and renamed 24th and 25th Infantry) that fought during the Indian Wars and performed a primary role in America’s western expansion following the Civil War. But there are many more examples of African American military contributions in the defense of this nation.
African Americans have served in every conflict in American history. In 1689, Black militia fought against French imperialism in the American colonies. Black militia also served in Queen Anne’s War, 1702-1713 and the French and Indian War, 1754-1763. Barzilai Lew fought as a member of the Massachusetts militia during this conflict and later saw action in the Battle of Bunker Hill during the American Revolution.
By 1770, African Americans were vital elements of several northern colonial militias. March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave turned sailor, and four other colonists were killed in the Boston Massacre. In Boston, Attucks was the first man killed by the British Guard as colonists protested against what they considered crimes by the British government. African Americans took part in the battles of Concord and Lexington, Mass. in April 1775 and in May, African Americans helped Ethan Allen and the Green Mountain Boys capture Fort Ticonderoga in New York. More than 5,000 African Americans served in the Continental Army and nearly 5,000 more served with state militias during the Revolutionary War. African Americans also served as spies and undercover agents; several were recognized for their bravery by Congress.
As the 18th Century drew to a close, Congress enacted legislation restricting enlistments in the militia to white male citizens. This restriction would be short-lived as African Americans continued to serve in the naval forces, especially during the War of 1812. During the conflict, African Americans served with distinction during important battles, including the Battle of Lake Erie, in which 10-25 percent of Admiral Oliver H. Perry’s men were black, and the Battle of New Orleans, two weeks after the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war.
Following the war, restrictions on African American enlistments returned, as Congress set manpower limits on the size of the Army. Free blacks, meanwhile, seeking opportunity moved west and in the 1830s fought with Texans seeking independence from Mexico.
Despite facing many obstacles, African Americans continued to serve during the Civil War. This provided the impetus for the permanent presence of blacks in the peacetime military. Twenty-five African Americans received the Medal of Honor for their actions in combat during the war. These twenty-five men included seven sailors, fifteen soldiers assigned to the “United States Colored Troops,” and three assigned to other Army units.
In 1866, the U.S. Army established the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st Infantry Regiments and stationed them in the growing western territories. These Buffalo Soldiers, a name given to them by Cherokee tribes, provided invaluable service during the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War in1898. During these two conflicts, twenty-four African American servicemen received the Medal of Honor.
In less than 20 years, America was again at war, fighting for the first time on European soil. As in the past, African Americans had to overcome bigotry within military leadership to participate fully. Eugene Jacques Bullard, a highly decorated African American serving with the French Air Service, summed up this issue with his famous quote, “Tout le sang qui coule rouge; all blood is red.” Despite his and the accomplishments of many like him, acceptance of blacks as equals in the military was slow.
On April 6, 1917, the United States declared war on Germany. During the course of the conflict, 367,000 African American soldiers served, 1,400 of those as commissioned officers. On September 28, 1918, Corporal Freddie Stowers, 371st Infantry Regiment, led his squad to destroy a group of enemy soldiers. He was leading his troops in furthering the attack when he fell to enemy fire. Although he was mortally wounded he continued to motivate his squad until he passed away. Inspired by his bravery and leadership, Stowers’ squad continued to fight and took over their enemy target. Stowers received the Medal of Honor for his heroism. He was the only African American to receive the country’s highest military award during World War I.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 mandating the desegregation of the United States Armed Forces. Efforts to improve the treatment of African Americans and other minorities in the military services came to the forefront of personnel policy. Despite remnants of discrimination, African Americans continued to serve with distinction. In the second half of the 20th Century, African Americans broke barriers in all services.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. became the first African American flag officer when he was promoted to brigadier general, temporarily on October 25, 1940. He retired on July 31, 1941 and was recalled to active duty and promoted to brigadier general on August 1, 1941. Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. became the Air Force’s first African American general officer when he was promoted to brigadier general, temporarily, October 27, 1954. Samuel L. Gravely, Jr. became the U.S. Navy’s first African American to achieve flag rank when he was promoted to rear admiral in July 1971. On February 23, 1979, the United States Marine Corps promoted Frank E. Peterson to brigadier general, making him the Corps’ first African American flag officer. Of America’s astronauts, sixteen are African American and four African American women.
From Barzilai Lew of the Massachusetts militia to President Barack Obama, and countless thousands of others, African Americans have been instrumental to the development of and service to this nation.