By Scott Lewandowski
The United States Military like so many other government entities has had its challenges in regards to this country’s minority citizens. Although change is slow with the government it was able to see the error in its ways, and on July 26, 1948, by executive order 9981, President Harry Truman abolished racial discrimination in the military.
African-Americans have served in the U.S. military since the Revolutionary War, where, as slaves and free men, they served on both sides of the war. Recent research concludes that there were about 9,000 black Patriot soldiers, counting the Continental Army and Navy and state militia units. They continued to be integrated with whites up until the War of 1812. They would not fight in integrated units again until the Korean War.
During the American Civil War, More than 180,000 blacks served in the Union Army and Navy. They were mostly formerly enslaved blacks who escaped in the South, although there were many northern black Unionists as well. They served in segregated units known as the United States Colored Troops under the command of white officers.
From 1863 to the early 20th century, African-American units were utilized by the Army to combat Native Americans during the Indian Wars. The most noted among this group were the Buffalo Soldiers. These units were composed of black enlisted men commanded by white officers. The Buffalo Soldiers served a variety of roles along the frontier from building roads to guarding the U.S. mail. Thirteen enlisted men and six officers from four African-American regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars.
The U.S. armed forces remained segregated through World War I. Still, many African Americans eagerly volunteered to join the Allied cause following America’s entry into the war. By the time of the armistice with Germany on Nov. 11, 1918, over 350,000 African-Americans had served with the American Expeditionary Force on the Western Front.
During World War II, despite a high enlistment rate in the U.S. Army, African-Americans were not treated equally. At parades, church services, in transportation and canteens, the races were kept separate. The Women’s Army Corps (WAC) changed its enlistment policies in January 1941, allowing for African-American women to join the ranks of Army nurses to strengthen the war effort. Much like with male soldiers, black women were given separate training and inferior living quarters and rations.
Change was on its way, though. During WW II several segregated units were making their mark in the war. Units such as the Tuskegee Airman and the Montford Point Marines were proving that they were just as capable as their white counterparts in all areas of service. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. served as commander of the Tuskegee Airmen during the war. He later went on to become the first African-American general in the Air Force. In 1945, Frederick C. Branch became the first African-American Marine Corps officer.
Since 2008, Veterans Memorial Hall and Museum has presented a program to recognize the efforts of African American Veterans as part of Black History Month. Our guests have included six original Tuskegee Airmen and eight original Montford Point Marines as well as veterans from the Korean, Vietnam and Gulf Wars. Recently we have included a special presentation honoring the contributions of African-American women veterans.
The program returns Feb. 17, from 1-4 p.m. with four original Montford Point Marines expected to be in attendance along with African-American veterans of multiple conflicts. Residents are invited to Veterans Memorial Hall to hear firsthand accounts of bravery and sacrifice from those who served. R.
Scott Lewandowski is the Director of the Veterans Memorial Hall and Museum, whose mission is to honor the veterans of Winnebago County. For more information about Veterans Memorial Hall, stop by 211 N. Main St. or visit veteransmemorialhall.com. You can also find them on Facebook at facebook.com/Veterans-Memorial-Hall-and-Museum.