Facts, Information And Articles About Black History In The United States
Black History Summary: Black history is the study of African American history, culture, and accomplishments primarily in the United States. Enslaved, oppressed, and dehumanized for much of American history, members of the black community, such as Carter G. Woodson, who founded Black History Month, studied and promoted black history as a way to overcome the discrimination and to promote the accomplishments of blacks to inspire them to make even greater contributions to the black community and larger society.
The black press was instrumental in documenting black history and giving voice to blacks, who were, at best, ignored in the larger press. The first black-owned and operated newspaper was Freedom’s Journal. Established in 1827 by two freed black men in New York, Presbyterian minister Samuel Cornish and John B. Russwurm—the first black man to graduate from college—the paper reported on current events and contained editorials against slavery, lynchings, and other injustices. Other newspapers, periodicals, and scholarly journals followed, including Frederick Douglass’ North Star (1847), The Chicago Defender (1905), the NAACP’s The Crisis (1910), The Journal of Negro History (1916), and Ebony (1945), all providing a forum for black news, culture, society, and scholarly pursuits that were ignored or denigrated by the larger society.
African slaves and indentured servants were brought to the U.S. colonies to provide a cheap labor force alongside European indentured servants. By the turn of the 18th century, African Americans made up about 10% of the population and while some were brought from Africa, many came from the West Indies, were brought to the colonies as slaves from plantations in the Caribbean, or—increasingly—were born in the colonies. It also became increasingly rare for African Americans to be treated as indentured servants and freed; instead, they were treated as slaves for life, their children born into slavery with no hope of escaping the condition.
Most masters treated their slaves as they would their livestock, interested only in the work they could do. Separated from their families and their culture, blacks were forced to adapt to extremely difficult working and living conditions. In response, they formed their own society, culture, and religious practices as best they could. Some slaves ran away or organized rebellions, most of which were brutally put down.
African Americans in the Revolutionary War
By the time of the American Revolution, about 2% of people in the North were slaves, mainly used as personal servants, while in the South about 25% of the population was comprised of slaves working on large plantations and smaller farms as well as in manufacturing, brickmaking, offloading ships, and virtually all other forms of manual labor. Some American colonists recognized that slaves’ struggle to be free of their masters was similar to their own struggle for freedom from British rule; slavery began to be seen as a social evil that reflected poorly on whites and on the country as a whole.
Crispus Attucks, a tradesman of African and Wapanoag descent, was among the first casualties of the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, which foreshadowed the Revolutionary War. Attucks and four others killed during the Massacre were all hailed as heroes and buried in Boston’s Granary Burying Ground, which contains the graves of other notables, including John Hancock, a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1858, the budding Abolitionist movement and the African American community in Boston began celebrating Crispus Attucks day on March 5 to remind Americans of Attucks’ sacrifice for his country’s independence even though he had been born into slavery.
Thomas Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence became a manifesto for human rights and personal freedom, although ironically Jefferson was the owner of about 200 slaves. The Declaration initially contained language that included the promotion of slavery as one of King George III’s offenses, but that passage was removed by the Second Continental Congress. Petitions from freed blacks, including Prince Hall, the founder of African American freemasonry, to end slavery were ignored by the Second Continental Congress.
Blacks Patriots fought in the Revolutionary War alongside their white neighbors, about 5,000 total, including Prince Hall, who hoped to improve their white’s perception of their capabilities. When George Washington took command of the Continental Army in 1775, he recommended to the Continental Congress, which agreed, that freed African Americans should no longer be recruited into the army. Many states already barred blacks, Native Americans, and other groups from joining their militias since it implied their inclusion as citizens in the young nation; a militia represented “the people in arms” and conferred the right to bear arms and receive military training. Freed blacks who were already in the army were allowed to continue fighting; some African Americans, like Agrippa Hull, fought in the war for over six years. By November 1777, the manpower required to continue the war forced a reversal in the policy of exclusion and the Congress authorized the enlistment of any Negro, the term used at the time, be he free or slave. This had come incrementally. Free men of color were accepted if they had prior military experience (January 1776) and later (January 1777) recruitment was extended to all free blacks. Among Southern states, only Maryland permitted black troops to serve, so the story of black troops in the Continental Army was that of northern blacks almost exclusively. In almost all cases, they fought in integrated units, the notable exception being the 197 men of the First Rhode Island Regiment, comprised of 197 black men and their white officers. It earned laurels in its first engagement, defeating three assaults by veteran Hessian units at Newport (Battle of Rhode Island) on August 29, 1778.
In contrast, almost from the beginning, the British and the Loyalists offered emancipation to any slave willing to join them in fighting the Patriots. Within a month of issuing his proclamation offering emancipation, Virginia governor Lord Dunmore had a 300-man unit of African Americans, which he called an “Ethiopian” brigade. Slaves escaped their masters in all colonies to join the British or flee for freedom amid the chaos of the war. In South Carolina, about a quarter of it’s slave population, about 25,000, escaped.
At the end of the war, colonists demanded the return of their property, including slaves, although the British helped many (about 4,000 documented cases) leave the country. One, Thomas Peters, had run away from slavery in North Carolina to join the British after hearing Dunmore’s proclamation. He fought throughout the war and at the end, was taken to Nova Scotia with other Loyalists and African Americans who fought for the British. The British gave the blacks land that could not be farmed and denied them the same freedoms as their white counterparts. Peters traveled to England to protest their treatment before Parliament, arriving at a time when English abolitionists were pushing through the bill the would create the Sierra Leone Company. Peters and about 1,100 other Loyalist African Americans left for Sierra Leone in 1792, and although Peters died shortly after their arrival, the group successfully established Freetown, Sierra Leone, a British colony on the West African coast.
Black History in the Old West
Black history in America includes the stories of those who helped to settle and civilize the western United States. Blacks were a part of the western expansion and the western frontier from the beginning of European colonization in the mid-1700s. Freemen and escaped slaves pushed westward as the United States expanded beyond the Mississippi to the Pacific. Their roles in westward expansion included colonizing, farming, building railroads, prospecting, establishing their own businesses—in short, they could be found in virtually all walks of life. There were many black cowboys, some black lawmen and outlaws, and black soldiers—the renowned “Buffalo Soldiers.”
Blacks in Early California
Freed blacks, or Afro-Latinos—descendants of African slaves brought to Mexico in the 15th and 16th centuries by the Spanish—helped colonize California following the Juan Bautista de Anza Expedition that opened an overland trade route to California in 1774. By 1790, an estimated 20 percent of California’s population was African American. In addition, race had much less significance in California society, where Afro-Latinos were equal members of society, acquiring large tracts of land, holding military and political positions, and intermarrying with Spanish, Mexican, and native people. California’s last governor under Mexican rule was Pío de Jesús Pico, was a wealthy, third-generation Californio of Spanish, African and Native American ancestry.
Following the U.S. acquisition of California, the new territorial government began enacting laws that stripped away the legal and political rights of all non-whites. The California Constitution, ratified in November 1849, voted to disenfranchise all but white male U.S. citizens, with a limited exception for Indians, who could be allowed to vote in special cases sanctioned with the two-thirds vote of the legislature. Vagrancy laws were adopted that essentially enslaved Native Americans until the end of the Civil War. Other laws were enacted that allowed anyone claiming a black person as an ex-slave to detain and, essentially, re-enslave that person. Thousands lost their land in U.S. courts that refused to recognize Spanish and Mexican-era land titles.
Freemen of Color and Slaves Migrate West to the Interior
In the late 18th and early 19th century, other free blacks—freed and escaped slaves—migrated west into the interior from colonies on the Atlantic coast, mainly working in the fur trade. They were slaves, free trappers, camp keepers, traders, and entrepreneurs. One man, Jean Baptiste Point du Sable, was a very successful trader of African descent—his early life is not well-documented though it is likely that he was born into slavery—who settled near the mouth of the Chicago River in the 1780s and is widely regarded as the first resident and founder of Chicago. When Point du Sable sold his farm in 1800, it included a house, two barns, a horse-drawn mill, a bakehouse, a poultry house, a dairy, and a smokehouse.
In 1803, Merriweather Lewis and William Clark set out from St. Louis, where the Mississippi and Missouri rivers meet, to explore the newly acquired Louisiana Territory, look for a water route to the Pacific, and explore the Pacific Northwest. The Corps of Discovery included Clark’s slave York, who made invaluable contributions to the expedition through labor, hunting game, and helping establish friendly relations with the native tribes. He risked his life to save Clark in a flash flood in present-day Montana, and as the journey wore on and the Corps coalesced into a true team he was treated as an equal, voting member. On their return to St. Louis, Clark expected York to return to slavery, refusing to free him. Sometime after 1816 Clark either relented and freed York or York managed to finally escape. His ultimate fate is unclear—Clark claimed York hated freedom and died trying to return. Contrary to this claim, a fur trapper reported seeing him in an Indian village in the 1830s, content and respected in his old age.
Before the Civil War, black slaves fled the South not just to freedom in the North but to freedom in the West. Escaped slaves and free blacks were drawn to the west for the same reasons whites were: the promise of riches in the Gold Rush, cheap land, and a chance for a better life. Several acted as guides, Moses Harris and Edward Rose among them. One man, Moses Rodgers, arrived in California during the Gold Rush, eventually purchased mines in California, and became one of the wealthiest men in the state.
During the Civil War, about 100,000 slaves escaped to settle in western states bordering on slave states—Kansas, Iowa, Illinois, and Indiana (the latter two were still considered “western states” at the time). Freed slave Clara Brown made her way to Colorado just before the Civil War began and became a prominent business woman and community leader, helping countless former slaves make new homes and find jobs in the West.
In the years following the Civil War, as with whites, there was a great migration of blacks to new western states—between 1865 and 1910 about 250,000 migrated. As Jim Crow laws were put on the books and widespread discrimination was sanctioned by law, many blacks moved west to claim land via the Homestead Act. Most chose to migrate to Kansas, Iowa, Nebraska, Colorado, and California, with migration to Oklahoma picking up in the 1890s after Indian lands were opened for settlement. All-black communities formed around the promise of land ownership and escape from racial persecution.
Like whites, blacks were homesteaders and their communities included all professions and social institutions—schools, churches, restaurants, men’s and women’s clubs. Some were entrepreneurs; Elvira Conley opened a laundry business in Sheridan, Kansas—at the time a lawless frontier town—that was frequented by Buffalo Bill Cody and Wild Bill Hickock. Biddy Mason was a slave and midwife who obtained her freedom by petitioning the court in California. She was able to buy a significant amount of land in Los Angeles and make her family one of richest in California.
African American Cowboys, Outlaws, and Lawmen
African Americans were also cowboys, outlaws, and lawmen, classic roles in the old West. Along with crop cultivation, herding and ranching grew in the 1860s, creating demand for skilled herders and ranch hands: cowboys. Several famous cowboys—Bose Ikard and Nat Love, aka “Deadwood Dick”—were born into slavery and made their way West following the Civil War. The U.S. census reported 1,600 black cowboys in 1890 and some estimates say one in three cowboys were of African descent. Jesse Stahl, Mathew “Bones” Hooks, and Bill Picket were also black cowboys born after emancipation.
Some black men, including some who had fought in the Civil War, became lawmen and Buffalo Soldiers. Bass Reeves became the first black U.S. deputy marshal west of the Mississippi and Marshal Willie Kennard gained fame for shooting the pistols out of a criminal’s hands. Some others—among them, Ned Huddleston (aka Isom Dart), Cherokee Bill, and Ben Hodges—became outlaws choosing to rustle cattle, and rob or swindle banks, stores, and railroads.
The Post-Revolutionary and Antebellum Periods
Following the Revolutionary War, during the Antebellum Period, Southern plantations began to shift production to cotton, a labor-intense but lucrative crop. Demand for cotton had risen during the war when textiles from Europe were cut off, and continued to rise after the war as the textile industry mechanized and the Industrial Revolution began in England and New England. Southern plantation owners depended on a slave labor force to cultivate and harvest the crop—along with the rise in demand for cotton, the demand for slave labor rose.
In 1808, the federal ban on importing slaves became effective, ending the international slave trade while allowing domestic slavery to continue and driving prices for slaves up. It became profitable for smaller farmers to sell their slaves further south and west. Although most farmers in the South had small- to medium-sized farms with few slaves, the large plantation owners needed many slaves to cultivate and harvest crops, and their wealth afforded them considerable prestige and political power.
Slaves in the U.S. resisted slavery through many passive forms of resistance, such as damaging equipment, working slowly, or in keeping their culture and religious beliefs alive. They also planned open rebellions, risking everything for freedom. Several plots and rebellions happened in antebellum America, notably Gabriel’s Rebellion in 1800 in Richmond, Virginia, an uprising in Louisiana in 1811, and Denmark Vesey’s conspiracy, which was uncovered in 1822 in Charleston, South Carolina. One of the bloodiest rebellions in U.S. history occurred in August 1829 when Nat Turner organized a slave rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. About 60 whites were killed and, after the rebellion was put down, the state executed 56 slaves accused of being part of it. Militias and mobs formed in the paranoid chaos that followed and anywhere from 100 to 200 innocent slaves were killed in the aftermath. In response to these rebellions, slave codes and laws limiting slaves’ movements and freedom to gather tightened considerably. In spite of this, plots and actual rebellions in slave-holding states continued into and through the Civil War.
In the North, the Abolitionist movement, which had long existed, began in earnest in 1833. Free blacks, like Frederick Douglass and two important black women in history, Sojourner Truth, and Harriet Tubman, joined with whites who believed that slavery was wrong. Former slaves themselves, they were able to give vivid, first-hand accounts of its horrors. Abolitionists campaigned for the end of slavery and helped escaped slaves to freedom using the Underground Railroad, a network of safe routes and safe houses. The often violent opposition between the Abolitionists and slave owners and the economic divisions between the North and South ultimately led to the Civil War in 1861.
The first black institutions for higher learning were established during the Antebellum Period. Cheyney University of Pennsylvania, founded as the African Institute in February 1837 and later renamed the Institute of Colored Youth, provided teacher training and training in the skilled trades, at the bequest of Quaker Richard Humphreys. In 1854, Wilberforce University was established in southwestern Ohio to provide teacher training and a classic education to African Americans. The Ashmun Institute, renamed Lincoln University following the assassination of President Abraham Lincoln, was also founded in 1854 and was the first to grant degrees. Graduates of Lincoln went on to found seven other historically black colleges.
African American in the Civil War
African Americans fought in the Civil War, mainly in the Union Army and filling relief roles for the Union, such as nurses, cooks, and blacksmiths. Some were spies and scouts for the Union Army, providing valuable information about Confederate resources and troop movements. Blacks were also part of the Confederate Army, although they were the exception—they were needed more as slaves and Southerners were extremely hesitant to arm them for fear they would rebel.
Emancipation and Reconstruction
President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 and all slaves were freed in 1865 with the ratification of the Thirteenth Amendement. Other legislation followed, including the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment; both repealed the Dred Scott decision and made blacks full U.S. citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment granted black men the right to vote and gave Congress the power to enact laws protecting that right. In 1870, the first black senator was elected; Hiram Revels was a minister and politician who had been a chaplain in the Union Army and, following the war, had been assigned by the Methodist Episcopal Church to a pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1865. Thousands of other blacks from all over the country moved to Mississippi, where they were able to clear and claim land on the previously undeveloped bottomlands along the Mississippi River.
During Reconstruction, some strides were made toward equality in the South, as long federal troops remained there as an occupying force protecting the rights of freedmen. Blacks were able to vote and run for office, and helped establish public school systems in most Southern states, although funding was difficult to find. Blacks established their own churches, businesses, and towns. However, many southern whites continued to refuse to recognize blacks as equals, terrorizing and harassing them at the polls and in the community.
The last Union troops withdrew from the south in 1877 as part of the unwritten Compromise of 1877 following the contentious 1876 election. Southern Democrats agreed to not contest the close election of Rutherford B. Hayes—they were so incensed they threatened to march on Washington—if Republicans withdrew federal troops from southern states and if Hayes appointed a Democrat to his cabinet. Southern Democrats once again had political power and began a campaign of intimidation, terror, and fraud to prevent blacks from voting. They began passing laws that made voter registration and elections more complex to disenfranchise blacks, which incidentally disenfranchised many poor whites.
The Jim Crow laws, which were state and local segregation laws enacted from 1876-1965, were passed to separate blacks and whites in as many aspects of life as possible. Supposedly aimed at making separate but equal accommodations for both races, the reality was that blacks were often treated as inferiors and put at a disadvantage, ultimately making racism and discrimination systemic. White supremacist organizations began to form, including the Ku Klux Klan in 1867, with the specific intent of terrorizing the black community. Enabled by Jim Crow laws and widespread corruption, lynchings—the extrajudicial execution of black men, women, and children and sympathetic whites—were one of the horrific results of this systemic discrimination. Estimates of the number of people killed in lynchings vary from 5,000 to 20,000.
In response, the National Afro American Council (NAAC) was formed in 1898 by Alexander Walters, a Bishop in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church. Journalists, lawyers, educators, politicians, and community activists met annually to discuss how to respond to discrimination against the black community. Booker T. Washington, founder of the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama in 1881, counseled the black community not to agitate for full equality as long as their economic needs were met and they received due process. Washington received widespread support in the NAAC, but other members of the black community began to call for more active opposition to discriminatory policies. In 1905, a group of other prominent African American men led by W. E. B. Du Bois and William Monroe Trotter formed the Niagara Movement, which advocated that African Americans take an active roll in fighting discrimination. Following the Springfield, Illinois, Race Riot of 1908, in which white citizens rioted in black neighborhoods, members of the Niagara Movement and other concerned citizens formed the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in New York City. The NAACP’s purpose, as stated in it’s charter is:
To promote equality of rights and to eradicate caste or race prejudice among the citizens of the United States; to advance the interest of colored citizens; to secure for them impartial suffrage; and to increase their opportunities for securing justice in the courts, education for the children, employment according to their ability and complete equality before law.
It initially focused on using the courts to overturn Jim Crow laws and fighting against lynchings by working to pass laws that would make it illegal and by educating the public. The NAACP would play a key role in the Civil Rights Movement.
Segregation in Professional Sports
Segregation and discrimination extended to all areas of the country and of life, including the nascent professional sports, like football and baseball, although individual black athletes—Joe Lewis and Jesse Owens are two examples—were able to forge success. Joe Louis rose in the world of professional boxing, which he helped legitimize in the 1930s, to become Heavyweight Champion of the World from 1937 to 1949. Track and field athlete Jesse Owens was one of 18 black athletes that competed in the 1936 Olympics held in Berlin, Germany, the “Nazi Olympics.” The African American athletes dominated the track and field events, demonstrating the falsity of claims of Aryan supremacy.
Baseball was originated in New York with teams that included blacks and whites, and was popularized by the Civil War. However, the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which turned professional in 1869, relegated most blacks to the minor leagues, although a handful were on professional teams. With the widespread racism among whites in both the South and the North, the Compromise of 1877, and the refusal of some whites to play against blacks, professional baseball was gradually segregated so that by the turn of the century, an all-white league had formed at the exclusion of blacks and other minorities. In response to this gradual segregation, black regional teams and leagues formed.
By the end of World War I, baseball was one of the most popular forms of entertainment for urban black populations. In 1920, Andrew “Rube” Foster, owner of the Chicago American Giants, helped form the Negro National League, which included eight teams in the Midwest. The Negro Southern League formed the same year, although it was considered mainly to be a minor league. The Depression forced the Negro National League to dissolve after the 1931 season, but a second Negro National League was formed. In 1937, the Negro American League formed to include the best teams from the other two leagues. All three leagues prospered in spite of the depression, segregation, and discrimination to become one of the largest and most successful black enterprises of the time.
Following the 1944 death of the first Commissioner of Major League Baseball, Judge Kenesaw Mountain Landis, who was vehemently opposed to integration, and in the spirit of social change that swept the country following World War II, Brooklyn Dodgers owner Branch Rickey signed WWII soldier and Negro professional player Jackie Robinson to the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ farm club, in 1946. Knowing that Robinson would face opposition both by the public and within the team, Rickey asked him not to retaliate or lose his temper, a strategy that won Robinson legions of fans, black and white. Robinson led the Royals to a league championship and was called up to the majors by the Dodgers six days before the start of the 1947 season. Robinson helped the Dodgers win the National League title and make it to the 1947 World Series, where they lost to the New York Yankees. Robinson also won Major League Baseball’s first-ever Rookie of the Year award.
Over the next four years, most of the talented black players signed with integrated Major League teams. The Negro National League disbanded for the final time after the 1949 season. The Negro American League operated until 1962, but had lost much of its talent and fan base to integrated leagues.
The Civil Rights Movement
Organizations like the NAACP (National Association for the Advancement of Colored People) had been fighting for equality by trying to educate the public about injustices and lobbying legislators, and through litigation during the first half of the 20th century, with limited success. Following the landmark Brown vs. Board of Education decision in 1954, in which the NAACP successfully fought against school segregation, leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. encouraged peaceful, non-violent direct action in response to segregation and discrimination. King helped form the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) to educate church and community leaders on non-violent tactics and effective strategies to mobilize their communities in boycotts, sit-ins, freedom rides, marches, and other actions. This mass mobilization and empowerment of the African American community and its supporters characterized the Civil Rights movement, which spanned from roughly 1950s to late 1960s.
Much of the Civil Rights movement involved non-violent protest, such as sit-ins and marches, fostered by leaders like Martin Luther King, Jr. It was advanced by events such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat for a white passenger on a Montgomery, Alabama, bus and the subsequent 381-day bus boycott, or sit-ins at segregated lunch counters that led to the arrest of the protestors—who spent time in jail rather than posting bail, so that the financial burden of the protest would be on what they called “the corrupted system” and not the demonstrator. These protests led to a string of similar protests across the country and inspired the Freedom Riders, civil rights supporters who rode buses into the deep South to integrate seating patterns and bus terminals, bathrooms, drinking fountains, and other segregated public facilities at their destination.
The reaction of local authorities and white supremacist groups to protests was often extreme and violent. In the fall of 1957, Little Rock Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, was desegregated in order to come into line with the Brown vs. Board of Education decision. Governor Orval Faubus used the Arkansas National Guardsmen to prevent nine African American students from attending the school. On September 24, President Dwight D. Eisenhower federalized the Alabama National Guard, ordering them to return to their barracks, and assigned soldiers from the 101st Airborne to escort the students to and at the school, although students were still harassed when soldiers weren’t present. During the Freedom Rides of 1961, buses were firebombed and met with mob violence incited by Ku Klux Klan members and other segregationists. Activists that began campaigns to mobilize black voters in the spring and summer of 1962 in towns in the Mississippi River delta were met with staunch opposition, facing arrests, beatings, arson, shooting, and murder. Determined not to back down, both campaigns were ultimately successful.
In 1963–1964, a civil rights campaign in Birmingham, Alabama, challenged the segregation of downtown businesses. The sit-ins and marches resulted in a string of arrests, including the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr. On the first day of one protest, called the Children’s Crusade because of the large number of high school students who participated in the two day action, Eugene “Bull” Connor, the Commissioner of Public Safety, had over 600 marchers arrested. The next day, as more protesters began marching from the church where they had gathered, Connor turned police dogs and fire hoses them. Television news cameras broadcast images of dogs attacking demonstrators and children being knocked over by the powerful streams of water from the hoses to viewers worldwide. Parts of the white community reacted to the protests in Birmingham with even more violence; the Gaston Motel, unofficial headquarters of the SCLC, and the 16th Street Baptist Church were both bombed.
Pressure on the administration of President John F. Kennedy for a civil rights law in 1963 was enormous. Along with the unfolding events in Birmingham, Alabama Governor George Wallace had blocked the integration of the University of Alabama on June 11, 1963. Kennedy sent soldiers to force Wallace to step aside and allow the enrollment of two black students. That evening, the president addressed the nation with his historic civil rights address, in which he argued for the equal treatment of all and promised legislation that would end segregation and discrimination in employment and housing and would protect voting rights. Early in the morning of the next day, civil rights activist Medgar Evers was assassinated by a white supremacist in Mississippi. On June 19, Kennedy submitted his Civil Rights bill to Congress.
As Kennedy’s bill was making its way through Congress, the black community continued to rally. A. Philip Randolph, president of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, president of the Negro American Labor Council, and vice president of the AFL-CIO, organized the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom on August 28, 1963—the 100th anniversary of the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The March was the largest march on Washington for civil rights, with estimates of 200,000 to 300,000 participants, thanks in part to Randolph involving a coalition of black leaders, including King, the head of the SCLC, who gave his famous I Have A Dream speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial. Although the march was a success and is credited with helping with the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, not all civil rights activists supported it. Malcom X was perhaps the most vocal opponent, calling the march a farce and a circus and taking organizers to task for diluting the purpose of the march—a demonstration of black power—by allowing whites and other minorities to help organize it and participate.
Following the march, President Kennedy met with its organizers to assure them of the passage of the Civil Rights act; however, Congress did not pass it until June 1964, after Kennedy’s assassination on November 23, 1963. His replacement, President Lyndon B. Johnson, used his legislative experience and the bully pulpit afforded by the assassination to get the bill through Congress. Ironically, Johnson was from Texas, a segregated state that had been part of the Confederate States of America during the Civil War.
In 1964, “Mississippi Freedom Summer,” activists in Mississippi began the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party (MFDP) to oppose the all-white democratic party and organized mock elections to demonstrate black’s desires to vote. Thousands of idealistic youth, black and white, traveled to Mississippi to run “freedom schools” to help educate and shore up the voting rights of poor blacks with classes in basic literacy, history, and civics. The backlash from white supremacists—particularly the murder three civil rights activists: James Chaney, a black man, and two of his white friends, Andrew Goodman and Michael Schwerner—created national outrage and helped secure the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which eliminated state and local barriers that had prevented blacks from voting.
Not all members of the black community believed non-violence and multiculturalism was the best path to ending discrimination. Stokey Carmicheal was an early advocate of being prepared to meet white violence with violence in return. The gathering Black Power movement emphasized racial pride and advocated for black’s self-determination and a range of political and social goals, generally using any means available. Some Black Power advocates believed in black nationalism and separatism, while others, like Malcom X and the Black Panther Party, declared themselves to be at war with the existing political power structure, which happened to be mainly white, not at war with all whites. They believed in the protection of blacks and black neighborhoods, and believed the fight for civil rights was more of a class struggle against economic oppression, rather than a racial struggle. The Black Panther Party, formed in Los Angeles in 1966, endured into the early 1980s by organizing some vital programs within black communities, such as a program that provided free breakfast for children and citizen patrols to document police injustice and brutality.
Following the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. on April 4, 1968, race riots broke out in major cities across the country. Other riots had happened throughout the movement, mainly in black inner city neighborhoods where unemployment and the presence of mainly white police forces were high—notably in Harlem in 1964 and the Los Angeles neighborhood of Watts in 1965. The damage done by rioters who were frustrated by the slow pace of change and outraged by continued discrimination was detrimental to the businesses and communities in which they occurred. After the riots calmed, affirmative action programs and anti-discrimination employment laws helped lower the unemployment rate in black neighborhoods and put more blacks on the police forces assigned to black neighborhoods. Other demonstrations through the end of the 1960s occasionally turned violent, but authorities were more willing to negotiate or cede to the demands of the demonstrators.
The gains of the civil rights movement in eliminating segregation laws and enacting laws that protect rights, like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, were enormous victories but did not result in the immediate and full integration of blacks into American society. A large segment of the black population still lives in poverty, is incarcerated, and is under-educated. Affirmative Action laws, beginning with President Kennedy’s Executive Order 10925 in 1961, were enacted to correct some of the inequalities by requiring schools and employers, as stated in Kennedy’s order, “to take affirmative action to ensure that applicants are employed, and that employees are treated during employment, without regard to their race, creed, color, or national origin.” Such laws have become controversial and considered by some to be reverse-racism, providing opportunities that have little to do with merit. Others point out that they have provided opportunities to groups and individuals that would not otherwise have them. Many of the Affirmative Action laws that mandate specific quotas for minorities have been struck down and in some places, such as California, affirmative action has been banned altogether.
Two additional federal civil rights laws were passed after the end of the civil rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s: the Civil Rights Restoration Act of 1987, which expanded non-discrimination laws to private institutions that receive federal funds, and the Civil Rights Act of 1991, which countered Supreme Court decisions that had made it more difficult to prove employment discrimination and strengthened the rights of those who experienced intentional discrimination.
Following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, black politicians were voted into local and national office and gained more mainstream acceptance through the 1970s and 1980s. In 1972, Shirley Chisolm, the first black female member of Congress, ran for the Democratic nomination for President. She received 152 first-ballot votes at the Democratic National Convention, coming in fourth in a field of 13 candidates for the nomination. In 1984 and 1988 Reverend Jesse Jackson ran nationwide primary campaigns for the Democratic nomination, coming in third in 1984 and narrowly losing the nomination in 1988 to Michael Dukakis. Barack Obama became the nation’s first African American president after a successful presidential campaign in 2008 and was reelected for a second term in 2012.
African Americans in the Military
Following the Civil War, in 1866 Congress reorganized the Army and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry, the 9th and 10th, and two regiments of black infantry, the 24th and 25th, that initially served mainly in the West and Southwest. Nicknamed Buffalo Soldiers by the Cheyenne these regiments fought in the Indian Wars and the Spanish American War, the Philippine-American War, World War I, World War II, and other U.S. conflicts until the integration of the military during the Korean War. Black regiments faced discrimination and systemic prejudice from within the Army and from civilians.
During World War I, the U.S. Army for the first time commissioned a number of black officers, 639 in all. Some 340,000 African Americans were drafted, and more volunteered.
Among the most famous black units of the war was the 369th Infantry Regiment, formed in 1913 as the 15th New York National Guard Regiment and mustered into service in 1917. They were the first African American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Force—although they were initially assigned to labor service duties—and one of the first to have black officers as well as white. In April 1918, they were assigned to the French Army for the duration of the war and were eventually nicknamed the Harlem Hellfighters for their actions in the war, for which several received Distinguished Service Crosses and the Legion of Honor. Perhaps their most decorated member was Henry Lincoln Johnson, who earned a Medal of Honor and who was the first American to receive the Croix de Guerre from the French government. They received a hero’s welcome upon their return to New York City, parading from 5th Avenue at 61st Street, where white bystanders lined the streets, into Harlem where the sidewalks were packed with black New Yorkers who had come to see them. In the 1920s and 1930s, they paraded twice each summer between their armory to the train station, where they traveled to their summer camp, and became a symbol of African American service to the nation.
The world’s first black fighter pilot had run away from the racism in his native Georgia, seeking greater equality in France, and served in the French military during the war. Eugene Jacques Bullard, the “Black Swallow of Death,” served first in the French infantry and then in its emerging air corps. During the war, he received the Croix de Guerre with two stars; much later, in 1959, he was named a Knight of the Legion of Honor.
Following the First World War, the Army War College prepared a report (in 1925) that concluded black troops of World War I were “barely fit for combat.” That was at odds with the Army Provost Marshal’s report that, of the 24 million men of all races called to service in 1917–1918, 36 of every 100 black men were certified, 64 rejected, exempted or discharged. By comparison, only 25 of every 100 whites were certified.
World War II saw the expansion of African Americans’ role in the military in spite of federal laws preventing them from serving alongside white soldiers, the reservations of American military leaders, and widespread racism. The Tuskegee Airmen were the first black aviators, begun officially in June 1941, who disproved negative predictions by becoming some of the best aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps.
The 761st Tank Battalion, known as the Black Panthers, were constituted on March 15, 1942, as an all-black armored unit in WWII. They faced institutional discrimination, training for for almost two years before being deployed while similar white units trained for about three months, and suffered regional discrimination during much of their training in Southern states. Perhaps their most famous member was Jack Robinson, who refused to move to the back of a supposedly unsegregated bus while at Fort Hood, Texas on July 6, 1944. Acquitted during court-martial proceedings, which prevented him from being deployed, he was honorably discharged in November 1944. Just three years later, Jack “Jackie” Robinson would break the color barrier in major league baseball.
Following D-Day, Allied forces created a truck convoy system to supply combat units advancing through Europe after having destroyed French rail lines before landing on the beaches of Normandy to prevent the Germans from using them. The Red Ball Express, as it became known because of the red balls marking its route, operated from August 25 to November 16, 1944 and was composed of almost 75% African American soldiers who had been attached to other units. The Red Ball and its British counterpart, the Red Lion Express, made possible the rapid advance through France after the breakout from Normandy by guaranteeing that gasoline, ammunition, food and other supplies moved as rapidly as front-line combat units.
Following World War II, on October 10, 1947, civil rights leaders A. Philip Randolph and Grant Reynolds organized the Committee Against Jim Crow in Military Service and Training, later called the League for Non-Violent Civil Disobedience Against Military Segregation. After failing to defeat a peacetime draft bill that did not end racial discrimination, Randolph and Reynolds threatened to organize a civil disobedience campaign in which African American would resist the draft law. In response, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 on July 26, 1948, which established “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” In April 1949, Kenneth Claiborne Royall, Secretary of the Army, was forced into retirement for continuing to refuse Truman’s order. The last all-black unit was disbanded in 1954 and today, no official racial barriers exist in the U.S. military.
During the Vietnam War, the highest-ever proportion of African Americans served in the armed forces, an about-turn from the previous attitude that they were unfit for combat. About 11% of the American population was African American at the time, while at the height of the war, about 12% of the troops were black. Many blacks enlisted because of few job opportunities at home, as was the case for whites as well in states with low employment opportunities. In addition, many African Americans did not plan on attending college (in comparison to whites at the time) and could not get a college deferment. As the civil rights movement wore on, racial violence that swept the country in the late 1960s spread to the military, with race riots on military bases and ships. African American prisoners, many of whom were jailed for violent crimes, rioted at the U.S. Army stockade at Long Binh from August 29 to September 7, 1968.
On October 1, 1989, forty years after the end of military segregation, professional soldier General Colin L. Powell became the first African American appointed Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the highest military position in the U.S. Department of Defense. While in this position, he oversaw Operation Desert Storm in Iraq. Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989) and as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989). In 2001, President George W. Bush appointed him as Secretary of State, the first African American to hold the office.
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African American Platoons in World War II
The American soldiers hemmed in on the east bank of the Rhine River were desperately protecting their tenuous Remagen bridgehead, resisting repeated German attempts to infiltrate their perimeter. Fighting throughout the night, sometimes hand to hand, the men doggedly held their position, firing flares, hurling grenades and shooting wildly at shadowy figures as the enemy counterattacked repeatedly up the deep-cut draws and forested ridges above the town of Erpel, directly across the Rhine from Remagen.
For the men of K Company, 394th Infantry Regiment, 99th Infantry Division, the situation was dire enough on the night of March 13, 1945, for them to call in friendly artillery on their positions in an effort to shake off their tormentors. Almost immediately, fire from American 155mm and 105mm batteries on the west bank of the river lit the blackened sky like distant lightning, the shells’ thunderous concussions reverberating up the steep ravines to the ridgeline where K Company was dug in.
The frantic barrage succeeded in driving the Germans back into the dark woods, their dead and wounded comrades left behind. For the weary Americans, though, the respite proved to be only temporary, as daylight soon brought renewed enemy artillery and sniper fire. The GIs knew that when the sun went down again they would face another terrifying night on the line.
In the late afternoon, however, the men heard a roar of gunfire, indicating that a sharp engagement was being fought on the wooded hillside below their position. When the firing finally died down, the Americans feared the worst, and the sound of men approaching only increased their apprehension. As a ragged line of soldiers began emerging from the woods, ducking under the low branches of the firs and hardwoods, the men of K Company hunkered down in their foxholes, gripping their weapons and straining to get a good look. To their relief, they could soon see that the advancing men were clad in olive drab and wore American potlike helmets. However, as the approaching troops came closer, the GIs in K Company saw that their faces were brown and seemed to merge with the mud color of their helmets. Their relief was quickly displaced by shock.
What had sent such angst through the combat-weary men was something no American soldier had seen for more than 150 years. Coming to their aid were black Americans, and — even more startling — these black soldiers were there not simply to relieve them but to join them in battle.
The last time blacks officially served shoulder to shoulder with whites in an American infantry unit, George Washington was in command of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War.
Now, in 1945, on a ridge next to the Rhine, a line had been crossed that would have far-reaching implications in America’s long struggle with the pernicious racism that permeated its society.
The white GIs of Company K, most hailing from the Jim Crow South, experienced a transformation that day. No longer were these black men to be objects of racial derision; rather, they were comrades putting their lives on the line just like any white soldier. With the arrival that month of platoons of black GIs to all-white infantry and armored divisions all along the Western Front, thousands of white soldiers would similarly have their long-held racial prejudices challenged.
In World War II, the United States opposed governments that embraced fascism and all its deluded racial theories, yet when the conflict started the Army resisted the rising chorus of black — and some white — citizens who were demanding that the military be integrated. Unfortunately for those advocates, many generals shared the bias of the majority of Americans and were adamant that it was not the Army’s duty to engage in a social experiment such as integration. Not only were they concerned about whether blacks would make capable soldiers, but they also believed that forcing such a controversial policy down the throats of white recruits might severely cripple the effectiveness of the Army they were frantically trying to build.
As far as the average American was concerned, World War II was a white man’s war. In the hundreds of photographs, films and histories that have documented the conflict, blacks are seldom depicted in heroic roles. Even the comics of the era leave out blacks. Bill Mauldin’s famed cartoon characters Willie and Joe were white. Blacks, it seemed, were merely adjuncts to victory, primarily occupying the unglamorous jobs of truck driver and stevedore.
Prior to the Revolutionary War, militias in the colonies frequently included black men in the ranks. During the French and Indian War, men of all ages and races banded together to protect their towns and villages against marauding Indians. As soon as the War for Independence began, blacks rushed to the colors with as much devotion to the cause as their white brethren. As many as 5,000 blacks fleshed out the ranks of the Continental Army. Black militiamen fought at Lexington and Concord. Blacks also served with Ethan Allen’s troops in capturing Fort Ticonderoga, and they served in Colonel John Glover’s Marblehead Regiment, which rescued Washington’s defeated army from Long Island in 1776 by ferrying the defeated Continentals across the East River from Brooklyn to Manhattan.
The presence of armed blacks in the Continental Army, however, was troublesome for many in a new nation that still supported slavery. Even during the war, Washington passed orders that forced blacks from the ranks. With independence won, their role in the Revolution was quickly forgotten.
During the Civil War, blacks again flocked to recruiting stations to join Union regiments but were turned away. It wasn’t until 1863, as casualties were becoming increasingly difficult to replace, that they were permitted to serve in one of the 163 black regiments raised. Some 178,985 African Americans donned Union blue during the war.
With the Union reunited in 1865, Congress authorized the creation of six black regiments. Made up largely of Civil War veterans, the 9th and 10th Cavalry and 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st (later consolidated into the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments) were sent to the frontier, where they performed well. The men of these regiments were dubbed ‘buffalo soldiers. The black units would also serve in the Spanish-American War.
Despite this impressive service record, the Army continued to enforce its strict segregationist policies. During World War I, the vast majority of the 367,410 blacks drafted were assigned to service units or used as laborers. The few who saw action were in the all-black 92nd and 93rd divisions. The 92nd served under American command and was reported to have performed poorly. Meanwhile the 93rd’s four regiments served separately under French commanders, who offered high praise for their contributions.
When the United States entered World War II, most Americans expected blacks to perform the same auxiliary roles. Of an estimated 922,965 blacks who donned olive drab, the majority toiled away in segregated service units where their work went largely unrecognized. These forgotten men built airfields, cleared mines, unloaded ships, maintained roads and rail lines, served as medics and drove the trucks that supplied the armies.
One of few accolades they received was for their work in providing the bulk of the drivers for the Red Ball Express, the famed military trucking line that was established in late August 1944 to rush critical materiel from supply bases in Normandy to the front. The only blacks in the Army Air Forces, serving in the 332nd Fighter Group, were escorting bombers of the Fifteenth Air Force on missions over southern and eastern Europe.
As unbreachable as the color barrier seemed to be, however, the realities of combat in the ETO eventually produced the first cracks in the walls separating the races. In the months after D-Day, casualties mounted at a terrifying rate. Six months after the landings, losses among U.S. forces in Europe had risen to nearly 350,000 troops killed, wounded or missing. The Battle of the Bulge, which began on December 16, 1944, inflicted an additional 80,000 casualties. The problem that Allied Supreme Commander General Dwight D. Eisenhower faced in January 1945 as he planned for the final offensive into Germany was that he desperately needed riflemen — and he did not care where they came from or what color they were.
Back in the States, training time for recruits was shortened and noncombat units were culled for anyone who could be spared to hold a rifle. Next it was the turn of Army Specialized Training personnel and aviation cadets, who were wrenched from the comfort and security of their classrooms and taught the nomenclature of the M-1 rifle and the intricacies of drill. Even these measures were not enough, and when the demand for men could not be met, the Army sent out word that it would accept volunteers from black units.
The original proposal came from Lt. Gen. John C.H. Lee. As the Service of Supply (SOS) commander in the European theater, he was in charge of many of the African-American units and was more familiar than most with the caliber of the men. Even with the pressing need for troops, however, Lee’s suggestion hit like a bombshell. Nothing could have been more drastic than making combat soldiers of substantial numbers of black men, historian Russell Weigley would write years later.
Lee saw the hundreds of thousands of black service troops under his command as an untapped resource, and his initial proposal called for the Army to take 2,000 African Americans and insert them individually into the ranks of white infantry units. Two thousand men represented the largest number that could be trained at one time at the Ground Forces Reinforcement Center (GFRC) in northern France. More could be trained later.
Old attitudes die hard, however, and despite the pressing need for manpower, the European high command rejected Lee’s proposal to treat blacks as individual replacements, and as a half-measure instead opted to integrate by platoons.
Even this half-hearted breach of the color line was not enough to prevent some 2,000 blacks — many of whom were long-serving NCOs willing to give up their stripes — to immediately volunteer for combat duty. With a stroke of the pen, Eisenhower soon had enough men to form 53 all-black rifle platoons that after training would be assigned as the 5th Platoon to all-white infantry companies. By March, 37 of these platoons were ready for combat, and a number were formed into all-black company-sized units and assigned to the 12th and 14th Armored divisions.
Even though many of the volunteers were soldiers of long service and considerable experience, they would still be led into combat by white officers. As was expected, many of these shavetails were unhappy with their new assignments. First Lieutenant Richard Ralston, a combat veteran with the 99th Division, was assigned to command the 5th Platoon of K Company, and he remembered the disdain of many white lieutenants upon learning they were to command black troops.
Ralston didn’t mind his new assignment, but when he arrived at the GFRC, he immediately assessed that his men were not properly trained for combat. A combat veteran, Ralston also recognized the need to instill trust in the men. There was a learning process on both sides, he remembered. They were pretty ginger about me because I was white, but once they were convinced that I was talking serious stuff and wasn’t racially prejudiced, they got down in the dirt and did what they had to do. They knew then I was talking survival.
Each volunteer had his own impression of the infantry training. It was a lot of run and jump in small unit tactics in the mud and snow, recalled Waymon Ransom, a volunteer infantryman and a former engineer. But it wasn’t any worse than doing construction work in the mud and snow back in the engineers.
We kept training in earnest, Ralston remembered. I exaggerated considerably about how many of them were going to die to try and scare them out of the unit. I only wanted the best and bravest. But nobody quit. They were pretty darned good.
As the training progressed, the men impressed Ralston. They were oddly superior to whites [as soldiers] in some respects, he recalled. They weren’t book smart; they were street smart, and they were cunning.
Once training was complete, the 5th Platoon of K Company was assigned to the 394th Regiment, 99th Infantry Division. The men broke camp in France and, after a two-day trip by train and truck, they crossed the Rhine at Remagen on March 12, 1945. The next day they reinforced K Company and went into combat in the hills above the bridge around Erpel.
After some bitter fighting to expand the bridgehead, where the reinforcements suffered their first killed and wounded, they moved north with the rest of their outfit to join in the massive Allied envelopment of the Ruhr industrial area, which netted hundreds of thousands of German prisoners. Their next assignment was to join Lt. Gen. George S. Patton’s Third Army in its relentless march into southern Germany. The 5th wound up in Austria at war’s end.
Other 5th Platoons also were put to the test in combat and were praised for their performance. Brigadier General Edwin F. Parker, commander of the 78th Infantry Division, whose black platoons also fought at Remagen, asked for more black soldiers. In addition, the 104th Infantry Division filed glowing reports about these unique units. Morale: Excellent. Manner of performance: Superior. Men are very eager to close with the enemy and to destroy him. Strict attention to duty, aggressiveness, common sense and judgment under fire has won the admiration of all the men in the country, a division report stated.
The redoubtable 1st Infantry Division, the Big Red One, was also impressed with its black riflemen. One of the division’s reports noted, White platoons like to fight beside them because they laid a large volume of fire on the enemy positions.
In the 99th Division, the 5th of K’s sister black platoon in the 393rd Regiment was considered by its white commanders as one of the best platoons in the regiment.
Not surprisingly, the black platoons had their share of heroes. One was Sergeant Edward A. Carter Jr. of Company D, 56th Armored Infantry Battalion, 12th Armored Division, who led a four-man assault group against a German position. Two of the men were killed and one wounded, but Carter continued on and was wounded five times. When a band of Germans tried to capture him, he killed six of them, captured two and returned them and his wounded comrade back to American lines. For his bravery, Carter received the Distinguished Service Cross. Five decades later, he was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor, and was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery.
By war’s end, black platoons had served in 10 infantry and armored divisions in the ETO. The 1st, 8th, 9th, 69th, 78th, 99th, 104th and 106th Infantry divisions and the 12th and 14th Armored divisions had all benefited from the bravery and dedication of their African-American comrades in arms. They were veterans who could be proud of their Combat Infantryman Badges. Ralston’s praise for his men echoed among most commanders on the Western Front. Looking back on the performance of his platoon, the lieutenant remembered that the men of the 5th of K performed without fear and carried out instructions with zest and efficiency.
Curious to see how its experiment had been working, in the summer of 1945 the Army conducted a study of the black platoons and interviewed some 250 officers and 1,700 enlisted men who had fought with or alongside the black soldiers. A chief finding was that the colored soldiers performed well in combat (84 percent of the officers say the colored troops did ‘very well,’ and the remainder says ‘fairly well.’ In no instance was the performance rated as poor.)
They were the best platoon in the regiment, one company commander said. I wish I could get a presidential citation for them. They are very aggressive as fighters — really good in woods and at close-quarters work. Said another officer, The only trouble is getting them to stop; they just keep pushing.
The sterling performance of the black volunteers in the ultimate test for any soldier — service in a rifle company in combat — did not end the reprehensible policy of segregation. Shamefully, the moment the shooting stopped, the Army sent the combat veterans back to their service units and anonymity.
Wilford Strange, sporting a Combat Infantryman Badge earned while serving with the 69th Division, found himself and his comrades denied entry to Army entertainment centers in occupied Germany. When members of his unit attempted to visit a recreation hall near Leipzig, they were told by a sentry, No niggers allowed here.
On hearing the news, their white company commander rushed out to the former country estate and demanded that his men be allowed to enter. Know who I am, the captain told the major in charge of the recreation center. I’m Captain Herbert Pickett, commanding officer of K Company. We fought for this town 13 days ago. We took it and God damn it, if we have to we’ll take it again. When my men come in here, you treat them with respect. Pickett then turned to his troops: You men go in there. I’m a Southerner, but you are in the Army and I’ll go to hell with you.
Such instances were few and far between. Soon after V-E Day, the black platoons were ordered disbanded, and the members returned to their old units or to other all-black service units for shipment home. Many of the men, who naturally believed they had earned the right to be treated as equals, rebelled and refused to follow orders. They demanded to be returned to the United States with their parent combat divisions.
James Strawder, who had served with the 99th Division, expressed the feeling of many of his fellow African-American combat vets, saying, We expected to gain our dignity as human beings in this country when we put our blood on the line in combat.
Strawder’s 5th Platoon was performing occupation duty in Germany. All of a sudden we were told to pack up and they put us on trucks and started moving us out, he said. I thought the whole company was going, but I found out it was nobody but us blacks. We were being separated out of the company. I cussed and raised Cain. I was having a rage, I was so upset. I said, I knew it. All this mess was for nothing. How could they be so indifferent as to kick us out of our infantry divisions?
Believing that it was a misguided order coming out of the division, the men of the 5th of K, 394th, sent a delegation to Frankfurt hoping to speak directly to Eisenhower and ask that the separation orders be rescinded. Strange’s platoon members armed themselves, set up a perimeter around their barracks and threatened armed rebellion if MPs attempted to cross the line and force them to return to their segregated units. It was all to no avail. They eventually learned that the order had come directly from Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces (SHAEF) and applied to all the black platoons.
Strawder and his platoon eventually found themselves in a cigarette camp in France, where several hundred separated black veterans threatened open mutiny when they were ordered to take up picks and shovels and build barracks for white servicemen being processed for home. Somebody said, ‘We’re not doing anything,’ Strawder recalled. So we didn’t do anything. They called in the MPs and they threatened to put us in the guardhouse, but they couldn’t discipline us. Strawder realized how serious the situation was, noting the number of pistols and knives his fellow volunteers had in their possession.
Having issued such an unjust order, SHAEF realized too late that it now faced a considerable problem. To placate these vets, the Army called in General Benjamin O. Davis, America’s first black general, who calmed the situation and promised that the volunteers would return home with the 69th Division. But for many 5th Platoon men, the promise came too late and they were sent home with different units. Some speculated that the Army separated them from their parent divisions because most of these outfits were slated for duty in the Pacific, where integration of combat units had not yet been tested and the commanders there did not want racial strife to affect combat efficiency in the planned invasion of Japan.
With black soldiers stripped from the white outfits, the remarkable combat achievements of thousands of brave black infantrymen were left out of nearly every tale told of World War II. Although they had been forced back into the shadows, the men who volunteered at the sharp end did not forget.
It was not until 1948 that President Harry S. Truman forced the end of a shameful policy that was without merit, ordering all branches of the military desegregated. Volunteer Arthur Holmes believed the integration of the black platoons was a turning point. The platoons had a lot to do with the later integration of the Army in 1948. I never believed they would put us black boys up there with white boys. And I didn’t believe it until we were actually being shot at. I thought they would put us back with the quartermaster working in supply.
Even with Truman’s landmark legislation, it again took the exigencies of combat to complete the job. Most units were still segregated when the Korean War broke out in 1950, and it was not until the Army was again faced with a critical shortage of replacements that the president’s order went into full effect.
While the integration of the black platoons in 1945 was a temporary measure that many in the Army believed had been forced on them, some saw great significance in the performance of those first black platoons. General Davis recognized the importance of what had occurred, saying, The decision from the High Command [to integrate the black platoons] is the greatest since enactment of the Constitutional amendments following the emancipation.
Bruce Wright, a volunteer infantryman who served with the 1st Infantry Division and later rose to become a justice on the New York Supreme Court, believed that the new policy opened a door that could never again be closed: I was doing something for a dream. I was living to see partial integration coming to be a matter of fact.
David P. Colley is the author of Blood for Dignity, which chronicles the history of black platoons in World War II. This article originally appeared in the November 2006 issue of World War II magazine. For more great articles subscribe to World War II magazine today!
African American Infantrymen in America’s West
In the wake of the Civil War, the West offered perceived opportunities for nearly every element of society. So it was that some black Americans banded together in groups of ‘exodusters,’ who crossed the Mississippi River bent on establishing a new society in Kansas. Other blacks came on their own to farm, set up businesses, or engage in various livelihoods, including the profession of arms.
Indeed, a number of blacks, many of whom previously had been slaves, joined the Army as a potential avenue to advancement and adventure. They saw the Army as a means to economic or social betterment. Perhaps the promise of education also motivated some knowledge-thirsty men, particularly after the Freedmen’s Bureau, which had established schools for blacks, shut down in 1866. Individuals who had been displaced by the Civil War could find food, shelter, clothing and to some extent medical benefits, by entering the military.
Then, too, certain veterans who had served in the Union forces, as well as other blacks inspired by what those veterans had accomplished during the war, thought soldiering was well worth continuing. Jacob Wilks, who had spent more than three years fighting for the Union cause as a member of the 116th Colored Volunteer Infantry, fell into this category. Consequently, he signed on for a hitch in one of the Regular Army units formed in 1866. In other cases, young men whose fathers or family members had served in the Civil War decided to follow suit and join the Army. George Conrad, Jr., who became a private in Company G, 9th Cavalry, after enlisting in the fall of 1883, said: ‘When my father went to the army, old master told us he was gone to fight for us niggers’ freedom. My daddy was the only one that came back out of 13 men that enlisted….’
Others thought that, after the expiration of their tour of duty, they might parlay an honorable discharge into civilian employment with the government, a goal that Samuel Harris gave as one of his reasons for enlistment. Horace Wayman Bevins, a native of Accomack County, Va., stopped attending Hampton School because he had ‘a great desire for adventure and to see the Wild West.’ Charles Creek turned to the Army as a chance to break with the drudgery of field work. Creek frankly stated, ‘I got tired of looking at mules in the face from sunrise to sunset, thought there must be a better livin [sic] in this world.’ George Bentley, who at 26 signed on for five years, said he joined the Army simply to get away from his mother and a brother, neither of whom he liked.
Sampson Mann went to the recruiter out of ‘devilment.’ After Mann’s mother caught him ‘doin’ wrong’ by selling ‘moonshine’ to the neighbors, she demonstrated her displeasure and ‘whomped’ him twice. Since Mann was told at the recruiting station ‘how good it was in the Army,’ he thought the military might be better than facing future maternal wrath. Mansfield Robinson went to an Evansville, Ind., recruiter on a lark because one of Robinson’s friends, who wanted to enlist, talked him into going along. The officer on duty convinced the disinterested man to take the entrance examination. Although the friend failed the test, Robinson passed and ‘decided on the spot to enlist, and stayed in the Army until retirement.’
Whatever the motives, the option of military service would have been moot after the Civil War had not Radical Republicans and others championed the cause of blacks entering the ranks of the Regular Army, previously the exclusive domain of whites. The proposition of African Americans forming part of the nation’s standing peacetime force sparked considerable debate in many forums, including the halls of Congress.
Eventually such opposition on Capitol Hill went down in defeat. In 1866, Congress–for a variety of reasons that ranged from rewarding officers and the black troops they had commanded during their Civil War service to simply providing employment for large numbers of freed slaves–legislated six segregated black units, the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments, along with the 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry regiments, into existence. (See ‘Army’s Unluckiest Regiment,’ Wild West June 1991 for more on the 38th Infantry.) Three years later, a reorganization of the national military structure brought about the consolidation of the original four outfits of foot soldiers into two organizations, the 24th and 25th Infantry regiments.
For the remainder of the century, the two cavalry and two infantry regiments comprised approximately 9 percent of the men who wore the Army uniform. During this period, they usually carried out their duties on the frontier, away from the centers of white population, supposedly because of political pressures to keep blacks from being stationed in Northern states.
Some of the earliest African-American foot soldiers posted to the West served in Texas, the 24th Infantry gathering there at a time when the area was considered a’soldier’s paradise,’ with beautiful rivers and grassy plains that teemed with game. The black infantry units also served in Arizona, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Minnesota, Montana, New Mexico and Utah. As in the Lone Star State, they occupied and maintained outposts that sometimes were isolated and lonely, and participated in the full gamut of garrison and field duties. The men drilled often and sometimes even engaged in physical fitness exercises that were beginning to come into vogue in the late-Victorian era. They stood inspection, did their turn at guard mount and similar martial duties, and paraded. They also went to the target range. The soldiers were assigned many nonmilitary physical tasks known as fatigues–cutting ice (where possible), securing wood for lumber and fuel, working as teamsters or day laborers for the quartermaster, serving as janitors in the post exchange, and picking wild berries near the fort to supplement the issue ration. From time to time, the soldiers chased after military prisoners, chiefly deserters from white regiments, although they sometimes went in pursuit of black comrades. Field maneuvers increasingly became part of their routine, with emphasis being placed on war games.
When called upon, black infantrymen also responded to disturbances that sometimes flared up in the final days of war between the American Indians and the people who came to displace them. While the cavalry performed daring deeds recorded by newspaper reporters and artists, black infantry units faithfully played their part, too. Infantrymen, blacks and whites, were called ‘walk-a-heaps’ by some Indians because these soldiers had to travel on foot rather than on horseback like the cavalry.
That is not to say that the walk-a-heaps never took advantage of mounts available to them; they did, and when this happened they temporarily became mounted infantry. In Texas in the early 1870s, Captain F.M. Crandal and some of the rank and file from his Company A, 24th Infantry, were using mules and horses to pull wagons when a raiding party attacked them between Fort Stockton and Fort Davis. Another time an officer and his patrol were surprised and 200 of their mules were run off by Indians who could strike swiftly on horseback against the slower foot soldiers.
Years later, and far to the north, during the spring of 1890, Company H of the 25th responded to the killing of three prospectors near Montana’s Flathead Lake, and the subsequent shooting of one Kutenai and the lynching of two others, by moving into the area as a deterrent to further mayhem. Later in the year, black soldiers were called out as reinforcements during the Ghost Dance of 1890-91, with several companies gathering at Fort Keogh, Mont., as a ready reserve.
Besides forays against native peoples, African-American foot soldiers were sometimes even dispatched to quell strikes, such as those that broke out in the mines of Idaho during 1892. In 1894 came the threat posed by Coxey’s band of jobless anti-railroad men (known as Coxey’s Army), who were organized by social reformer Jacob Sachlee Coxey after the panic of 1893. Two companies of the 25th Infantry at Fort Missoula, Mont., set up a temporary camp near the railroad depot in Missoula while another company went out to guard trestles that might be targeted by dissidents for destruction. The soldiers had orders to ‘be prudent and cool in the discharge’ of their assignment to protect railway property and maintain peace. Despite that admonition, a minor incident occurred when some local civilians heckled two railroad employees who were continuing to work during the strike. A sentry from the 25th stepped in, and after one of the civilians reportedly ‘refused to budge’ despite twice being warned to move on, the sentry decided to prod him with a bayonet. The civilian withdrew. The sentry was to be served with a warrant for arrest on a charge of assault. According to one account, ‘there was some difficulty in serving the warrant and for a moment a ruction seemed imminent.’ Matters did not come to a head, however, and calm returned.
Another less dramatic but more unusual duty came when some of the men of the 25th Infantry took part in an 1896-97 bicycle experiment, an early effort to mechanize the American military. A group of adventurous volunteers in Montana peddled their way from Fort Missoula to Fort Harrison, north of Helena, then moved on to Fort Yellowstone and Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming, where they tested their equipment and stamina traveling across the rugged terrain there before coming home–a grueling 800-mile journey. The next year, this hardy team wheeled off from Fort Missoula toward St. Louis. They completed the grueling 1,900-mile trek, averaging 52 miles a day in the process.
For the most part, brave and determined black infantrymen did everything they could to do their duty well. As one officer observed during an ‘excessively hot’ march, the white infantry arrived in camp very tired, but the black infantry showed they still were ready to give something extra. After reaching their destination at the end of the long day, these black soldiers threw off their equipment and began to practice their military drill. They carried on for an hour, ‘largely at the double time, completing the maneuvers by a grand charge on a neighboring hill which was taken with a rush amid great cheers.’ The following day, when the temperature soared to ‘over 100 degrees in the shade,’ the black infantrymen ‘tramped along with a springy step, joshing each other,’ their bursts of laughter contrasting sharply with their white counterparts, who, ‘bowed under their heavy packs, seemed half-dead with fatigue.’ Similar praise came from a white cavalry sergeant who had seen some of the black infantry troops at work in the summer of 1869. He said these men ‘were well adapted to the life and the duties of a soldier’ and that ‘many of them were exceedingly clean and neat soldiers.’
Such indications of professionalism remained very much a part of the story of black infantrymen, as was the case with their comrades in the cavalry. Although their diligence and dedication to duty were seldom rewarded, African-American soldiers received some recognition for their higher re-enlistment rates and fewer incidents of alcoholism. Desertion ranked as an even worse personnel problem for the U.S. Army in the 19th century, but was rare in the black regiments. The 24th Infantry boasted the lowest desertion rate in the entire Army from 1880 through 1886, and it shared this honor with the 25th Infantry in 1888. At that time, the secretary of war paid tribute to the black troops: ‘There are two regiments of infantry and two of cavalry of colored men, and their record for good service is excellent. They are neat, orderly, and obedient, are seldom brought before court martial, and rarely desert.’
One more manifestation of unit pride could be found in the excellent bands that formed part of the black regiments. The 25th Infantry’s band was very highly regarded. During the summer of 1883 an invitation came from Minneapolis’ Shattuck Military School for the musicians of the 25th to perform at the school. The commandant of the school later commented, ‘The band proved to be all that we had expected from the reports which had reached us before we heard them.’ The same observer pronounced them,’skilled in the use of their instruments, and orderly in their deportment.’ On September 13, 1883, the bandsmen from the 25th pleased crowds at the Minnesota State Fair. Some five years later, on Memorial Day, they ‘discoursed the sweetest music ever heard in Missoula,’ according to one account. In 1895, the musicians, along with seven companies from the regiment, performed’smart maneuvers’ and offered stirring marches when writer Mark Twain came to visit Fort Missoula.
The popularity of these music-makers even prompted the regiment to erect a bandstand in front of the Missoula court-house right after the 25th reported to the area. The band offered regular concerts at the courthouse on Thursday evenings, thereby cementing good relations between the civilian population and the personnel of the regiment. One time, the entire band played at the funeral of a prominent Missoula citizen, C.P. Higgins, whose passing brought an estimated 600 mourners to pay their respects. Bands also provided accompaniment for ‘hops,’ or dances. The string players among the bandsmen at Fort Missoula entertained at an ‘Old Folks’ program attended by the town’s ‘best people.’ Proceeds from this event went to benefit the local Episcopal church. The strings additionally provided music until midnight at a domino-mask dance held in Missoula.
In Texas, a similar use of black infantry musicians was recalled by Elijah Cox, an old-timer and fiddle player of the 25th Infantry, when he reminisced in a 1924 newspaper interview: ‘There wasn’t none of them turkey trots in that day. Folks danced the schottische, the polka, the square dance, and the quadrille. We had real music in them days, too. I’ll bet I can play 300 waltzes, all of them different, without stopping.’
Locals in many Western communities also could watch some of the athletic competitions that were held by troops at the forts located near towns. Sometimes there were baseball games that pitted soldiers against civilians. Occasionally soldiers from one fort would travel to another post to compete, which no doubt drew local spectators from town. And there were other occasions for black soldiers to mingle with townspeople and others outside their circle. Civilians might even go to a nearby post for such offerings as open-air Sunday services, where they heard gospel songs accompanied by the band and the post chaplain’s daughter at the organ, as was the case at Fort Keogh.
Sometimes white clergymen were assigned to black regiments, but by the 1880s African-American chaplains began to be assigned to the black infantry regiments, beginning with Reverend Allen Allensworth of the 24th and Reverend Theophilus Steward of the 25th. Both these remarkable men of the cloth helped many soldiers in their congregation to understand that they played an important role in the opening up of the region. These ministers not only taught lessons about right and wrong but also provided educational fundamentals so that black infantry troops could learn to read and write, and gain other knowledge that would help them both in and out of the Army.
The two chaplains hoped many of these soldiers would have successes that were similar to their own. For instance, Allensworth hailed from Kentucky, where he had been enslaved before the Civil War. When the fighting broke out, he escaped from his bondage and fled north. For a time he served with the Illinois volunteers, assisting with hospital work. He eventually joined the U.S. Navy and ended the war as a petty officer.
Allensworth, whose quest for learning caused him to acquire the then illegal arts of reading and writing while ‘playing school’ with a slave owner’s child, continued on the path of education. After the war’s end, he explored new roads to advancement in civilian life, beginning with a brief stint with the Freedman’s Bureau. Eventually he returned to school to complete a degree in divinity.
After writing President Grover Cleveland that he relished the ‘opportunity to show, in behalf of the race, that a Negro can be an officer and a gentleman,’ Reverend Allensworth secured his appointment as chaplain of the 24th Infantry in 1886. Conscious of the color line that existed, he continually had to balance his own vision of the future for African Americans with the harsh political and social realities of his time.
In spite of the narrow path he was forced to walk, Allensworth dedicated himself to spreading the gospel and providing education for his soldiers. While at Fort Bayard in New Mexico Territory, for example, he wrote one of the first army manuals on education for enlisted personnel. Innovative and diligent, he served the black soldiers and the Army well for two decades. As partial reward for his devotion, when he retired in 1906, Allensworth was promoted to lieutenant colonel, and thus became the highest-ranking black officer in the U.S. Army to that date.
But for most of the men who served in the ranks, Allensworth’s story seemed like a fairy tale. For the most part, their own life in the Army usually brought meager rewards, while their daily experiences at military posts were boring and on the thankless, thorny side.
Detached service was a welcome break from the routine drudgeries of the fort, but could be dangerous. This was the case when on May 11, 1889, Major Joseph Washington Wham took charge of more than $28,000 in gold and silver. This hefty sum was being transported to pay troops at various posts in Arizona Territory. The paymaster had an escort of several men from the 10th Cavalry and 24th Infantry along to protect the money. Since a private was paid only $13 per month, their cargo must have seemed like a king’s ransom to the detail, as the officer, his white clerk and 11 black enlisted men rolled along in two mule-drawn vehicles.
Near Cedar Spring, Ariz., the small convoy halted. A large boulder blocked the road ahead. The ranking NCO (noncommissioned officer), Sergeant William Brown of Company C, 24th Infantry, called to several of the men to leave their vehicles and help remove the obstruction. Almost as soon as he gave the order, a shout came from the nearby rocks not to disturb the blockade; then a volley rang out from concealed assailants who had improvised barricades to flank the roadway and offer protection for the ambush. The driver of the lead wagon toppled first with a shot in the stomach. His mules bolted, and in the ensuing exchange of fire, one of the animals was killed, bringing the first vehicle to a halt.
The outlaws raked the escort with a hail of lead. Sergeant Brown was hit in the stomach, but he grabbed a rifle from one of the other men who had been struck, and continued to blaze away until a second round ripped into his arm. The other NCO in the detachment, Corporal Isaiah Mays, also of the 24th, kept up a return fire until driven to seek shelter underneath a wagon. As the barrage continued, Mays crawled out of range. He then went off for help to a ranch some two miles away from the ambush site. When he returned, he found nine men in the contingent wounded. The entire escort was cited for bravery, while Brown and Mays were presented the Medal of Honor for their valor. Their assailants, however, made off with the money and were never brought to justice.
This devotion to duty exhibited by Brown, Mays and their comrades came in part from pride in the uniform and loyalty to comrades. And such outstanding examples of bravery were one reason why black infantrymen assumed the nickname ‘buffalo soldiers’ (which originated with the Plains Indians as a term of respect). As one writer said, ‘So proudly was the name carried, that the infantrymen adopted what the horse soldiers had won.’ (See ‘Buffalo Soldiers Won Their Spurs,’ Wild West February 1995 for additional details.) Indeed, given their fine record, it seems that the black walk-a-heaps more than deserved to share this name with black cavalrymen as these ‘common’ soldiers helped change the face of the West in the late 1800s.
This article was written by John P. Langellier and originally published in the February 1997 issue of Wild West Magazine.
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