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Then the U.S. 369th Infantry Regiment landed in France early in 1918, no division in the American Expeditionary Force wanted it, because its soldiers were black. Eventually the commanding general of the AEF, John J. Pershing, sloughed off the unit to the French Fourth Army. The 369th’s commander, Colonel William Hayward, told a friend, “Our great American general simply put the black orphan in a basket, set it on the doorstep of the French, pulled the bell and went away.”

The French, accustomed to troops from their African colonies, welcomed the reinforcements, and the 369th–and three other black regiments that were similarly assigned–fought for them with distinction. While the AEF frowned on distributing medals to its black troops, the French issued a unit Croix de Guerre to three regiments and one company.

Black Americans have fought and died in defense of their country since 1770, when Crispus Attucks, a runaway slave, was killed during the Boston Massacre. Yet, as Gerald Astor explains in his exhaustive, thoroughly documented and highly readable history of blacks in the U.S. armed forces, The Right to Fight (Presidio Press, Novato, Calif., 1998, $29.95), they have faced a long uphill struggle to participate in that fundamental obligation of citizenship.

For more than a century and a half, black servicemen were regarded as unsuited for combat and were formally relegated to menial jobs such as laborers and stevedores in the Army and mess stewards in the Navy. And yet, as the author shows in his detailed narrative, some 5,000 blacks served in the American Revolution, at least 3,000 in the War of 1812, 200,000 during the Civil War and 10,000 in the Spanish-American War. Between 1865 and 1898, “buffalo soldiers” of the 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments endured grueling campaigns on the frontier, and 16 of them received the Medal of Honor.

When World War II broke out, Secretary of the Navy Frank Knox resisted hesitant suggestions from President Franklin D. Roosevelt to integrate the fleet. Major General Thomas Holcomb, commandant of the Marine Corps, declared, “If it were a question of having a Marine Corps of 5,000 whites or 250,000 Negroes, I would rather have the whites.” Although Holcomb issued directives to recruit qualified “colored male citizens of the United States between the ages of 17 and 29, inclusive, for service in a combat organization,” a few months later only a few hundred of the blacks who volunteered were serving in combat units.

As attrition took its toll on the U.S. Army’s ranks in 1944, General Dwight D. Eisenhower authorized the recruitment of volunteers from rear-echelon units, including blacks. “They would go anywhere their leaders would take them,” said Brig. Gen. H.T. Mayberry, assistant commander of the 99th Infantry Division. “We thought they fought very well.” Serving in the Third Army, the 761st Tank Battalion earned grudging praise from General George S. Patton Jr.: “Individually, they were good soldiers, but I expressed my belief at that time [when the unit joined the army], and have never found the necessity of changing it, that colored soldiers cannot think fast enough to fight in armor.”

Although racist attitudes continued to infect the U.S. armed forces through the Korean and Vietnam wars–and, to some extent, still do–official integration came through an executive order issued by President Harry S. Truman on July 26, 1948. In spite of his own prejudices, Truman explained, “I am not asking for social equality, because no such thing exists, but I am asking for equality of opportunity for all human beings, and as long as I stay here, I am going to continue the fight.”

It has been a long and bitter struggle for America’s black soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, and this poignant chronicle traces it with honesty and clarity.