Veterans Day was November 11, though it’s being observed as a federal holiday today. This is a good opportunity to take a closer look at the legacy of African American military service with a mix of new and classic links. We have focused on a just a few of America’s conflicts — without forgetting that Black men and women have been part of the country’s military forces since a time before our country even existed! As always, the editorial team here at the Legacies blog encourages you to share the post with friends, students, colleagues, etc. A link does not imply agreement or endorsement by the Council of Independent Colleges.
The Civil War and the Lost Cause
- Davis Winkie, “With Eisenhower renaming, Army’s 100+ years honoring Confederates ends,” Army Times (October 27, 2023): LINK. The final U.S. military base honoring a Confederate soldier — Fort John Brown Gordon, named for an enslaver, Redeemer politician, and postbellum leader of the KKK in Georgia — has been renamed for American hero Dwight D. Eisenhower. This was the last in a series of military installations across the South that were renamed following the recommendations of a Naming Commission.
- Joe Lacdan, “Army honors female combat pioneer, renowned abolitionist,” US Army (August 25, 2023): LINK. Earlier this year, the U.S. Army recognized Harriet Tubman as the first woman to lead a combat regiment (during a Civil War raid): “she knew the field, knew the environment, and knew what was happening in the world where she conducted her operations.”
- Daniel Kool, “Man who escaped slavery and became Navy veteran honored with statue,” The Boston Globe (May 28, 2023): LINK. William Benjamin Gould, who escaped to freedom from Wilmington, NC, in 1862, enlisted in the U.S. Navy, serving for the remainder of the Civil War. A statue honoring his legacy was unveiled this summer in Dedham, N.C. (More than 18,000 African Americans served in the U.S. Navy during the Civil War — including Robert Smalls, who famously escaped from slavery in Charleston on a ship he “commandeered” from the Confederate navy.)
- Christopher John Einolf, “US Army Maj. Gen. George H. Thomas’ journey from enslaver to Union officer to civil rights defender,” The Conversation (May 31, 2023): LINK. Like John B. Gordon, George H. Thomas was born into a wealthy family of Southern enslavers. Unlike many Southern-born officers, he honored his oath to the Constitution and remained in the U.S. Army at the start of the Civil War. Thomas went on to command thousands of African American soldiers and later helped protect the rights of freed people against the KKK and other abusers.
World War I
- Richard Goldenberg, “African-American Troops Fought to Fight in World War I,” The United States Department of Defense (February 1, 2018): LINK. “More than 380,000 African-Americans served in the Army during World War I…. About 200,000 were sent to Europe. But more than half of those who deployed were assigned to labor and stevedore battalions.”
- “Firsthand Accounts from Black Soldiers in WWI,” The National World War I Museum and Memorial: LINK. “In these interviews recorded in 1980, [three veterans] give voice to the African American experience in World War I. They reflect on their treatment by white American soldiers and French civilians; their feelings about their American citizenship and participation in the war; and their work before, during and after the war.”
- Blake Stilwell, “‘Red Summer 1919’: A Vietnam Veteran Composed a Powerful Opera to Honor Black Veterans of World War I,” Military.com (October 24, 2023): LINK. J. Kimo Williams, a Vietnam veteran, pays homage to the Black soldiers who returned from World War I and then had to protect themselves from a wave of violent race riots in 1919. “Red Summer 1919: An Instrumental Opera” is a musical interpretation of the African American experience at home and abroad.
World War II and the Integration of the Armed Forces
- Matthew F. Delmont, “Pearl Harbor was the site of Black heroism and protests against racism,” The Washington Post (December 7, 2022): LINK. Julius Ellsberry was a Black mess attendant killed during the attack on Pearl Harbor. The author uses Ellsberry’s story to trace the larger story of African American sailors in World War II — who helped push the Navy to desegregate the service in 1946, two years before President Truman’s desegregation of the rest of the armed forces. (Also see Delmont’s 2022 book about the mistreatment of Black servicemen, Half American.)
- Candace Cunningham, “Police Violence Against Black WWII Veterans,” Black Perspectives (November 9, 2023): LINK. “Black servicemen encountered explicit forms of racism during their time in the military. They were segregated into different barracks and recreation facilities, and they faced racial epithets and threats of violence on and off military bases.”
- Christine Knauer, “‘With a Stroke of a Pen’: Executive Order 9981 in American Memory,” History & Memory 35:2 (Fall/Winter 2023): https://doi.org/10.2979/ham.2023.a906480. “[In 1948,] President Harry Truman … issued Executive Order 9981 which, according to public memory, ended racial segregation in the American military ‘with a stroke of a pen.’ This article takes a closer look at how Truman’s federal directive has been remembered and commemorated since its passage. By analyzing newspaper articles and speeches, it reveals the exclusion of Black activism as well as the overemphasis on presidential leadership and resolve.”
- Deepa Fernandes and Ashley Locke, “‘Now, we have Black generals’: Montford Point Marine shares his experience with racial segregation,” WBUR (February 8, 2023): LINK. An interview with 95-year-old Marine Corps veteran William “Jack” McDowell. McDowell was part of the first wave of African Americans allowed to enlist in the USMC (in 1942!), who were trained at a segregated base in Montford Point, NC.
- Michele L. Norris, “The U.S. Military integrated 75 years ago. Apologies are still in order,” The Washington Post (July 25, 2023): LINK. A personal reflection on the 75th anniversary of the desegregation of the military by former NPR journalist and host Norris (now an opinion writer for the Washington Post). “My father was part of a generation of Black, Brown, Asian and Native Americans fighting a war on multiple fronts — facing not only our enemies overseas but also racism at home and in their ranks.”
- John Nagl and Charles D. Allen, “A More Perfect Union: Black Soldiers and the Promise of America,” The National Defense University Press (April 2023): LINK. “[This article] highlights the challenges, progress, and ever-present threats of regression encountered along the path of service … the Army is among the first institutions to seek greater service and sacrifice from African Americans and in return to promise greater equality. But once the crisis passes, the Army has often been slow to serve as an engine of racial equality.”