Compiled by Carrie McLeroy
Army News Service
Throughout the nation’s history, African-Americans have served in uniform with honor and distinction during times of war and peace.
As a result of their sacrifices and intrepid spirits, today’s highly capable and mission-ready Army leverages the strength of a diverse, all-volunteer force that includes more than 103,000 African-American Soldiers.
In recognition of African-American History Month, here’s a look back at those brave Soldiers who broke barriers, saved lives and paved the way for today’s force.
• James Armistead Lafayette
Born into slavery, Lafayette served on behalf of the Continental Army during the Revolutionary War as a double agent. The trust he earned from British Gen. Charles Cornwallis and Benedict Arnold allowed him to gain access and pass information that would lead to an American victory at the Battle of Yorktown.
Despite his bravery in service, as a slave-spy, he wasn’t eligible for emancipation under the Act of 1783 for slave-Soldiers. However, with the help of the Marquis de Lafayette, who was his commander during the war, he petitioned for his freedom, which was granted in 1787.
• Sgt. William Carney
After being shot in the thigh during the assault on Fort Wagner, South Carolina, July 18, 1863, Sgt. Carney crawled uphill on his knees bearing the Union flag, inspiring his fellow Soldiers to follow and never allowing the flag to touch the ground.
Although severely wounded, Carney would survive the war and finally receive the Medal of Honor, May 23, 1900. While he wasn’t the first African-American to receive the medal (Robert Blake, a Sailor, was presented the medal in 1864), his actions were the earliest to merit the nation’s highest military medal for valor.
By the end of the Civil War, about 180,000 African-American men had served in the U.S. Army – 10 percent of the total Union fighting force. About 90,000 of them were former slaves from the Confederate states. Forty thousand African-American Soldiers died in the war: 10,000 in battle and 30,000 from illness or infection.
• Cathay Williams
Williams was the first African-American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army, and the only one documented to serve posing as a
man. She enlisted under the pseudonym William Cathay in 1866 and was given a medical discharge in 1868.
• Col. Charles Young
Col. Young was the third African-American to graduate and receive a commission as a second lieutenant from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in 1889. He was the last to do so until Benjamin O. Davis Jr. in 1936, and the first to advance to the rank of colonel in the regular Army.
In addition to assignments with the 9th and 10th Cavalry as a platoon leader and troop commander, Young commanded an all-black squadron of volunteer cavalry during the Spanish-American War, and 2nd Squadron of the 10th U.S. Cavalry during the Mexican Expedition of 1916-17. After his promotion to colonel, he commanded Camp Grant, where he supervised the training of African-American recruits during World War I.
In the course of his distinguished career, he also served as a park superintendent when the Army administered national parks, a professor of military science at Wilberforce University in Ohio, and a military attaché at different times to Haiti, and twice to Liberia.
He passed away of natural causes at Legos, Nigeria, in 1923. After his remains were repatriated to the United States, he was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
• The Harlem Hellfighters
The 369th Infantry Regiment, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” was the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. The regiment served on the front lines for 191 days, longer than any other American unit in the war, and was the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany. In all that time, the unit never lost a
prisoner or gave up any ground it captured.
• Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
While many know that Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African-American general officer in the U.S. military in 1940, his family’s military legacy didn’t end with him. His son, famed Tuskegee Airman Benjamin O. Davis Jr., was the fourth African-American to graduate from West Point and the first to attain general officer rank in the U.S. Air Force.
• Freddie Stowers, Henry Johnson
As a result of racial discrimination, not a single African-American Soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I or World War II. It wasn’t until 1991 that Stowers would be posthumously awarded the medal – 73 years after he was killed in action while leading an assault on German trenches in World War I.
In 2015, Johnson would receive the Medal of Honor, 85 years after his death, for his heroic actions fighting against a German raiding party during that same war.
• Vernon Baker
In 1993, after an exhaustive review of records, seven African-Americans would receive Medals of Honor for their actions during World War II. Baker was the only living recipient, as the six other Soldiers were killed in action or died in the more than 50 years since the war ended.
• The 761st Tank Battalion
During World War II, the 761st Tank Battalion became the first African-American tank unit to go into battle. Its Soldiers would earn 11 Silver Stars, 69 Bronze Stars, about 300 Purple Hearts and, eventually, a Medal of Honor.
• The 555th Parachute Infantry
Not only were the members of the 555th Parachute Infantry the U.S. Army’s first African-American paratroopers, they were some of the nation’s first airborne firefighters.
The Soldiers were detailed to the U.S. Forest Service in 1945 as part of Operation Firefly, which was a joint military-civilian effort to combat wildfire threats from Japanese incendiary bombs that landed from Canada to Mexico and as far east as Idaho.
During Operation Firefly, the 555th had 36 fire missions, which include 1,200 individual jumps.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which declared “that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin.” This order would bring an end to racial segregation in the U.S. military.
• Sgt. Cornelius Charlton, Pfc. William Henry Thompson
The Korean War was both the last armed conflict to see segregated units, and the first since the Revolutionary War to see African-American and white Soldiers fighting side-by-side in the same units.
Only two African-American Soldiers would receive the Medal of Honor for action in the Korean War. Both Soldiers served with the 24th Infantry Regiment, one of the last remaining segregated regiments.
Sgt. Cornelius Charlton and Pfc. William Henry Thompson were both killed in action.
(Editor’s note: The information for this article was sourced from various documents provided by the U.S. National Archives, Army Historical Foundation, U.S. Army Center of Military History, the U.S. Vietnam War Commemoration and the U.S. Army Heritage and Education Center.)