Racial Segregation in the U.S. Military

The War for Independence

People of African descent have participated in every U.S. war. Indeed, black Revolutionaries served before the colonies became a nation, in the War for Independence. African-American slaves and freemen eventually served on both sides in that conflict. Some 5,000 black soldiers in both northern and southern colonies are estimated to have served shoulder to shoulder with white counterparts in the Continental Army. At least 20,000 blacks served with the British.

Blacks served in northern militias at the outset, but were forbidden to in the South, because slavers feared the arming of slaves. Lord Dunmore, Royal Governor of Virginia, changed that by issuing an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, which granted freedom to runaways who would fight for the British. Sir Henry Clinton, British commander in New York, issued a similar edict in 1779.

More than 100,000 slaves escaped to British lines, but probably only a thousand served with arms. Numerous others filled non-combat roles. More than half of the black soldiers in British forces died of smallpox. Still more were driven out when food ran low. The majority were never granted freedom.*

Owing to manpower shortages, General George Washington lifted a ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. Many slaves served in their masters` stead. Another black unit arrived from Haiti with French forces. Black volunteers served with South Carolina guerrilla units -- including those of "Swamp Fox" Francis Marion -- sometimes comprising half of his troop strength. Black fighters carried on after many of their white counterparts were felled by malaria. The former were immune to that disease, however, thanks to sickle-shaped cells in their bloodstreams.

The War of 1812

Owing to a chronic manpower shortage during the War of 1812, 25 percent of naval squadrons were manned by African-American recruits during the Battle of Lake Erie. However, a 1792 law prohibiting black enlistment in the army existed until 1862.

Prominent 19th-century African Americans, including civil-rights leaders Frederick Douglass and W.E.B. DuBois, encouraged fellow blacks to enlist in the military to demonstrate bravery and loyalty, and raise their standing in American society.

Mexican War

During the Mexican War, many African-American soldiers served as officers` servants. Soldiers from the Louisiana Battalion of Free Men participated. African Americans also served on naval vessels.

The Civil War

Usually assigned to white-led, non-combat labor units, African-American soldiers nevertheless volunteered for combat and medical field duties. Freemen and runaways signed up on the Union side. More than 186,000 African Americans served, comprising 163 units. Many more served in the Union Navy.

The 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry Regiment became famous. One of its first black units, composed of freed black slaves from the Northern states, earned fame on July 18, 1863 in the Battle of Battery Wagner, a Confederate fort on an island near Charleston, South Carolina. Although an unsuccessful Union attack sustained heavy casualties, Company C managed to capture a section of the fort. Unit leader Colonel Robert Gould Shaw was killed. The sergeant bearing the colors also was hit, but Sergeant William H. Carney retrieved the flag. After being ordered to retreat, Carney bore the flag while facing heavy fire and led the remaining men to a parapet where he planted it before falling back. He was wounded twice, but survived to be the first black soldier to be presented the Medal of Honor (May 23, 1900).

On the Confederate side, freemen and slaves served in labor gangs. Whether or not to arm them was subject to much debate. On March 13, 1865, the Confederate congress enacted a statute to allow African-American enlistment, but few were recruited.

Indian Wars

From the 1870s to 1900s, African-American units were deployed to fight Native Americans. The Congress had authorized creation of segregated African-American regiments for the postwar army, under the command of white officers**: the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 38th through 41st Infantry Regiments. They were mainly stationed in the Southwest and Great Plains to construct forts and keep order on a frontier rife with outlaws and occupied by Native Americans battling land-grabbers. The black cavalry units were known as "Buffalo Soldiers". The troops were so called by the Cheyenne for their dark skin and hair, as well as battle ability.

Eventually, the regiments merged into the 4th Cavalry Brigade, led by the Army`s first black general, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. The brigade existed for three years before all horse-cavalry regiments were disbanded.

Thirteen enlistees and six officers from the four regiments earned the Medal of Honor during the Indian Wars. Buffalo Soldiers also served in non-combat roles.

Spanish-American War

Buffalo Soldiers also participated in the Spanish-American War and guarded the Mexican border. Both cavalry regiments fought on the island of Cuba, which included action on San Juan Hill.

John J. Pershing versus Pancho Villa

The 10th Cavalry Regiment served under J.J. Pershing against Mexican revolutionary Pancho Villa in 1916. During that punitive expedition and the Philippine-American war, five more Medals of Honor were earned by African Americans.

World War I

African Americans remained segregated throughout this war. Many blacks still volunteered. More than 350,000 African Americans served in the American Expeditionary Force on the western front. Most black units were relegated to non-combat roles.

However, the 369th Infantry "Hell Fighters from Harlem" served six months longer than any other unit. They won fame for bravery and competence in combat, being awarded the Croix de Guerre by the French allies.

One hundred seventy-one soldiers earned Legion of Merit medals. The only Medal of Honor awarded to a black soldier was presented posthumously to Freddie Stowers of the 371st Infantry Regiment on April 24, 1991.

World War II

As World War II loomed, the U.S. opposed fascist regimes and their racist ideology, yet an estimated 10 percent of African-American citizens lacked basic civil rights and opportunities. However, two and a half-million black men registered for the draft. More than one million would serve in all branches, including 125,000 overseas. In addition, thousands of African-American women volunteered to become combat nurses.

During Pearl Harbor attack, one Doris Miller, a Navy mess attendant, manned and fired (untrained) an anti-aircraft gun at Japanese aircraft, which earned him the first Navy Cross of the attack.

African-Americans put pressure on the U.S. government for racial equality in the armed forces. The NAACP, Urban League, and other organizations successfully appealed to the White House and military to integrate officer candidate schools and expand opportunities for black units.

In a partial response, the government created an all-black military aviation program at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, but were criticized by African-Americans for continued segregation. Nevertheless, from 1942 to 1946 nearly 1,000 African-American fighter and bomber pilots trained at the segregated Tuskegee (Ala.) Army Air Field and 450 served overseas.

In May 1943, Tuskegee-trained pilots were sent to North Africa to join the Allies. They were led by then Captain Benjamin O. Davis Jr. They flew more than 150,000 sorties over North Africa, the Mediterranean, and Europe. They escorted Allied bombers while destroying more than 250 enemy aircraft in the air and another 150 on the ground. Accomplishments by the 99th Fighter Squadron, especially in collaboration with the all-white 79th Fighter Group in October 1943, helped set the stage for the integration of the Air Force.

The Tuskegee Airmen distinguished themselves by becoming the only fighter escort to never lose a bomber to enemy action. On March 29, 2007, the Tuskegee airmen received the Congressional Gold Medal at the Smithsonian Institution, the highest honor the Congress bestows upon civilians. Many Tuskegee vets made the trip to Washington, D.C. for the ceremony. President Bush and Secretary of State Powell contributed remarks. The president acknowledged the veterans for their service in the face of innumerable racial insults. The unit`s history remained largely unknown, but a 1995 movie, Tuskegee Airmen, did much to popularize their exploits.

Near the war`s end (1944-45) the military began to experiment with integrated units to meet manpower shortages during the Battle of the Bulge. Eighty percent of white officers surveyed reported that black soldiers had performed "very well" in combat; 69 percent saw no reason why African-American infantrymen should not perform as well with the same training and experience.

The president acts

In the States, however, racism persisted. When returning African-American vets became victims of violence in South Carolina and Georgia, President Harry S. Truman sent a package of civil-rights reforms to Congress, and as commander in chief, he ordered desegregation of the armed forces.

By the end of the Korean War (1953), the military was nearly desegregated, including base schools and buses.


*Presently, descendants of black Loyalists live in Canada. **Exception: Henry O. Flipper.

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