Throughout U.S. history, Black Americans have fought on behalf of a nation that enslaved, terrorized and discriminated against them. Before Emancipation, many fought for the chance to earn their personal freedom. Later, many fought to show that their sacrifice and dedication warranted first-class citizenship, with equal rights.
Military leaders practiced discrimination throughout America's wars. Before Emancipation, generals were loathe to put firearms in the hands of the enslaved and formerly enslaved, lest that spark reprisals and uprisings. From the nation's beginning, they expressed doubt that Black soldiers had the mental capacity, discipline or fortitude to fight. As a result, Black troops were relegated to menial support duties like digging trenches, handling food or carting supplies. It was usually only when troop numbers lagged that generals allowed Black battalions to fight. And when they did, they often received the most dangerous assignments and fought for longer stretches than other units. And they did so in segregated conditions, until 1948, when President Harry Truman ended segregation in the nation's military.
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Throughout America's wars, Black soldiers have proved their dedication, discipline and valor time and time again. Here are some of their stories:
During the American Revolution, thousands of Black Americans fought—on both sides of the conflict. But unlike their white counterparts, they weren’t just fighting for the colony's independence, or to maintain British control. Most took up arms hoping to be freed from the literal shackles of slavery. Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 African-descended people participated in the Revolution on the Patriot side, and that upward of 20,000 served the crown. Many fought with extraordinary bravery and skill, despite being untrusted to bear arms. Others worked as spies or lifted their voices to the cause of liberty...
As America’s Civil War raged, with the enslavement of millions of people hanging in the balance, African Americans didn’t just sit on the sidelines. Whether enslaved, escaped or born free, many sought to actively affect the outcome.
From fighting on bloody battlefields to espionage behind enemy lines; from daring escapes to political maneuvering; from saving wounded soldiers to teaching them how to read, these six African Americans fought courageously to abolish slavery and discrimination. In their own way, each changed the course of American history...
World War I
Like many veterans of the killing fields of World War I, Horace Pippin had a tough time shaking off the memories. So in the decade after the war he captured them, and tamed them, inside sketch-filled composition books, filling page after page with his tidy handwriting. The spelling and grammar are often makeshift. The humble drawings are rendered in pencil and crayon. But the stories—even in Pippin’s muted, matter-of-fact telling—offer a rare first-person account of the harrowing combat experience of the Harlem Hellfighters, the most celebrated U.S. regiment of African American soldiers during WWI.
He had plenty of stories to tell: There was the terrified young recruit who hauntingly foresaw his own death. The foul trenches, with their unending soundtrack of screaming artillery shells and staccato machine-gun fire. The gas clouds suddenly appeared from the sky. The forays across fields littered with wounded and dead. And the trauma of being hit by a German sniper and then pinned in a foxhole, bleeding out...
World War II
As the first Black aviators to serve in the U.S. Army Air Corps, the Tuskegee Airmen broke through a massive segregation barrier in the American military. Their success and heroism during World War II, fighting Germans in the skies over Europe, shattered pervasive stereotypes that African Americans had neither the character nor the aptitude for combat. And their achievements laid crucial groundwork for civil rights progress in the decades to come...
World War II Women
Rosie the Riveter—the steely-eyed World War II heroine with her red bandanna, blue coveralls and flexed bicep—stands as one of America’s most indelible military images. The image has come to represent the steadfast American working woman, embodying millions of female laborers who kept the factories and offices of the U.S. defense industries humming. But what the iconic "Rosie" image doesn’t convey is the diversity of that workforce—specifically the more than half-million “Black Rosies” who worked alongside their white counterparts in the war effort.
Coming from throughout the United States, often as part of the Great Migration, “Black Rosies” worked tirelessly to fight both the foreign enemy of authoritarianism abroad and the familiar enemy of racism at home. Leaving behind dead-end, often demeaning work as domestics and sharecroppers, Black Rosies took on new roles in the economy, in service of the war effort. They worked in factories as sheet metal workers and munitions and explosive assemblers; in navy yards as shipbuilders and along assembly lines as electricians. They were administrators, welders, railroad conductors and more. For decades, they received little historical recognition or acknowledgment...