Every war produces its heroes, but the heroic African American men and women who helped carry America to victories have too often been forgotten. In this issue of History Now scholars and journalists join together to add black Americans to the narratives of the American Revolution, World War I, World War II, and the war in Iraq. In the pages that follow, you will be introduced to men like Cuff Whittenmore, who fought at the battle of Bunker and Breed Hill; to Neadom Roberts, who repelled a German raiding party in war-torn France in WWI; to Private Henry Johnson of the Harlem Hellfighters in WWI; to Vernon Baker of the 92nd Division in WWII; to Waverly Woodson, the medic who saved the lives of perhaps 300 soldiers during the Omaha Beach landing; to Charity Adams Earley of the Women’s Army Corps in WWII; and to Maurice Decaul, who shares with us his insights into his years in the Marine Corps and his service in Iraq. You will also meet the home-front heroines, the women who contributed to the war effort even though racial discrimination consigned them to menial, often dangerous, and always low-paying work, and the women like Maria Coles Lawton who fought the home-front battle to end that discrimination. Learning about these women and men, and the thousands of other African Americans who fought for our country—and within our country for equality—will bring new depth to our reading of America in war time.
In “African Americans in the Revolutionary War,” Michael Lee Lanning reminds us how resistant slaveholding military leaders like George Washington were to recruiting black soldiers in the struggle for independence. Only dire necessity drove the General to allow free black men to wear the uniform. Naval commanders proved far more liberal and French regiments, allies in the war, also welcomed black troops. The British not only allowed African Americans to join their armies; they recruited the enslaved to fight on their side. Nevertheless, British commanders usually relegated black recruits to back-breaking physical labor or to service jobs as wagon masters or cooks. At war’s end, black veterans on both sides were given their freedom and several northern states abolished slavery.
In his essay, “Harlem’s Rattlers: African American Regiment of the New York National Guard in World War I,” Jeffrey Sammons recounts the struggle by New York men of color to participate in World War I. It was not until 1913, after a fierce campaign led by two major black organizations, that the New York legislature finally agreed to allow black men into the National Guard. And it was not until 1916 that such a regiment came into existence. Like black recruits in the British army during the Revolution, and like many black soldiers during the Civil War, the 15th Regiment of the NY National Guard was segregated and assigned to physical labor, building roads and unloading ships. But when the French pleaded for American combat troops, black infantrymen were given the opportunity to fight. The black regiment was on the front 191 days, longer than any other American unit, and, as Sammons notes, it “never lost a foot of ground it had taken or a single man to capture.” During four major battles, these Americans received numerous medals for bravery. Back home, the Women’s Auxiliary of the 15th Regiment mobilized to send food, clothing and money to the families of these black soldiers—and fought their own battles for racial equality.
Maurice Jackson provides another look at the black soldiers of WWI, in his essay “Fighting for Democracy in World War I—Overseas and Over Here.” More than a month before President Wilson declared war, the First Separate Battalion (Colored) of the Washington, DC National Guard was mustered into service. Soon afterward, despite protests by white Congressmen, four regiments were created under the 93rd Infantry division. Again, only 11% of all black draftees were allowed to see combat, most of them in the two infantry divisions, the 92nd and the 93rd. Those who fought with the French, Jackson confirms, were recognized for their bravery; in addition, as Jackson notes, for many of these soldiers “the French experience became decisive in the development of a new sense of solidarity.”
In “Fighting against the Odds: Black Soldiers in the Second World War,” John H. Morrow, Jr., notes that “race trumped rank in the US Army.” No black soldier could command a white one; all black units had white commanders. And, once again, the majority of the black soldiers worked in noncombat positions, building roads and airfields. There were, however, a small number of combat divisions, including three tank battalions that fought in northern Europe and Italy. The “fifth platoons” of black soldiers, created by Eisenhower in 1944–1945, were given the chance to fight alongside companies of white soldiers. Although this “experiment” was successful, the fifth platoons were eliminated once the war ended. Although the US Air Force desegregated its forces, it would not be until the Korean War that the other branches of the military finally integrated.
In “Glory on D-Day: African American Heroism on the Beaches of Normandy,” Linda Hervieux takes a deeper look into the reluctance of the American government to honor black military heroes appropriately and the failure of American history books to remember their contributions. For example, Waverly Woodson, who saved the lives of so many soldiers landing on Omaha Beach, is absent from the accounts of D-Day that fill our books and movies. Woodson’s commanding officer only saw fit to nominate him for the second highest award, the Distinguished Service Cross. Although a general changed the recommendation to a Medal of Honor, neither Woodson nor any other African American was awarded this honor. In the end, all Woodson received was the fourth place Bronze Star. It was not until 1997 that President Bill Clinton awarded seven Medals of Honor to black veterans. Woodson did not live to receive his.
Maureen Honey looks at the contributions of African American women on the home front in “African American Women in World War II.” Labor shortages brought both white and black women into wartime production, but, as Honey shows, race discrimination in the defense industries and civil service jobs kept black women out of the unionized, better paying positions. Black women were barred from such occupations as telephone operator and clerical worker, and, when they did find work in factories and plants, “hate strikes” by white workers erupted. While white “Rosie the Riveters” built airplanes and tanks, 44 percent of black women remained in domestic service. There were, however, some breakthroughs: the federal government in Washington DC hired black women as clerical workers. And the popular image of black women improved as stars like Lena Horne and Dorothy Dandridge appeared on the silver screen. The Double Victory Campaign—winning the war in Europe and the war against racial discrimination at home—that arose during WWII laid the groundwork for the civil rights movement of the 1950s.
In our final essay, “On My Way to War in Iraq,” Maurice Decaul recalls his experience as a modern-day soldier. He recounts how he met his Marine corps recruiter, and reflects on their shared experiences as Caribbean immigrants. He points out that the Marines insisted on a color-blind atmosphere; we were, he says, all “green,” even if we were different shades of green. But it is Decaul’s observations on the perception of Americans by others that is most compelling. A Vietnamese Marine—whose country had been invaded and dominated by the French, the Japanese, and the Americans, but had in the end won its independence—reminded him that together, as Americans, black and white soldiers had invaded his country. Iraqis, too, Decaul tells us, saw us all as Americans. He is left to ponder how his own racial and ethnic identity influenced his actions in Iraq.
As we do with every issue of History Now, we offer an informative interactive feature. To accompany the essays, we have put together a state-of-the-art illustrated timeline entitled “African Americans in the US Military: From the Revolution to the World Wars.” And, as always, teachers will find lesson plans on the topic.
With Veterans Day coming up on November 11, we hope that this issue of History Now will provide you with new and interesting material for your classroom.