Did you know that Harriet Tubman was not only a Union spy during the Civil War, but that she also led raids and missions? Black contributions to American military history are continually downplayed or overlooked entirely. From Crispus Attucks, the first colonist killed in the American Revolution, to Gen. Lloyd Austin, recently confirmed as the first Black secretary of defense, African Americans have played a central role in military history. Today’s Daily Dose, in honor of Black History Month, dives into the hidden stories we all should know.
Isabelle Lee, Reporter
1. 54th Massachusetts Infantry
While most of the men who served in this all-Black unit did not originally hail from Massachusetts, they traveled there to enlist to fight the Confederates nonetheless after Gov. John A. Andrew put out the first call for Black soldiers following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863. While their first siege was a disaster and almost half of the unit was killed, they became a formidable force during the rest of the war. A memorial now stands on Boston Common to commemorate the bravery of the regiment — which included two of Frederick Douglass’ sons — and their white commander, who was killed in their first raid.
2. Buffalo Soldiers
After the Civil War, six all-Black regiments were sent to the western frontier and became known as the buffalo soldiers. (The name may have derived from Native Americans comparing their curly hair to a buffalo’s fur.) These troops were on the front lines of American westward expansion, tasked with protecting railroad lines and settlers, and earned 18 medals of honor for their service during the Indian Wars. Though they were continually discriminated against — they weren’t allowed to serve back East for fear of violent pushback from white citizens — the buffalo soldiers had the lowest desertion rates of any regiment in the Army.
3. Harlem Hellfighters
The first Americans to receive the French Croix de Guerre were Privates Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts for their heroics against 24 German raiders in World War I. They belonged to the 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. Most of its members were from Harlem, and the regiment’s band was credited with introducing jazz to France. They served under the command of the French army, battling the Germans on the front lines longer than almost any other American unit. They even earned a parade down Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue at the end of the war.
4. Balloon Battalion
Take a closer look at the familiar images of D-Day when the Americans stormed the beaches of Normandy, and you might notice something unusual: balloons. Barrage balloons were anti-aircraft floats manned by the first Black regiment to storm Normandy’s beaches. Three men would keep a balloon’s cables tethered and adjust its altitude, forcing enemy aircraft to fly higher to stay above them. That made enemy planes less accurate, protecting the troops on the ground.
5. The Forgotten Theater
Many of the Black Americans who served in World War II did so in the often overlooked China-Burma-India theater, the goal of which was to fight Japanese troops on a new front in addition to the Pacific theater. Thousands of Black men were assigned to build a critical road connecting those three countries, and though road construction might seem a pleasant way to spend a war, they had to fend off leopard and tiger attacks. One regiment was so deep in the Burmese jungle that it didn’t learn about the end of the war until two months later.
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During the War of 1812, British Rear Adm. Sir Alexander Cochrane had a clever idea as he attacked the United States along the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. He offered freedom in any British territory for enslaved people who joined the fight on the side of the redcoats, and some 400 Black Americans joined in. It spooked the American side enough that Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson — who would go on to become president — made a similar offer and ended up recruiting about 500 Black volunteers. After the U.S. won the war, the Brits followed through on their offers of freedom, while Jackson and the Americans did not.
Duringthe Civil War, Black soldiers faced hazardous conditions if they were captured and endured racism even within the Union Army. In total, 180,000 Black soldiers fought in the Civil War, and in the last year of the war they were paid the same as white soldiers — even as they died of disease at far higher rates. Black veterans were also attacked and lynched, their contributions erased by Jim Crow-era policies.
After World War II, the U.S. passed the GI Bill to help veterans get back on their feet. But the benefits included in the bill didn’t extend to Black veterans. While the bill didn’t explicitly exclude them, its policies collided with segregation to prevent Black vets from accessing housing benefits in particular. Many were either blocked from living in specific neighborhoods or barred from obtaining loans, a practice known as redlining. Among the most compelling ideas as a first step toward reparations is an initiative to extend GI Bill benefits to the descendants of Black World War II veterans.
4. Fight to Integrate
When President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order officially desegregating the military in 1948, two years before the Korean War began, most generals just ignored it. It wasn’t until the end of the war that differences in how white and Black soldiers were treated started to become less stark, though they have never gone away entirely. Many “integrated” units were just all Black with white commanders. It’s one example of what we see time and again over the years with racial discrimination in America: the disconnect between policy on a page and what happens in real life.
5. Attacked Instead of Honored
The Equal Justice Initiative’s 2017 report exposed an often overlooked reality that Black veterans were especially at risk of being lynched. The idea that military service had empowered Black veterans fired up white supremacists, many of whom believed that Black people, having defended the country’s values, would demand that liberty and justice for all be extended to them. Coming to grips with the particular terror Black vets faced over decades is critical to the task of moving forward.
6. Missing at the Top
Though 43 percent of people serving in the military are people of color, you wouldn’t know it from a glance at military leadership. As of last year, just two of the 41 most senior commanders were Black. Because the military was only meaningfully integrated 73 years ago, Black service members often don’t benefit from multigenerational service histories in their families. Black service members are discouraged from pursuing higher positions or passed over for promotions. Gen. Lloyd Austin’s ascent to lead the Pentagon is a good start, but it will take a more systematic approach to promoting and supporting service members to bring equity to the brass.
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Best known for her superhuman heroism along the Underground Railroad, Tubman also served as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War. Starting as a nurse, then as a scout, she helped plan the Combahee River Raid, which saved 750 slaves and laid waste to several prominent South Carolina slave owners’ estates along the way. While the men in charge kept her name out of military documents and took credit for the successes she fostered, efforts in Congress decades later made sure the truth would not be erased.
2. Charity Adams Earley
Earley helmed the first unit of Black women to serve overseas in World War II. Her unit was tasked with clearing the backlog of mail for soldiers that had accumulated at various outposts. Mail delivery helped boost morale among troops who yearned for word from home. Earley was the first Black woman to be an officer in the Army’s women’s section, the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps. While serving, she pushed for her unit members to stay in integrated hotels, hoping to ease the tensions of racism.
He left his native South Carolina at age 16 to travel the world on a merchant ship and ended up serving in a buffalo soldier unit during World War I. McKaine made lieutenant and found better treatment in France, which opened his eyes to a brighter future for African Americans back home. He returned and became a civil rights activist. McKaine ended up mounting a historic — though unsuccessful — bid for the U.S. Senate in 1944 as part of a Black-led splinter challenge to the Democratic Party.
FormerSpc. Bryce J. Celotto, now an LGBTQ advocate and educator, was forced out of the Army by President Donald Trump’s transgender military ban. Celotto joined the Army National Guard to honor his grandfather, a World War II veteran. His career was cut short when the ban made it impossible for him to advance in the service and transition. He founded Swarm Strategy, a consulting firm dedicated to supporting social justice organizations and corporations through anti-racism and anti-oppression practices.
5. Richard Brookshire
When Brookshire left the Army, he seemed to be doing fine, but then his world came crashing down as he battled depression. He had been inspired to serve during Barack Obama's barrier-breaking presidency and ended up being deployed to Afghanistan. Brookshire struggled to reenter civilian society amid the start of the Black Lives Matter movement and America’s recent bout with racial turmoil. His experience inspired him to co-found the Black Veterans Project to help preserve their history and provide them with resources to readjust to civilian life.
In Spike Lee’s latest film, available on Netflix, four Black Vietnam veterans return there to find a hidden stash of gold and the remains of their squad’s commander. The movie, featuring the late Chadwick Boseman, captures the tension in fighting for democracy for a country that refused to afford Black Americans the same rights as whites.
The heroics of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry are captured in this 1989 film that earned Denzel Washington an Academy Award. It has been praised as an impressive depiction of Black soldiers’ contributions to the Civil War.
3. Tuskegee Airmen on Screen
If you want to learn more about the first Black pilots to fly in the military during World War II, the 2012 film Red Tails from executive producer George Lucas is a great jumping-off point. The airmen earned 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses during the war and are credited with paving the way to integrate the U.S. military. More recently, the History Channel produced a one-hour special on the group, narrated by journalist Robin Roberts, whose father was a Tuskegee airman.
4. ‘Miracle at St. Anna’
Long before Da 5 Bloods, Spike Lee directed this 2008 film about four Black soldiers during World War II who took refuge in a Tuscan village and formed a special bond with the local residents. The protagonist, who recounts the story in flashback, was part of the segregated 92nd Infantry Division, born out of the buffalo soldiers.