A Complicated History of Blacks and War in America

In WWII, several Tuskegee Airmen at Ramitelli, Italy, March 1945. Photo: Library of Congress

Black soldiers have fought, bled, killed and died in America’s wars, even while being subjected to a life as second and even third class citizens in the land in which they lived. It is a complex history rife with contradictions and injustices.

The Revolutionary War

Crispus Attucks, who was a slave when he died in the Boston Massacre in 1770, is widely considered the first casualty of the Revolutionary War. In 1776 Congress passed legislation allowing Black men to enlist in the Armed Services, and as a result, thousands of Black men joined the Army and fought in the war, on both sides. 
The Northern states opened their ranks to freed slaves, however, in the South, it was forbidden to give weapons to slaves as the plantation owners feared retribution from those considered their “property.”

The British offered freedom to any runaway slaves who fought on their side, and many did.

War of 1812

On June 17, 1812 due to simmering tensions, the United States declared war on Britain. Historians say Black men accounted for 20 to 25 percent of the U.S. Naval personnel and performed valiantly. 

The Civil War (1861-1865)

In the American Civil War, Blacks fought on the side of the Union and the Confederacy. Though controversial, Blacks served the Union Army and Navy, ostensibly, with something to fight for since the North was seen as more open to delivering freedom. As for those in the South to be fighters for the Confederacy, they were used primarily for labor. The military officials and slave owners still feared giving them arms which could be used to exact retribution. Though Black soldiers fought bravely, they were still discriminated against in pay, received shoddy equipment and often were not given uniforms.

World War I (1917-1918)

Although the U.S. Armed Forces were still segregated  like the rest of society, Blacks eagerly volunteered to fight bolstering America’s forces by over 350,000 soldiers.   At first Black soldiers were relegated only to support roles, however, the United States, as a part of the Allied Powers saw fit to “allow” Black soldiers into the theater of war.
According to researchers at the New York State Military Museum and Veterans Research Center, The New York National Guard 369th Infantry regiment, nicknamed “The Harlem Hellfighters” were under-appreciated for their brave efforts in WWI. Five hundred members of the regiment received the French “Croix de Guerre,” or “War Cross” and researchers also said “The Harlem Hellfighters” spent more time in continuous combat than any other American unit during that war. 

In WWI Harlem Hellfighters who won the Croix de Guerre for gallantry in action. Left to right. Front row: Pvt. Ed Williams, Herbert Taylor, Pvt. Leon Fraitor, Pvt. Ralph Hawkins. Back Row: Sgt. H. D. Prinas, Sgt. Dan Strorms, Pvt. Joe Williams, Pvt. Alfred Hanley, and Cpl. T. W. Taylor. Photo: U.S. Historical Archives

World War II (1941-1945)

The Tuskegee Airmen fought valiantly while protecting the lives of White soldiers, however, upon returning to the military bases, White German soldiers who were enemy combatants and prisoners of war received better treatment than they did. Many Tuskegee Airmen died, ashamed to show their pictures or even talk about their experiences.

Following WWII, these highly trained and skillful pilots returned to the United States and were denied positions as commercial airline pilots because  at that time, companies did not hire Blacks.

It was not until 2007 that President George W. Bush presented the Congressional Gold Medal to the remaining living Tuskegee Airmen  or their widows, as a commendation and public recognition of their service and sacrifice.
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