A History of Service
African Americans in the Military
February 3, 2014 by Mark Dye
The Tuskegee Airmen became one of the most famous flying groups in WWII thanks to their impressive bravery and skill.
From the Revolutionary War to our current conflict in the Middle East, African Americans have served in the military with distinction—if not always with the same civil rights as their white counterparts. Despite being treated as second-class citizens, they proved that they were first-rate troops and helped shape our nation’s history.
1776 – George Washington lifts the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army, leading to militias in Rhode Island and Massachusetts. In all, some 5,000 African Americans fought in the Revolutionary Army, while some 20,000 served with the British.
1792 – Federal law once again bars African Americans from serving in the Army; another law in 1798 barred them from serving in the Marine Corps. Though the Navy did not actively recruit blacks, it started to when it became short on manpower during the War of 1812.
1813 – The Battle of Lake Erie takes place just off the shores of Ohio. A number of the U.S. sailors are African American and play key roles in the battle.
1862-63 – Congress passes the “Second Confiscation and Militia Act,” which frees slaves who have masters serving the Confederate Army.” This, combined with the abolition of slavery, leads to an influx of African Americans into the Union Army. The "United States Colored Troops" are organized, specifically created to manage the increase in African Americans serving the military.
The 25th Infantry Regiment (seen here in the late 1860s) was a segregated unit that served with distinction from the Indian Wars all the way until WWII.
1866 – 9th and 10th Cavalry regiments are formed and become known as "Buffalo Soldiers." They fight in the Indian campaigns, the Spanish American War, and with Teddy Roosevelt and his “Roughriders” as they charged San Juan Hill in Cuba. They will serve with distinction until after World War II and integration.
1901 – Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., becomes first African American general officer in the U.S. Armed Forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., will go on to lead the Tuskegee Airmen, one of the most famous African American military units during World War II.
Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., is the first general officer in the Armed Forces. His soon would lead the Tuskegee Airmen during WWII.
1917 – The 369th Infantry is mustered into service. Called the "Harlem Hellfighters" they were one of the most decorated units to serve in World War I, becoming the first American unit to reach the Rhine. The 92nd Division also plays a key role in the war effort.
1941 – The "Tuskegee Airmen" are formed as preparations for WWII get underway, led by Benjamin O. Davis Jr. He leads the 99th and 332nd Fighter Groups in Europe during World War II, escorting bombers over Germany and Italy.
1948 – President Harry Truman signs Executive Order 9981, which establishes the President's Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services, paving the way for integration.Harry Truman signed an executive order integrating the Armed Services shortly after WWII, more than a decade before the Civil Rights movement would begin.
1953 – In just five years after integration, the Army announces that 95% of African-American Soldiers are serving in integrated units.
1967 – President Lyndon B. Johnson presents the Medal of Honor to U.S. Army Specialist Five and Vietnam veteran Lawrence Joel. He is the first living African American to receive the Medal of Honor since the Mexican–American War.
1972 – Mildred C. Kelly, who began her Army career in 1950 with the intention of staying for one three-year tour, becomes the first black female E9 (Sergeant Major) in the US Army. She winds up serving a total of 26 years and retires as a command sergeant major.
1989 – Collin Powell becomes the first African American to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He will later become the first African American Secretary of State.
1997 – Seven African Americans who served in World War II are awarded the Medal of Honor, six of them posthumously.
2007 – Senior Army leaders establish a “Diversity Taskforce” and “Equal Opportunity” program, which seek to create opportunities and programs to ensure fair treatment for all.
2009 – President Barack Obama is sworn in, becoming the first African American Commander in Chief.