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The History of Black Americans in the Military

Left to right: Eugene Bullard, Sgt. William Carney, Crispus Attucks, Benjamin O. Davis, Rear Admiral Samuel L. Gravy Jr.

February is Black History Month, and it honors the many contributions of black Americans to the nation’s history.

A significant part of this history has been and continues to be written by their service as soldiers, sailors, Marines, airmen and Coast Guardsmen.

First to Fight

A runaway slave and sailor, Crispus Attucks became the first casualty of the American Revolution during the Boston Massacre in 1770.  

Five years later, Brasilia Lew and other black American soldiers fought bravely in the hardest fighting at Bunker Hill.

During the American Revolution, over 5,000 black Americans served in the Continental Army, and thousands more served in state militias.

The status of black Americans remained unchanged after the War of Independence, as most were slaves.  Congress also passed legislation limiting military enlistments to white, male citizens.

The War of 1812 proved otherwise.  

During that conflict, recruited blacks Americans served bravely at the Battles of Lake Erie and New Orleans.

But after the war, restrictions on black American enlistments returned; however, some free blacks went west to Texas and fought alongside Americans seeking independence from Mexico.

Then the nation confronted slavery.

The Civil War

With every round fired, black American soldiers and sailors fought to end slavery and prove themselves equal to their white fellow Americans.

Sgt. William Carney’s actions during the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863 led to him becoming the first black soldier to receive the Medal of Honor.

Twenty-five others – seven sailors and eighteen soldiers – also received the military’s highest award.

When peace returned, the Army established the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 38th, 39th 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments to serve in the Indian Wars and the Spanish-American War.

During these two conflicts, thousands of black Americans served and two dozen received the Medal of Honor.

“Tout le sang qui coule rouge,” said Eugene Jacques Bullard, the first black man to ever serve as a combat pilot.


“All blood is red.”


During World War I, 367,000 black American soldiers, sailors and Marines served.  

In 1918, Corporal Freddie Stowers gave his life to allow his soldiers to take an enemy position. He became the only black American to receive the Medal of Honor during the war.

During Second World War, over 1.2 million black Americans served. Many fought bravely and many died, but not one received the Medal of Honor.

Black American leaders at home began the “Double V” campaign, calling for victory against the nation’s enemy and against racism at home.

In his book, Citizen Soldier, Stephen Ambrose wrote, “The world’s greatest democracy fought the world’s greatest racist with a segregated army.”

From Then to Now

In July 1948, President Harry Truman ordered the integration of the military.

“After that point, it was not about whether you were black or white,” commented Lakewood Mayor Don Anderson, at a recent Martin Luther King, Jr. celebration.

“It was whether you wore Air Force blue at McChord or Army green at then Fort Lewis.”

Recognition of black Americans in the military and society slowly followed.

Benjamin Davis became the Air Force’s first black American brigadier general. Samuel Gravely became the Navy’s first black American to be promoted to rear admiral. Frank Peterson became the Marine Corps’ first black American brigadier general.

“Diversity is one of the truest reflections of our nation’s ideals, and part of the fabric of our military,” wrote 446th Airlift Wing Command Chief Master Sgt. Kenellias Smith.

“This continues Martin Luther King’s dream of racial equality.”

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