Few people are
aware that when Paul Revere announced the British were coming, Black Minutemen
responded. When General George Washington made his historic boat ride across
the Delaware River, Prince Whipple, a Black soldier was in the boat with him.
Over 5,000 Blacks fought on behalf of the Colonies in the Revolutionary
Fewer are aware
of the Native American and Hispanic American contributions to the Revolutionary
War efforts. Both groups joined with the Colonist to repel the British Army. As
a matter of fact, the Native American community contributed to the survival of
the colonist when they arrived on the continent in the 1600’s. Had it not been
for their friendship and help, the early settlers would not have survived the
first winter. Tribal participation in the military affairs of the nation
extends into the Civil War. In 1861, the Cherokee Nation joined forces with the
Confederate Army and the Seminole and Creek Nations joined with the Union
Forces. There is a story that has been passed down about what happened when a
Cherokee unit led by Stand Watie met up with a Seminole and Creek unit fighting
for the North. The way the story is told, the two sides refused to fight each
other and parted ways.
The legacy of
people of Hispanic heritage extends from those early periods in time through the
establishment of the thirteen British Colonies. When the Colonist rebelled
against the British in 1770, the people of Hispanic heritage who had become a
part of the colonial establishment supported their claim for freedom. When the
Revolution began; George Farragut, a patriot of Spanish heritage, joined the Continental
Navy. George Farragut rose to the rank of Admiral and went on to distinguish
himself in the War of 1812. The name Farragut holds a prominent place in United
States Naval History. The Admiral’s son, David Glasgow Farragut rose to the
rank of Admiral in the Union Navy. He distinguished himself by leading the
fleet to victory in the Battle of Mobile Bay. At no time in this nation’s
history has Hispanic participation been restricted in the armed forces.
Revolution, some of the slaves that served were given their freedom. Some free
Blacks received land grants for their service. However, their contributions
were not given much recognition after the war.
From the close of
the Revolutionary War to the War of 1812, Black participation in the Armed
Force was virtually eliminated.
We reappeared in
uniform in the War of 1812. The War was primarily fought on the open seas and
the Great Lakes. Ten to twenty percent of the ship’s crew members were Black.
The merits of their service were highly acclaimed by Admiral Oliver Perry, who
initially objected to their service. Following the naval battle that freed the Great
Lakes from the British control, he spoke of his Black crewmembers as
“absolutely insensible to danger.”
also served as a part of the limited ground action that occurred during the
war. The Louisiana Legislature authorized the enlistment of free Black
Land-owners into the State’s Militia.
The battalion was called the Free Men of Color. They helped to save the City
of New Orleans from the threat of British forces in 1815. Following the War, the Black contribution was
quickly forgotten. Black soldiers and sailors were not allowed to march in the
parade celebrating the victory.
and the War of 1812 provided the societal disruption that permitted many Black
slaves to escape. Many joined the Seminole Indians in Florida. The area was
under the claim of England and Spain. Neither country would agree to return the
slaves to their irate white owners. Many
Blacks intermarried into the tribe and became farmers, counselors and tribal
leaders. In 1812, the British rebuilt an abandoned Spanish fort in Florida
approximately 65 miles from the
territory border of the United States. The fort became known as the Negro Fort.
It served as the base for raids that were being conducted into Georgia.
American troops attacked and destroyed the fort in 1816 beginning what became
the first of two Seminole Wars. They recaptured many of the runaway slaves and
returned them to their white owners.
Seminole War was fought from 1835 to 1842.
There was no Black military participation. Blacks were barred from
serving in the military between 1820 and 1861.
In 1861 at the
onset of the Civil War, Black enlistment in the military was still barred.
Before I go any further in talking about the
Civil War, let me make one point clear: The Civil War was not fought for the purpose
of ending slavery. It was fought to
bring the South back into the Union. The Confederacy was utilizing slaves as
laborers, cooks and teamsters. Some were used to work on the farms to free the
white landowners for military service. The Emancipation Proclamation was issued
as a means to destabilize the South’s labor force and weaken their
economy. It was thought, the action
would serve to shorten the war. It also provided the North with the opportunity
to supplement its shortage of manpower in the Union Army and Navy by granting
Blacks the opportunity to serve.
Benjamin Butler circumvented the Union policy prohibiting the use of Blacks in
the war in 1861. However, it was not until August 1862 that the Secretary of
War approved the enlistment of Black Soldiers in the Union defense. The
decision did not sit well with some members of the white public. Some feared allowing Blacks to be armed. Others
objected because they felt it would embolden the demands of the Black public
for equal rights.
President Lincoln described his decision to allow Black
enlistment saying the following: “This is not a question of sentiment or taste,
but one of physical force which may be measured and estimated as horsepower and
steam power are measured and estimated. Keep it and you can save the Union.
Throw it away - and the Union goes with it.”
Calling on Men of
Color to enlist in the Union Army, Fredrick Douglass re-defined the Civil War
to the Black public as an opportunity to demonstrate our worthiness of equal
Quoting Douglass, “Once let the
Black man get upon his person the brass letters U.S. let him get an eagle on
his button and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, and there is
no power on earth which can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship in
the United States of America.”
In January 1863,
an all-Black regiment that had been raised in South Carolina and a volunteer
regiment in Kansas were mustered into Federal Service. Massachusetts
established the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment. Some of you may be
familiar with them from the movie titled; “Glory.” The regiment famed itself at
the charge of Fort Wagner in South Carolina. Many members of the regiment died
in that battle.
of Black soldiers and sailors during the Civil War Era were numerous. By the
War’s end in 1865, it is estimated that 180,000 Blacks served in the Union
Army and 30,000) served in the Union Navy. Over 37,000 were killed. The high
casualty rates were due to bad medical care, poor equipment, inadequate
training and the “no quarter” policy of the Confederate forces against Blacks
facing them in combat. Another 200,000
served in service capacities as laborers, dockworkers and teamsters. Twelve
Black soldiers were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor. Immediately
following the war, the number of Blacks allowed to remain on active duty was reduced
enlistment of Blacks in the Civil War was for 3 years. However, since most Blacks were barred from enlisting until
1863, most still had a year to serve after the war ended in 1865. The Federal Government
believing it was necessary to maintain a military presence in the South,
stationed large numbers of Black Soldiers in that region.
militias were established in the Southern States. Blacks made up a large
portion of the militias. In South Carolina and Louisiana, 9 Blacks were
appointed to the positions of General Officers. Among the 9 was Robert Small,
the harbor pilot who along with 7 slaves seized the Confederate ship
“Planter” in 1862 in the harbor of Charleston. They navigated the ship through
the Confederate defense, and surrendered it to the Union.
Moving through the period of Reconstruction,
we enter what I personally call another sad day in American History: The Indian Campaigns.
In 1866 the
United States Senate passed a bill establishing the regular Army at 67
Regiments. Six were designated to be composed of Black Troops. The number was
later reduced to 4, the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments. The regiments were divided into companies or
battalion size units and scattered across the West. They were assigned the
mission of protecting the settlers moving West, guarding the mail, protecting
the railroad and suppressing hostile Indian tribes.
The Native American
population resented the encroachment on their land. Black soldiers clashed with
Indian warriors in over 100 battles. As the story is told, in respect of the
soldiers’ bravery and the texture of their hair, our Native American Brothers
and sisters dubbed the men, Buffalo Soldiers.
I must mention during that period
of American History the Native American population were targeted for
extinction. Prior to the Western expansion, it is estimated that the Native
American population had numbered in the millions. By the end of the war in
1890, it had been reduced to 250,000. Eighteen Buffalo Soldiers were awarded
the Congressional Medal of Honor.
During the period
of the Indian Campaigns, enrollment was opened for Blacks in the Army Military
Academy, West Point. In 1870, James Webster of South Carolina became the first
Black cadet to attend the academy. In 1874, the academy determined that he was
deficient in his studies and terminated his appointment.
Henry O. Flipper
became the first Black graduate of the academy in 1877. Following his
graduation, he was assigned to the all-Black 10th Cavalry. I would like to
remind you that during this period in American History, Black Officers could not
serve in command of White troops. They did not have the same opportunities as
their white counter-parts for advancement in rank because of the limitations of
assignments. In 1881, Lt. Flipper was charged with embezzling public funds, and
was discharged from the Army for conduct unbecoming an officer. He spent the
remainder of his life trying to clear his name.
In 1976, at the behest of
Commander Wesley A. Brown, the first Black graduate of the United States Naval Academy
at Annapolis, the Army conducted a review of the charges that led to Lt.
Flipper’s dishonorable discharge. Lt. Flipper was pardoned and the United
States Army issued a honorable discharge in his name.
We, the National
Veterans Coalition are currently working on overturning a similar injustice
committed against Colonel Charles Young, the third Black graduate of West Point
in 1889. In a military career that spanned 32 years, Colonel Young became the
highest rank Black Officer in the United States Armed Forces. At the outbreak
of World War I, he was in line to become the first Black General in the regular
United States Armed Forces. During his military tenure, he served as a
soldier/diplomat to the countries of Liberia, Haiti, the Dominican Republic and
the Philippine Islands. He was the first Black American to serve as a
superintendent in the National Park Service.
After achieving all this, he was declared medically unfit to
serve and was discharged from the United States Army at the onset of World War I.
To prove his fitness, Colonel Young rode on horseback and walked 500 miles
from Ohio to Washington, DC to appeal his discharge. He ultimately was returned to active duty
just days before the Armistice was signed ending the War. Colonel Young died in
1922 on a mission in Nigeria.
Young holds a very special place in our history. I will acquaint you
to him through his eulogy written by WEB Du Bois, historian and Founder of
“The life of
Charles Young was a triumph of tragedy. No one ever knew the truth about the
Hell he went through at West Point. He seldom even mentioned it. The pain was
too great. Few knew what faced him always in his army life. It was not enough
for him to do well-he must always do better; and so much and so conspicuously better,
as to disarm the scoundrels that ever trailed him. He lived in the army
surrounded by insult and intrigue and yet he set his teeth and kept his soul
serene and triumphed.
He was one of
the few men I know who literally turned the other cheek with Jesus Christ. He
was laughed at for it and his own people chided him bitterly, yet he persisted.
When a white Southern pygmy at West Point protested at taking food from a dish
passed first to Young, Young passed it to him first and afterward to himself.
When officers of inferior rank refused to salute a “colored officer” he saluted
them. Seldom did he lose his temper, seldom complain.
With his own
people he was always the genial, hearty, half-boyish friend. He kissed the
girls, slapped the boys on the back, threw his arms about his friends,
scattered his money in charity; only now and then behind the Veil did his
nearest comrades see the Hurt and pain graven on his heart; and when it
appeared he promptly drowned it in his music-his beloved music, which always
poured from his quick, nervous fingers, to caress and bathe his soul.
unswervingly he did his duty. And Duty to him, as too few modern men, was
spelled in capitals. It was his lode-star, his soul; and neither force nor
reason swerved him from it.
His second going to Africa, after a terrible attack
of black water fever, was suicide. He knew it. His wife knew it. His friends
knew it. He had been sent to Africa because the Army considered his blood pressure
too high to let him go to Europe! They sent him there to die. They sent him
there because he was one of the very best officers in the service and if he had
gone to Europe he could not have been denied the stars of a General. They could
not stand a black American General. Therefore, they sent him to the fever coast
of Africa. They ordered him to make roads back in the haunted jungle. He knew
what they wanted and intended. He could have escaped it by accepting his
retirement from active service, refusing his call to active duty and then he
could have lounged and lived at leisure on his retirement pay. But Africa
needed him. He did not yell and collect money and
advertise great schemes and parade in crimson-he just went quietly, ignoring
appeal and protest.
He is dead. But
the heart of the Great Black Race, the Ancient of Days-the undying and
Eternal-rises and salutes his shining memory: Well done! Charles Young, Soldier
and Man and unswerving Friend.”
Colonel Young was
buried overseas. It took the persistent efforts of his wife and the NAACP to
have his body exhumed and returned to the United States. He was re-buried in
Arlington National Cemetery on June 1,
Every Black Flag Officer past and present in the United States Armed
Forces owe the Colonel a debt of gratitude. He paved the way for their
opportunities. We have called on President Obama, the United States Congress
and the Department of the Army to grant Colonel Young in death the honor he
earned in life – a promotion to the rank of Brigadier General. We are spearheading an effort to have a monument
of his likeness erected in the Nation’s Capital.
In 1939 the
United States Military appointed Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. as the nation’s first
Black General in the regular Armed Forces. His son, Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the
fourth Black Graduate of West Point became the first Black General in the
United States Air Forces in 1954.
It took some very
special individuals to endure what Colonel Young and both General Davis’ had to
face in an effort to serve this nation.
You have probably
heard of Teddy Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. They mounted the famous charge
up San Juan Hill in Cuba during the Spanish American War. The notoriety of that
charge helped Teddy Roosevelt become the 26th President of the United States.
However, few people are aware that the All-Black 24th Infantry Regiment was with
him for that great assault. They provided him and the Rough Riders with the
ground support necessary to make the charge successful. Six Black Soldiers were
awarded the Medal of Honor for Valor in the Spanish American War.
Many people are
not aware that the 369th Infantry Regiment was the first Black Troops to see
combat in World War I. The United States Army questioned the mental aptitude of
the Black Soldiers to face combat against the highly trained and more educated
Germans. The regiment was placed on loan to the French 4th Army. The regiment
was sent to the front line where they served a record 191 days in the trenches.
Two of its members Needham Roberts and Henry Johnson became the first Americans awarded the French
Croix de Guerra Medal for Gallantry in
combat. By the end of the war, the
entire regiment had received the
prestigious award. They were the highest decorated Black Soldiers in World War
In 1986, the United States Army reviewed the historical
records of the War, and determined that one Black Soldier, Corporal Freddie Stower
was entitled to the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was honored for Valor in
an action that occurred in 1918 while serving in France. It took 68 years for Corporal Stower to
receive his earned recognition posthumously. We still find it hard to believe
that out of 400,000 Blacks who served in World War I, only one was found worthy
of the Medal of Honor. They need to
check the files of the French Government.