The most recent census shows more than two million African Americans currently serve in the U.S. military. During Black History Month, AFE takes a look at a few early leaders whose military service set the standard and whose prominence and bravery continue to lead as an example of patriotism and sacrifice.
In the early days of our nation
During the American Revolution, thousands of Black Americans fought on both sides of the conflict, with many hoping to be freed from slavery, as promised by the British. Historians estimate that between 5,000 and 8,000 people of African descent joined the revolution with the patriots, and 20,000 or more served the crown.
As an enslaved man, James Armistead joined the patriots in their efforts against the crown. He was assigned to infiltrate the enemy, posing as a runaway. He worked his way into a strategic role with the British, thanks to his knowledge of the local terrain, and was soon directed to spy on the patriots, making him a double agent. Despite his claims of bringing intel about the Continental Army to the Brits, he was actually sharing British plans with his patriot commander, General Marquis de Lafayette. Armistead is credited with providing the information the patriots needed to end the war at the Siege of Yorktown. Years later, Armistead changed his surname to Lafayette in honor of the man who helped him secure his freedom.
During our nation’s divided times
The Civil War brought the issue of slavery to the front lines of public discussion and action.
Alexander Augusta, born to free African American parents in 1825, dreamt of becoming a doctor. He studied medicine in Baltimore, was denied entry to the University of Pennsylvania, and ultimately obtained his medical degree from the University of Toronto in 1856. At the start of the Civil War, he returned to Baltimore and offered his surgical services to President Lincoln and the Union cause. He received a commission as head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry, becoming the first of eight African American physicians in the Union Army. In the post-war years, he continued to practice medicine and became one of the first faculty members of the new Medical College at Howard University. Upon his death in 1890, August was buried in Arlington National Cemetery – the first Black military officer to be interred there.
Susan Baker King Taylor escaped slavery and joined others on the Union-occupied St. Simons Island off the coast of Georgia. She had been secretly educated in Savannah, defying the prohibition of a formal education for African Americans. On St. Simons, at just 14 years old, she became the first Black teacher to openly educate other Black Americans in Georgia. After her marriage to Edward King, a Black officer in the 33rd U.S. Colored Infantry Regiment, she taught soldiers to read and write, and notably became a crack shot with a musket. During the war she worked as a nurse in a South Carolina hospital serving African American soldiers; after the war she and her husband opened a school for Black children in Savannah.
During World War I
In all, more than 350,000 African Americans served in segregated units in the first world war. Several Black units served in the trenches beside French soldiers battling the German troops: France awarded 171 African Americans the French Legion of Honor.
The Harlem Hell Fighters, the 369th United States Infantry, was the most celebrated U.S. regiment of African American soldiers deployed overseas. Their combat experience was captured in the drawings and prose of Horace Pippin, who published his memoir in four composition books filled with stories and images he recalled after the war. In those post-war years, his career as an artist blossomed. His folk-art-style paintings, which often focused on domestic life, landscapes, political statements, religious imagery and wartime struggles, are part of the collections in the Barnes Foundation, the Philadelphia Museum of Art, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, the Baltimore Museum of Art and other prestigious collections.
Throughout World War II
The heroism and achievements of the Tuskegee Airmen helped break through the barriers of segregation for African Americans, laying the groundwork for civil rights in the years ahead. While their stories are widely known, that war also brought stories of other African Americans heroes to the fore. However, even though more than 1 million Black Americans served in WW II, not a single Medal of Honor of the hundreds awarded was given to any African American soldiers at the time. In 1994, seven Black soldiers who served in WW II were finally awarded the Medal of Honor by President Bill Clinton.
As Waverly B. Woodson, Jr. disembarked onto Omaha Beach on D-Day, a German shell blasted his landing craft, killing the man next to him and peppering Woodson with shrapnel. Yet as the medic for the only Black combat unit fighting on D-Day, he knew he needed to help others first. So he set up a medical aid station and spent the next 30 hours removing bullets, running blood plasma lines, cleaning wounds, setting broken bones, and even amputating a foot. If that’s not enough, he is also credited with saving four men from drowning by pulling them from the waves and administering CPR. He finally collapsed from his own injuries and was treated on a hospital ship – only to insist on returning to the front at Omaha Beach days later. Hailed for his heroism at home, Woodson never received the Medal of Honor. The records necessary to document his actions, stored at the National Personnel Records Center in St. Louis, were destroyed in a 1973 fire, and no surviving first-hand witnesses were alive to provide an account of his actions for the 1994 ceremony. His family continues to advocate for the medal.