(This article originally appeared in the February 2021 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
More than 350,000 African-Americans are currently serving in an active duty or reserve capacity, according to DoD's 2021 Demographics: Profile of the Military Community.
“They have provided distinguished service in every conflict - sometimes as individuals, sometimes as units,” says Joseph Seymour, a historian with the Army Center of Military History and a retired tank commander with the Pennsylvania Army National Guard. From the earliest days of the nation through today, African-Americans have steadily progressed through military ranks and leadership.
The Revolutionary War: Peter Salem
Most historians say 10 to 15 percent of the continental force was black. In addition to fighting for American freedom, “they were fighting for personal liberty and to show their worth; to show people that they too could fight as equals and be players in the bigger political picture,” Seymour says. Peter Salem was one example.
On April 19, 1775, when the “shot heard 'round the world” rang out in Concord, Mass., Salem was among those fighting. Born into slavery, he was released for a time to serve. Two months later, at the Battle of Bunker Hill, Salem fired the shot that killed British Maj. John Pitcairn.
Shortly after Bunker Hill, Gen. George Washington issued a declaration banning slaves from serving in the militia, so Salem's owners freed him. He continued to serve.
War of 1812: Free Men of Color
When the U.S. declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the military had fewer than 10,000 soldiers. According to the U.S. Naval Institute, the Navy had 16 ships, nine of them frigates.
African-Americans were among those who responded to the pressing need for able-bodied men - even though they were not allowed to vote.
When Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson went up against the British at the Battle of New Orleans in 1815, in addition to Army regiments and state militias, his troops included, in addition to Choctaw Indians and the Baratarian forces of pirate/privateer Jean Lafitte, two battalions of the Free Men of Color.
The Civil War: Robert Smalls
In the early days of the war, free black men rushed to join the Union cause, only to be turned away. A law barred African-Americans from serving. As the war dragged on, however, the number of white volunteers declined while the Union Army's personnel needs grew. By 1863, African-Americans were actively recruited.
Approximately 179,000 black soldiers and 19,000 sailors fought for the Union. About 40,000 died. Eighty were commissioned as officers. By the end of the war, 16 African-Americans had been awarded the Medal of Honor, including Robert Smalls.
Smalls, a young enslaved man working on board CSS Planter, a heavily armed coastal steamer, didn't wait for permission to do his part for the Union. In the dark, predawn hours of May 13, 1862, Smalls commandeered the Confederate ship, sailing right past the guns of Fort Sumter and on to the Union blockade. By the war's end, Smalls had attained the rank of captain. He went on to serve in the South Carolina state legislature and then the U.S. House of Representatives. He died in 1915 - in the house where he once had been a slave.
Indian Wars: Henry O. Flipper and the Buffalo Soldiers
The Army Organization Act of 1866 created a number of all-black cavalry and infantry regiments. The troops, under the command of white officers, were sent west.
In addition to confronting American Indians, they built roads, chased cattle thieves, protected wagon trains, and otherwise facilitated western expansion.
These hard-working regiments were dubbed Buffalo Soldiers by the American Indians. The roots of the name have been lost, but to African-Americans, such as Henry O. Flipper, it was a badge of honor.
Flipper was born into slavery in 1856. In 1877, he became the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. Flipper was commissioned as a second lieutenant and assigned to the 10th Cavalry, one of the most heralded regiments of Buffalo Soldiers.
Flipper's promising military career ended when his commanding officer leveled dubious charges against him. He went on to enjoy a successful and distinguished career as a civil and mining engineer, always insisting he was innocent.
In 1976, the Army reviewed his records and granted him a good conduct discharge. In 1999, President Bill Clinton granted Flipper, whom he called “an extraordinary American,” a full pardon.
African-American soldiers of the 369th Infantry Regiment (and one of their white officers) practice fighting in the trenches prior to deploying to the Western Front of World War I. (National Archives and Records Administration)
World War I: The Harlem Hellfighters
In 1917, when the U.S. entered the war in Europe, Jim Crow laws were in effect, and racism was widespread domestically. In France, attitudes were different. Black soldiers - whether from French colonies or America - traveled on unsegregated trains, were welcomed in French cafes, and enjoyed a taste of equality.
African-Americans saw the war as an opportunity not only to defend democracy, but also to prove themselves worthy of more rights at home. Most black soldiers, however, were assigned to service and support roles.
The men of the 369th Infantry Regiment - dubbed the Harlem Hellfighters - were a notable exception. They served on the front lines for six months, longer than any other American unit. During that time, they never lost any prisoners or gave up any territory to the enemy. For their service, they were awarded the French Croix de Guerre, that country's highest military honor.
Members of the 332nd Fighter Group, better known as the Tuskegee Airmen. (Air Force photo)
World War II: The Tuskegee Airmen
More than a million African-Americans served in the military during World War II. With racism still rampant in the U.S., theirs was a battle on two fronts.
In September 1940, in response to rising pressure, President Franklin D. Roosevelt's administration announced the U.S. Army Air Corps would begin training black pilots at Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama.
About a thousand pilots earned their wings there. The first of the Tuskegee Airmen, as they later were called, had flown more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa by the war's end, earning more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses.
The Korean War: Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton, USA
In 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order calling for the equal treatment of black servicemembers. Until 1950, however, African-Americans remained segregated. In 1954, the last segregated unit was deactivated.
In the meantime, Army Sgt. Cornelius H. Charlton was forced to assume command of his platoon June 2, 1951, during an uphill attack on a heavily defended position. Rallying the men, he charged, taking out two enemy positions. When the unit was pinned down, he regrouped and led a second charge, which was met with a devastating shower of grenades.
Although severely wounded, Charlton launched a third charge, which reached the crest of the ridge. From there, he pushed on alone. He was hit by another grenade, but he continued to fire, taking out the remaining enemy emplacement. In recognition of his “indomitable courage, superb leadership, and gallant self-sacrifice” that day, Charlton was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
The Vietnam War: Capt. Riley L. Pitts, USA
Vietnam was the first major conflict the U.S. faced with a fully integrated fighting force, but racial issues remained. African-Americans continued to face discrimination. While making up 11 percent of U.S. forces in Vietnam, only 2 percent of the officer corps was black. Research has shown black troops also were disproportionately punished and routinely assigned menial duties. That didn't stop them from serving with courage and honor.
On Oct. 31, 1967, a grenade lobbed at a Vietcong bunker failed to penetrate the dense jungle foliage and instead rebounded. Without hesitation, Army Capt. Riley L. Pitts threw himself on it. The grenade failed to explode. Later that day, as fierce fighting continued, Pitts again acted without regard for his personal safety, urging his men forward while he strafed a fortified enemy position with continuous fire. The captain's luck, unfortunately, had run out; he was mortally wounded. For his “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity” that day, Pitts was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
Marines listen to then-Col. Lorna Mahlock, their commanding officer, during Exercise Valiant Shield 16 on Sept. 14, 2021. (Lance Cpl. Makenzie Fallon/Marine Corps)
The Iraq War: Brig. Gen. Lorna Mahlock, USMC
Since the draft was phased out, following the Vietnam War, African-Americans have volunteered to serve at rates that exceed their share of the population. Approximately 13 percent of the U.S. population identifies as black or African-American. In the military, however, African-Americans account for 17.1 percent of all personnel.
Brig. Gen. Lorna Mahlock found a path to success within the military. She enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1985 and became an air traffic control officer after her 1991 commission. In 2008, she went to Iraq as a commanding officer. Last year, she became the first black woman brigadier general in the Marine Corps. Mahlock is now the Corps' chief information officer.