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United States Department of Defense United States Department of Defense


African American History Month

A Century of Black Life, History and Culture

February 2015


"Like the countless, quiet heroes who worked and bled far from the public eye, we know that with enough effort, empathy, and perseverance, people who love their country can change it."

Portrait of President Obama.President Barack Obama
Jan. 30, 2015
Presidential Proclamation


  • 2013-Present

    First Female African American Four-Star

    On July 14, 2014, Michelle Howard was appointed Vice Chief of Naval Operations and promoted to full admiral, becoming the first black woman to reach O-10 rank.

  • 2009 - 2012

    First African American Commander In Chief

    As of 2012, across all services, the U.S. military was comprised of 16.4% African-Americans. African-Americans continue to serve their country with honor and dignity.

    On Jan. 29, 2009, Barack Obama was sworn in as the 44th president of the United States. As president, Obama also is commander in chief of all U.S. forces.

  • 2001-2008

    Global War on Terror

    Since the Armed Forces were integrated in 1948, the Army has been committed to racial diversity and equal opportunity to all soldiers. In the past several years, the Army has become even more proactive to recruit and train a diverse force since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. In 2003, there were approximately 254,000 blacks serving the Army as an Active-Duty, Reserves or National Guard soldier, or as an Army Civilian, according to the U.S. Office of Army Demographics. This was 20.3 percent of the total Army. In the general U.S. population, 12.7 percent of 18 to 55-year-olds are black.

  • 1997-2000

    Medals Of Honor Awarded

    In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded the Medal of Honor to seven servicemen from World War II whose candidacies were marred by official racism. Only one of the seven, Lt. Vernon Baker was alive to receive the medal. The others were awarded posthumously to Staff Sgt. Edward Carter, Jr., Lt. John R. Fox, Maj. Charles J. Thomas, Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, Pfc. Willy F. James, and Pvt. George Watson.

  • 1990-1991

    Persian Gulf War

    The Persian Gulf War developed out of the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait on Aug. 2, 1990. The international armed intervention followed in January 1991. Black soldiers - making up about 22 percent of the total Army - followed a rich tradition of honorably serving in the U.S. Forces.

    Colin Powell was the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff during Operation Desert Storm, and oversaw a military where black soldiers, sailors, airmen and marines served in all missions, and at all ranks.

  • 1979

    Army Brig. Gen. Hazel W. Johnson-Brown

    Brigadier General Hazel W. Johnson-Brown became the first black woman general officer and the first black Chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

  • 1970-1989

    First African American Service Secretary

    Clifford Alexander, the first black service secretary served as the Secretary of the Army from 1977 to 1981, where he helped manage the new All Volunteer Force. Under his lead, the Army steadily increased the number of black general officers, including the first black woman, Hazel Winifred Johnson.

    One of the officers initially promoted under Alexander was Colin Powell who served as National Security Advisor (1987-89), Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989-93), and Secretary of State (2001-05).

  • 1959-1973

    Vietnam War

    The 1960s marked a transformation of the realities of discrimination and political equality for blacks with the passing of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Act (1964 and 1965, respectively). The 1960s also marked the full engagement of the United States in the war in Vietnam. In support of this campaign, black soldiers continued the tradition of serving the Army with distinction.

    By the time Military Assistance Command, Vietnam was founded in early 1962, the U.S. military was fully integrated, although there were few blacks in high-ranking positions. In 1968, at the height of the fighting, nearly 1in 5 servicemen in Vietnam were black.

    Among the many highly-decorated black servicemen in Vietnam was Pfc. Milton L. Olive, the first black Medal of Honor recipient of the Vietnam War, who threw himself onto a grenade on October 22, 1965.

    Air Force pilot Fred V. Cherry was shot down over North Vietnam in October 1965, and became the 43rd American pilot held as a prisoner of war. Before his release in 1973, Cherry underwent harsh interrogations and torture at the hands of his captors.

  • 1950-1953

    Korean War

    New opportunities began to emerge for black soldiers while serving in the Korean War. In October 1951, the all-black 24th Infantry Regiment, which had served during the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II and the beginning of the Korean War, was disbanded. This eliminated the last lingering formal practice of segregation in the Army. Black soldiers now served in all combat service elements and were involved in all major combat operations, including the advance of United Nations Forces to the Chinese border.

  • 1946-1949

    Military Desegregation

    In 1948, President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981, which started the process of ending segregation in the military. By the end of the Korean War, over 90% of black soldiers were in integrated units, and the last all-black unit in the army was disestablished in 1954.

    In 1949, Ensign Wesley A. Brown became the first black graduate of the Naval Academy. He was followed in 1952 by Lawrence Chambers, who went on to command the aircraft carrier USS Midway in the mid-1970s.

  • 1941-1945

    World War II

    In World War II, the U.S. war effort was determined to defeat fascism and to defend freedom. For black Americans, freedom in its fullest form was an ideal that was desired not only abroad, but on the homefront as well. Even though in the U.S., many blacks were treated as second-class citizens, black soldiers still served unyieldingly for their country.

    Although some black servicemen were placed in combat units, the majority was used in support and service functions. Among the most famous were the truck drivers of the “Red Ball Express,” the main source of supplies for American units in Northern France and Belgium in 1944.

    World War II also saw a number of black women join the military's new women's auxiliaries. These volunteers included the women of the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion. Under the command of Major Charity Adams, the first black officer in the Women's Army Corps, the 6888th was responsible for sorting the mail for over seven million servicemen and women in the European Theater of Operations.

    Some black units did see action. In addition to combat units like the famous 761st tank battalion, soldiers in service units frequently found themselves under fire. The first black marines in combat were the men of the 3rd Marine Ammunition Company and the 18th and 20th Depot Companies.

  • 1941

    Tuskegee Airmen

    On July 19, 1941, the U.S. Army Air Corps began training black pilots. The 926 members of the famed Tuskegee Airmen (comprised initially of the 99th Pursuit Squadron and later the 332nd Fighter Group) were trained for combat in World War II at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. Known for their red-tailed P-51 Mustang fighters, the Tuskegee Airmen never lost an escorted plane to the enemy during the course of World War II, during which they carried out hundreds of escort missions.

  • 1920-1944

    The Interwar Years

    The interwar years were perhaps the nadir of military race relations in the 20th century. After the post-World War I drawdown, the Army maintained its segregated units and the Navy refused to accept black sailors as anything but cooks and stewards.

    In 1932, Benjamin Davis Jr. entered West Point. Although his fellow cadets refused to speak to him outside of the line of duty, he graduated 35th out of class of 276 in 1936, the first black West Point graduate since Charles Young in 1889.

  • 1917-1918

    World War I

    In 1917, the United States entered World War I. Despite knowing that freedom to serve their country did not in itself guarantee full participation in American society, thousands of black Americans answered the call to duty through service in the Army.

    The Army operated under a policy of racial segregation and blacks were commonly relegated to supply and labor jobs. There were, however, active black combat units that made notable contributions.

    During World War I about 350,000 African Americans eventually served overseas in France. For the first time, large numbers of black soldiers were trained as officers; approximately 1,200 were commissioned over the course of the war.

    A number of black soldiers were decorated for bravery in France, including Sgt. Henry Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts. On May 14, 1918, Johnson and Roberts, acting alone, fought off a patrol of at least two dozen Germans. Johnson and Roberts were both awarded the French Croix de Guerre medal.

  • 1898

    Spanish-American War

    Black soldiers of the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments fought in the Spanish-American War. The four regiments comprised 12 percent of the total force during the invasion of Cuba.

    Many of these soldiers were veterans of the Indian Wars and some were Civil War veterans. Another 2,000 served in the Navy - they comprised 7.6 percent of all sailors.

  • 1867

    Buffalo Soldiers

    Black soldiers fought so bravely and ferociously during a battle with Cheyenne warriors in 1867, that the Cheyenne nicknamed them "Wild Buffalo."

    Over time, the term "Buffalo Soldiers" was used for all black soldiers who served during the Indian wars. Between battles, the "Buffalo Soldiers" built roads and telegraph lines, escorted supply trains and guarded stagecoach and mail routes.

    In 1868, Cathay Williams became the first black female Buffalo Soldier - she disguised herself as a male.

    Henry O. Flipper was the fifth African-American to be accepted to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., and in 1877 became the first African-American to graduate from the academy. He was the first African-American to be commissioned in the Army, or any other branch of the U.S. military. He also became the first African-American officer to command African-American soldiers in the Army when he assumed command of Troop A, 10th Calvary Regiment, also known as the Buffalo Soldiers, at Fort Sill, Okla. Before Flipper took command, all African-American units were commanded by white officers.

  • 1866-1891

    Indian Campaigns

    After the Civil War, settlers moved westward in increasing numbers. When fighting broke out with Indians, the Army was often called in to quell the uprisings.

    In 1866, Congress authorized the formation of regiments of black soldiers: the 9th and 10th Cavalry Regiments and the 24th, 25th, 38th, 39th, 40th and 41st Infantry Regiments to deploy in the West to fight the Indians. The infantry regiments were later consolidated into the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments.

  • 1863

    Frederick Douglass

    Frederick Douglass, best known as a black orator and abolitionist, helped to establish the all-black 54th Massachusetts Regiment of the Union Army. On Aug. 13, 1863, Douglass was directed by the Secretary of War to travel from his hometown of Rochester, N.Y., to Vicksburg, Miss., "to assist in recruiting colored troops."

  • 1861-1865

    Civil War

    When Union troops invaded Confederate states, thousands of black slaves flocked to Union camps for a chance to fight. Many of these men were unofficially allowed to enlist in the Union Army. After President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation on Jan. 1, 1863, black soldiers were officially allowed to participate in the war.

  • 1814

    Free Men of Color

    Many black soldiers fought in the Battle of New Orleans. Slaves, as well as free black soldiers, constructed forts around the city in preparation for the impending British invasion. Also, blacks comprised the majority of two battalions and three companies, collectively referred to as Free Men of Color, as well as serving in integrated Louisiana militia units.

  • 1812-1815

    War of 1812

    During the War of 1812, black soldiers served in both integrated regiments as well as in all-black regiments. Many black soldiers served with courage and distinction, both on land and at sea.

  • 1775-1783

    American Revolution

    Thousands of black soldiers, both slave as well as free, from all 13 colonies fought in the Continental Army during America's war for independence from Great Britain. Many also served in state militias.

  • 1770

    Crispus Attucks

    On March 5, 1770, Crispus Attucks and several other patriots from Boston protested the British curbing of civil liberties in their Massachusetts colony.


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