Hundreds of thousands of African American men volunteered and fought for a nation that saw them as second-class citizens. They deserve our thanks.
W.hile In 1918, a black American soldier served as a sentry with the French troops in the Argonne Forest and fought German attackers. Unaffected by his wounds, he threw grenades until they ran out, shot his gun until it jammed, used his gun as a baton until it broke, and finally used a bolo knife until the reinforcements arrived.
The French recognized Henry Johnson’s heroism with a Croix de Guerre, while the U.S. gave him the Medal of Honor – posthumously, almost 100 years later.
Johnson is part of a long African-American military tradition of exceptional devotion to a country that has denied black people their rights through its history and has discriminated and humiliated its black soldiers.
These were the men of the iconic Civil War 54th Volunteer Infantry of Massachusetts and of the Harlem Hellfighters in World War I, of the Buffalo Soldiers on the border, and of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen in World War II.
They always fought a two-front war – against the enemy in battle and against prejudice at home. They fought to prove their courage and that they were as – or, more – American than their white countrymen.
They hoped that their patriotic commitment would ease the grip on racist repression, and they were disappointed, often cruel. Still, they volunteered and fought if given the chance.
As one observer puts it, “African American military service is older than the United States itself.” Blacks fought in colonial militias in the French and Indian War, then in the Revolutionary War and the War of 1812 (although slavery meant they did not fight reliably on the American side).
Whites resisted arming black men for fear of rebellions and they were banned from the military. But during the civil war it became clear that they were a willing extra manpower that the Union could not ignore.
Wary of offending white views to the north, Lincoln took cautious steps before embracing black soldiers. He said that at the end of the war, “there will be a few black men who remember that with a silent tongue, clenched teeth, a steady eye, and a balanced bayonet, they helped humanity to this great consummation; while I fear that there will be some white people who cannot forget that they, with an evil heart and deceitful language, have strived to prevent this. ‘
About 180,000 black soldiers served, about 9 percent of all Union forces. The vast majority came from slave states. Joining them risked reconquest, or worse, if captured by Southern forces. Ultimately, they helped destroy the slave system that had enslaved many of them shortly before their military service.
Of course, the South developed a new system of racial repression. At the beginning of the First World War, W.E.B. Du Bois was a strong believer in black recruitment, hoping the sacrifice would lead to better treatment. “While this war lasts, let’s forget our special grievances and join our ranks shoulder to shoulder with our own white fellow citizens,” he wrote.
African Americans made up more than 200,000 of the 2 million-strong US Expeditionary Force. But they got more respect from French commanders, who trained them and put them on the frontline, than their own commanders. And they returned home to have riots and lynchings.
The dashing hope of black soldiers throughout much of our history makes their allegiance all the more remarkable.
William Carney was born a slave in Virginia in 1840 and achieved freedom in Massachusetts. He joined the 54th Volunteer Infantry Regiment of Massachusetts and took part in the shocking attack on Fort Wagner in South Carolina depicted in the movie Glory.
Carney took custody of the flag when the sergeant was shot. He kept it under heavy fire and safely returned it to Union Lines despite serious injuries. “Guys,” he said, “the old flag never hit the ground.”