By Eric Pilgrim, Fort Knox News EditorFebruary 16, 2018
"For more than 200 years, African-Americans have participated in every conflict in United States history. They have not only fought bravely the common enemies of the United States but have also had to confront the individual and institutional racism of their countrymen."
-- Retired Lt. Col. Michael Lee Lanning, author of The African-American Soldier: From Crispus Attucks to Colin Powell.
The quote hangs on the front of this year's U.S. Army tribute page to African American military history, a history that spans from 1770 and includes more than 103,000 African-American Soldiers in today's Army.
Like the Army, Fort Knox has embraced diversity over the years, oftentimes leading the way as American society at large has resisted change. One-hundred years of history have demonstrated just how far the post and the country have come in ensuring freedom and equality for all men and women.
With the stroke of a pen July 26, 1948, President Harry Truman established a committee whose job it was to ensure "there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion or national origin."
Before that time, the Army "operated under a policy of racial segregation and African-Americans were commonly relegated to supply and labor jobs," according to "1917-1918: World War I" on theAfrican-Americans Timeline at Army.mil.
Maltreatment and oppression of black Soldiers at Fort Knox during this timeframe was noted in a 1922 letter to the editor in the NAACP'sThe Crisis publication, where a black Reserve Officer Training Camp candidate highlighted his attempts to attend the school as the "only Negro" in a group of 500 men, only to be "subjected to all manner of insults."
By the time World War II drew the United States into the fray, military leaders had begun warming up to the idea of not only enlisting black men into the regular Army, but also deploying all-black combat units that would prove their worth on the battlefield.
According to author Joe Wilson's latest book, titled The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II, the political environment was primed for black Soldiers' entrance into the ranks.
"This took years of protests and a lot of political clout because African Americans had to fight for the right to fight," writes Wilson. "Segregation and discrimination had reached critical levels and the Pittsburgh Courier called for the 'Double V Campaign.' It appealed for victory abroad against the forces of global domination and victory at home against racism."
Among the first units was 78th Tank Battalion. On Jan. 13, 1941, Army leaders established it as the first ever black armor unit. By March, Soldiers were arriving to Fort Knox, eager to learn about armored warfare.
Redesignated the 758th on May 8, the unit became the first of three battalions to comprise 5th Tank Group -- units filled with black enlisted men, but led by white officers.
According to Wilson, the unit achieved success in the field of battle in northern Italy, on the picturesque beaches of the Liguria Sea and across Po Valley, then up the rugged Apennine Mountains. They later breached the Gothic Line along the summits of the Apennines.
Nicknamed the Tuskers after their designated mascot -- the African elephant -- the Soldiers of 758th enjoyed continued success in war. Success, however, didn't come as easily after the war had ended.
"By the end of summer 1945, with World War II over, twelve million Veterans were returning home including over 800,000 black Veterans," writes Wilson. "After fighting for freedom and democracy abroad, they came home to find it denied to them. What they found was a wave of anti-black terror, mostly but not limited to southern states."
Truman issued his Executive Order 9981 amid this backdrop.
"It is essential that there be maintained in the armed services of the United States the highest standards of democracy, with equality of treatment and opportunity for all those who serve in our country's defense," reads the order.
Armed with the president's order and fresh from victories over oppressive racist regimes whose hallmark was discrimination of others, black men and women who had served honorably in World War II turned their attentions to racism in America.
"Most were bitterly disappointed --segregation was still the law of the land," writes Wilson. "For many, disappointment became a determination to fight discrimination with the same resolve that had defeated the Axis."
Editor's Note: Joe Wilson Jr.'s novel,The 758th Tank Battalion in World War II: The U.S. Army's First All African American Tank Unit, has been released for sale this week at major bookstores and online. His father served in 761st Tank Battalion.