It is important that as we consider the contributions of African Americans, that we see this history not only through the filter of an African American history celebration, but as an integral part of American history.
A large part of American history has been shaped by our military. From Bunker Hill to the Civil War to the current military operations around the globe. American servicemen and women have left their mark on history and on our society.
There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African Americans did not serve proudly.
Crossing the Delaware
Approximately 5,000 black Soldiers, mostly from New England, served in the Continental Army. They were artillerymen, infantrymen and musicians. In April 1775, African Americans fought at the Battle of Concord, and on Christmas Day 1776, African Americans crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington.
Unfortunately, the contributions of black Americans to the birth of the nation were, for the most part, unrecorded and soon forgotten. In the years following the Revolution, African Americans were virtually eliminated from the military forces of our young country.
In 1792, Congress passed legislation that limited military service only to "free, able-bodied, white male citizens."
However, when New Orleans was threatened during the War of 1812, a segregated unit called the Battalion of Free Men of Color held its portion of the line and then counterattacked.
After the battle, Gen. Andrew Jackson addressed the black troops:
"You surpassed my hopes. The nation shall applaud your valor."
Despite the heroism of black units during the War of 1812, African Americans were again barred from military service until the Civil War. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 declared that former slaves could join the armed forces of the United States.
This order began a national policy of recruiting and organizing African American regiments. By the end of the Civil War, approximately 180,000 black men -- about 10 percent of the Union Army -- served as Soldiers.
During America's expansion westward, black Soldiers again protected American interests. Black troops nicknamed "Buffalo Soldiers" served long, isolated tours of duty in the Southwest. Their duties included protecting settlers, building roads, guarding the mail, and protecting the engineers and laborers who built the railroads.
Buffalo Soldiers fought in more than 100 battles with Native American tribes in the Indian Wars. Their presence was key to the growth of America in the west.
In World War I, more than 350 thousand black Americans served in segregated units, mostly as support troops. The myth that African Americans were unsuitable for combat was shattered by the 369th Infantry Regiment -- an all-black unit. They supported the French army for 191 days on the front lines and received the French "Cross of War" medal for bravery in combat.
African American nurses also served with distinction in the first world war. Working side by side with their white colleagues, they treated all patients, regardless of race.
One historian wrote: "Although these nurses were required to live in segregated quarters, the strength and dignity of the black women prevailed and they served their country and practiced their profession with great skill and distinction."
During World War II, more than one million African Americans served in uniform. Perhaps the most famous segregated unit was the 332nd Fighter Group of the U.S. Army Air Forces. These Airmen were part of the experimental Tuskegee Training program, which trained African Americans to be aviators.
Skeptics of the program believed that African Americans were incapable of mastering the complex skills of aviation. But they were soon proven wrong, and many German combat planes fell from the skies at the hands of the Tuskegee pilots.
The Six-Triple-Eight Central Postal Directory Battalion was the first and only all-female African American unit deployed overseas during World War II. The women were assigned to Birmingham, England; Rouen, France; and Paris, France to sort mail in the European theater of operations.
Their mission was to clear a two-year backlog within six months. They did it in three, working around the clock in cold, dirty, dark, rat-infested aircraft hangars with broken windows.
Part of the Women's Army Corps, the Six-Triple-Eight, had a motto: "No mail, low morale." But these women did far more than distribute letters and packages. As the largest unit of African American women to ever serve overseas, they led a change in racial and gender roles in the military.
Although African Americans fought with distinction in World War II, they returned home to a segregated America. Black Americans were still treated as second-class citizens and not permitted to drink from the same water fountains or sit at the same lunch counters.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for equal opportunity for all members of the armed forces.
The segregated Army became a thing of the past. Soon the segregation of American society as a whole would begin to crumble.
Since that time, African Americans have courageously served our nation alongside their countrymen and women of all races. Today, African Americans make up about 19 percent of the Army and serve at every level of military leadership.
Legacy of America
The Army simply could not accomplish its missions without the skill and dedication of all of its members. We find our true strength in our ability to bring together people of different races, cultures and faiths who share common values like duty, honor, selfless service, loyalty and respect and humility.
It is fitting that we celebrate and honor the differences that make us unique and the shared ideals that bring us together. Regardless of our roots, we remain first, last and always -- Americans.
This is the legacy of African American history; this is American history.
It is the legacy of America and hope for our future.
Editor's Note: This story originally ran in the February 6, 2020 Fort Meade Soundoff.