JOINT BASE LEWIS-MCCHORD, Wash. – Although Black Americans have always been a vital component of the U.S. military, the conditions under which they served were long under debate. Less than 75 years ago, although serving just as courageously and selflessly as their white counterparts, Black Soldiers weren’t treated as such.
Approximately 1 million Black Americans served in the military during World War II; however, many were mistreated and experienced racism upon returning home. This influenced former President Harry S. Truman to issue Executive Order 9981 directing the armed services to integrate. The armed services simply could not accomplish its missions without the skill and dedication of all its members.
“It’s evident that the armed forces has made tremendous strides towards inclusion and diversity, but there is still room for improvement,” said Col. Christopher Hall, Joint Base Lewis-McChord deputy commander. “I have been fortunate to have leaders that look like me be able to push and guide me as I’ve progressed through the ranks, and that speaks volumes.”
Black Americans have been serving in the U.S. Navy since the American Revolution. There are several ships in the fleet named in honor of those Sailors who have helped shape the Navy’s diversity, equality and inclusivity.
According to the Department of Defense, as of 2021 there were 1,319,283 active-duty service members and of those, 227,974, or 17.3%, are African American.
“Being a Black woman serving in the Army can be hard at times as well as rewarding,” said Sgt. Candace Core, culinary sergeant with the 13th Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, 593rd Expeditionary Sustainment Command. “It’s rewarding to have other Black Soldiers look up to you and feel like if you did it, so can they. Also, for me, seeing Black women in higher positions gives me more motivation that equality is possible.”
One of the highest awards any service member can receive is the Medal of Honor. To date, 94 Black service members to include 70 Soldiers, seven Marines and 17 Sailors have been presented the Medal of Honor, the latest being U.S. Army Sgt. 1st Class Alwyn Cashe, on Dec. 16, 2021.
These service members join a long list of notable Black service members who have made their mark in Black military history. Some notable accomplishments have been:
- Cathay Williams – 1866: First Black female to enlist in the U.S. Army
- Sgt. William Carney – 1863: First Black Medal of Honor recipient
- 2nd Lt. Henry Ossian Flipper 1877: First Black cadet graduate of the U.S. Military Academy
- Eugene Jacques Bullard – 1917: First American Black military aviator and the only Black pilot in World War I; but because of his race he never allowed to fly for American forces – he flew for France during the war
- Maj. Della Raney – 1942: First Black chief nurse commissioned as a lieutenant in the Army Nurse Corps
- Annie Neal Graham – 1949: First Black female to enlist in the U.S. Marines Corps
- Frederick C. Branch – 1945: First Black officer of the U.S. Marine Corps
- Jesse L. Brown – 1947: First Black U.S. Navy aviator
- Gen. Frank Emmanuel Petersen Jr. – 1952: First Black U.S. Marine Corps aviator and the first Black general in the Marines
- Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. – 1954: First Black brigadier general in the U.S. Air Force; was promoted to his fourth star in 1998
- Capt. Bobby Wilks – 1957: First Black U.S. Coast Guard aviator and the first Black to reach the rank of captain in the Coast Guard
- Master Chief Petty Officer Carl Brashear – 1970: First Black master diver in the U.S. Navy
- Gen. Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. – 1975: First Black four-star general in the U.S. Air Force
- Clifford Alexander Jr. – 1977: First Black secretary of the U.S. Army
- Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown – 1979: First Black chief of the Army Nurse Corps and first Black female Army brigadier general
- Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. – 1982: First Black four-star general in the U.S. Army
- Maj. Gen. Fred Gorden – 1987: First Black commandant of cadets at the U.S. Military Academy
- Gen. Colin Powell – 1989: First Black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff
- Brig. Gen. Marcelite Harris – 1990: First Black female general in the U.S. Air Force
- Lt. Gen. Nadja West – 2016: First Black female lieutenant general and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy
- Cadet Simone Askew – 2017: First Black female to achieve the highest position in the cadet chain of command
- Capt. Remoshay Nelson – 2020: First Black female officer for the U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds
- Gen. Lloyd Austin III – 2021: First Black Secretary of Defense
Today's Black service members follow in the footsteps of their parents, grandparents and great-grandparents who served with distinction and honor for 245 years.
“All my life, I’ve wanted to be a Soldier,” said Lt. Gen. Xavier Brunson, current and only the second Black general to command I Corps. “It’s an honor to continue my dad’s legacy.”
Brunson’s father is a retired Army sergeant major who served in the Vietnam War. Brunson is the highest-ranking official on JBLM, and his wife, retired Col. Kirsten Brunson, was the first African American female judge in the Army.
“As long as we are still saying someone is the first to do something, we are not there yet,” he said. “When it happens, I am always happy, because someone can look at that and say, ‘if that person can do it, I can do it.’ The troublesome part of it is it doesn’t take into account what it took for that person to get there.”
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