African American Advancements

By Shirley K. Startzman

    When the Civil War started in 1861, the war was for "union"...for one United States of America. In 1863, President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, freeing slaves in all territory still at war with the Union. Those slaves flocked to incoming Union armies. Military commanders saw these "contrabands"—as they were called—as a ready pool of man power to enlist.

    Lincoln authorized the enlist ment of African Americans, who served in segregated units under white officers. Ultimately, 186,000 African Americans fought for the Union during the Civil War.

    African Americans such as Crispus Attucks, Pompey Lamb, James Armistead and Mark Starlin stand as role models from the days of the Revolutionary War. Attucks, an escaped slave and sailor, was among the first patriots killed at the Boston Massacre in 1770. The British provided Lamb with their password so he could enter their hold at Stony Point, New York, to sell food after dark. On the night of Gen. "Mad Anthony" Wayne’s successful assault on the fort, it was said the British opened the gates to the password called out by Pompey Lamb.

    The Virginia Legislature awarded Armistead his freedom as a result of his intelligence service contributions. Working for Lafayette, he delivered a bogus order in crumpled, dirty condition to Cornwallis, who did not learn he had been tricked until after the Battle of Yorktown. Starlin was a captain in the revolutionary Navy.

    From the Civil War through 1948, African Americans distin guished themselves—during the Indian Wars, the Spanish-Ameri can War and World Wars I and II. Charles Young was the third African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy and the first to rise to field grade rank in the Regular Army.

    In World War II, the United States Army formed two black infantry divisions: one fought in Italy, the other in the Pacific. The Army Air Forces formed several all-black squadrons. The Navy commissioned black officers and manned ships with all-black crews. The Marine Corps, previously all white, integrated its service. The Counter Intelligence Corps initially had 69 black agents and four black lieutenants who served in the Caribbean Command during World War II.

    Heroism was not confined to the Army during the war. Dorie Miller shot down four Japanese planes in the attack on Pearl Harbor and was awarded the Navy Cross for outstanding heroism. Benjamin Davis Jr. led fighter pilots over Europe.

    The official policy of segre gation broke down under the strain of combat. In December 1944, the enemy launched what came to be known as the Battle of the Bulge. As a result, black soldiers were integrated into previously all-white units.

    In 1948, the experiences of World War II led many officials to believe segregated units were wrong.

    President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, on July 26, 1948, establishing the President’s Com mittee on Equality of Treat ment and Opportunity in the Armed Forces. It recommended to the president that segrega tion end in the military.

    The Korean War broke out in 1950, forcing the Army to integrate faster than planned. In the 1960’s, Army intelligence opened positions to African Americans on a large-scale basis. African-American women were among the thousands of women who served in Vietnam. Doris Allen enlisted in the Army in 1950. In 1967, she volunteered to serve in Vietnam as an enlisted intelligence officer for three years. Allen predicted the TET offensive shortly after arriving in country, but her prediction was dismissed. Allen worked as a special agent with both military intelligence and the Defense Investigative Service until her retirement. She retired as a chief warrant officer with 30 years of dedicated service.

    During OPERATION DESERT STORM, Gen. Colin Powell, a Vietnam veteran, headed the Joint Chiefs of Staff during the Persian Gulf Conflict. Lt. Gen. Calvin Waller served as deputy commander for the Central Command during the same time.

    Today, most Americans view the U.S. armed forces as a meritocracy — a place where you rise on what you know and how well you do, not the color of your skin, your gender or your religion. That believe is echoed by Gen. Dennis K. Reimer, Army Chief of Staff.

    In today’s Army, "you are not limited by race or gender," he said.

    Shirley Startzman is the command information officer, Public Affairs Office, INSCOMHeadquarters, Fort Belvoir, Va.

    Sources used for this article: "Military Intelligence, A Fact Book," An American Forces Press Service release and a speech by Gen. Dennis K. Reimer at the 1997 WorldWide Public Affairs Conference.

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   Last Updated: April 30, 1997