For the most part, the history of America’s treatment of Black soldiers from the American Revolution to World War II is a long record of military neglect and shame. Included here are a few generally recognized African American heroes of various American wars or campaigns. Because of the nation’s reluctance to recognize Black military achievement from the founding of the nation through the end of World War II, many records of their heroic actions will forever rest on the fields of combat.
Still, there is no way to include all those who are known to deserve recognition in such small space, so we present only a few.
African Americans have fought heroically in every war since their arrival on these shores. From Crispus Attucks, the first man to die in the Boston Massacre on March 5, 1770, to Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr., a Los Angeles native who became a posthumous recipient of the Medal of Honor in 1997. These and many others have distinguished themselves in protecting the nation.
Attucks, who led the crowd of protesters against armed British soldiers, reportedly cried out, “Don’t be afraid!” before he bravely charged into the barrage of British gunfire.
In 1774, Lemuel Haynes, the abandoned offspring of an African father and a White mother, was born in West Hartford, Conn. Orphaned, he soon became an indentured servant. After his period of servitude ended at age 21, he enlisted as a Minuteman, volunteered in the Continental Army during the American Revolution and fought at the siege of Boston and at Fort Ticonderoga.
After the war Haynes, who was largely self-taught, studied Greek and Latin and later became a Congregationalist minister, the first African American ordained by any religious body in America.
It is estimated that about 5,000 Blacks–both slave and free–fought with the Continental Army. The New England regiments recruited slaves by promising them freedom, but often this promise was not kept. Still, during the course of the war about one-fifth of the northern army was Black.
Paul Cuffee, a wealthy shipping-fleet owner, was an abolitionist, a philanthropist. A Quaker and a pacifist, he helped supply the colonies with goods during the American Revolution. Cuffee was also an advocate of Blacks returning to Africa.
Civil War and late 19th century
Martin R. Delany, already distinguished as an abolitionist, journalist and a Harvard-trained physician, succeeded in getting a commission from President Abraham Lincoln as a major in the Union Army. His duty was to recruit African Americans to fight in all-Black units.
Although he was an ardent Black nationalist who hoped to assist African Americans in returning to Africa, Delany became the highest ranking Black field officer during the Civil War. He later became a businessman and a politician.
Henry O. Flipper was born to slave parents in Thomasville, Ga., in 1856. He was educated by the American Missionary Association and at Atlanta University and became the first African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy at West Point in New York.. He graduated as a second lieutenant.
In 1877, he was assigned to the Tenth U.S. Calvary–Buffalo Soldiers–one of two Black regiments formed after the Civil War. He was the first non-White officer to lead the regiment. His promising career was brutally hijacked when he was wrongfully court-martialed and discharged dishonorably from the military on the charge of embezzlement. It was the last of several major attempts to drum Flipper out of the military.
In spite of this injustice, and after several attempts to have his commission restored, Flipper found other ways to serve his country. Both in life and in death there were many attempts at a pardon. Fifty-nine years after his death in 1940, he received a posthumous pardon issued by President Bill Clinton in 1999.
World War II
Shaw University [in Raleigh, N.C.] led a research study to investigate why Black WWII veterans had been overlooked as recipients of the Medal of Honor, the nation’s highest military honor. Of the more than 400 Medals of Honor awarded, not one of the 1.2 million African Americans who served in the war was a recipient.
The study concluded that racism was the reason Black soldiers did not receive the award. The Shaw study named 10 soldiers whose military records warranted the Medal of Honor.
The Pentagon chose seven of the 10 soldiers recommended. All of those nominated had received less distinguished awards for their military service. President Clinton awarded them Medals of Honor on Jan. 13, 1997.
Only one of the seven nominees, 1st Lt. Vernon Baker of St. Maries, Ida., was alive to receive the Medal.
The posthumous Medal of Honor recipients were: 1st Lt. Charles L. Thomas of Detroit, Mich.; Pvt. George Watson of Birmingham, Ala.; Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter Jr. of Los Angeles, Calif.; 1st Lt. John R. Fox of Boston, Mass.; Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. of Kansas City, Ka.
Vernon J. Baker was born in 1919 and raised in Cheyenne, Wyo., by his grandparents. However, during his adolescence he spent two years in Boys Town, a suburb of Omaha, Neb., in a home for boys founded in 1917 by Father Edward J. Flanagan.
After graduation from high school, he began work as a porter on the railroad, but grew tired of the job and enlisted in the Army.
While serving with the all-Black 92nd Infantry Division near the northern Italian village of Viareggio, Baker and his 25 men were ordered to lead an assault on Castle Aghinolfi, a heavily guarded mountain fortress with a series of fortified bunkers, considered to be the one of the last lines of German defense.
The men fought their way within 300 yards of the castle. Noticing two rifle barrels protruding from a concealment in the rocks, Baker crawled toward them, popped up and killed the two German sentries. Another German soldier threw a hand grenade that landed near Baker and ran. Unmoved, Baker fired and killed the fleeing German. Fortunately, the grenade did not explode. Baker then crawled to another bunker and threw in a grenade. When a wounded German emerged, he killed him. He threw in a second grenade and killed two more Germans. After Baker rejoined his men, most of whom had been slaughtered by German fire, he and his remaining men eliminated two more machine-gun nests and killed four more Germans.
Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter Jr. was born in Los Angeles on May 26, 1916. One of the seven African Americans chosen to receive the Medal of Honor, it was awarded to him posthumously.
Carter’s parents were missionaries in Shanghai, China. At 15, he ran away and joined the Chinese Army, according to the history recorded at California State Military Museum. He was eventually enrolled in a Shanghai military school where he learned the Mandarin, German and Hindi languages.
Next, he fought in the Spanish Civil War with the socialist Abraham Lincoln Brigade, opposing Gen. Francisco Franco’s fascist forces. Much of the Brigade was later forced to flee to France, and this led to Carter’s return to the United States. Back home, he enlisted in the U.S. Army in 1941.
Carter was posthumously recognized, “For extraordinary heroism in action on 23 March 1945, near Speyer, Germany. When the tank on which he was riding received heavy bazooka and small arms fire, Sergeant Carter voluntarily attempted to lead a three-man group across an open field. Within a short time, two of his men were killed and the third seriously wounded,” said the Shaw University website.
“Continuing on alone, he was wounded five times and finally forced to take cover. As eight enemy riflemen attempted to capture him, Sergeant Carter killed six of them and captured the remaining two. He then crossed the field using as a shield his two prisoners from which he obtained valuable information concerning the disposition of enemy troops.”
Navy cook Doris “Dorie” Miller will forever be remembered for his heroism on the battleship West Virginia during the attack on Pearl Harbor in 1941. Although he had no training in the operation of .50-caliber anti-aircraft machine guns, he took control of one and began firing at Japanese aircraft, downing at least two.
Benjamin O. Davis Jr., the son of Benjamin O. Davis Sr., (one of two African American combat officers in the Army), became the first Black officer in the Air Force to achieve the rank of general. He led both the 99th Pursuit Squadron and the 332nd Fighter Group, both units of the Tuskegee Airmen.
There are a number of local Tuskegee Airmen and Montford Marines who remain to relate their experiences during World War II. (See Montford Marine story of Page 4.)
Claude C. Davis and Theodore G. “Ted” Lumpkin, both 91, met and became friends years later here in Los Angeles.
Lumpkin is the immediate past president of the Los Angeles chapter of the Tuskegee Airmen, a dying breed, since most of these men were in their late teens and early 20s when they were shipped to Tuskegee for training in the early 1940s.
Davis grew up in Pennsylvania, his family having moved there from his birthplace in Dolomite, Ala., when he was 9 months old.
Lumpkin was born in Los Angeles. He attended McKinley Avenue Elementary, Jefferson High and UCLA, but graduated from USC.
He was drafted into the military and served as an intelligence officer for the 100th Fighter Squadron of the 332nd Fighter Group in Italy. As part of the ground crew, intelligence officers’ duties were to brief and debrief pilots on their missions.
“It took 10 ground people to support one pilot in the air,” Lumpkin said. “We had fighter planes and they were one person in a plane. The planes were the P40, P39, P47 and P51. The P51 are the planes that you would see most of the time in terms of the publicity about the Tuskegee Airmen. That’s the plane with the red tail and probably the most famous one.”
Davis entered the military after four years of ROTC while getting his degree at Wilberforce College in Wilberforce, Ohio. He trained as a bomber pilot, but never got overseas.
“The conditions kept changing,” he said. “I finished in ’44 and went into training on the B25–a bomber. Our mission was going to be a bit different. We were going to bomb in Okinawa. We got in the last one-third of the war, when they decided that Blacks could actually fly the bomber.”
Tomorrow, Friday, Nov. 11, in Veterans Day. Therefore, it is reasonable that America should pause to honor the men and women who have put their lives on the line in service to our nation.