Racial discrimination against African Americans in the U.S. Military

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An African-American Military Policeman on a motorcycle in front of the "colored" MP entrance, Columbus, Georgia, in 1942.

African-American discrimination in the U.S. Military refers to discrimination against any persons of African descent who have served in the U.S. military from its creation during the Revolutionary War to the end of segregation by President Harry S. Truman's Executive Order 9981 in 1948 that officially ended segregation in the U.S. military.

Revolutionary War[edit]

African-Americans served on both sides of the war in the capacity of both fighting men and slaves. While the northern states had opened up their state militias to freed slaves, it was forbidden in the south to arm slaves as the southern planters feared the worst from their former slaves. The Royal Governor of Virginia, Lord Dunmore, issued an emancipation proclamation in November 1775, promising freedom to runaway slaves who fought for the British. Sir Henry Clinton, Commander in Chief of British forces, issued a similar edict in New York in 1779. Over 100,000 slaves escaped to the British lines; most served as laborers or orderlies for the British. Though the former slaves were promised freedom, they eventually ended up in Canada due to the British losing the Revolutionary War.

In response, George Washington lifted the ban on black enlistment in the Continental Army in January 1776. All-black units were formed in Rhode Island and Massachusetts; many enrollees were slaves promised freedom for serving. At least 5,000 African-American soldiers fought as revolutionaries, while at least 20,000 served with the British.

War of 1812[edit]

While whites still did not particularly like the idea of arming blacks during the war, a majority of the sailors in the U.S. Navy were black. In fact, during the Battle of Lake Erie African-Americans made up about one-quarter of the personnel in the American naval squadrons. While they served faithfully in the Navy, they were not allowed to serve in the Army. The law of 1792, which generally prohibited enlistment of blacks in the Army, became the United States Army's official policy until 1862. Due to its chronic shortage of personnel, the Navy never bothered with any restrictions on the enlistment of African-Americans.

Civil War[edit]

The Civil War was no doubt the pivotal moment in deciding the fate of African-Americans. A Union victory would mean a swift end to the institution of slavery. A victory for the Confederacy would continue the institution. From the beginning the war was not seen as a war to end slavery; it was seen as a war to preserve the union. The enlistment of blacks on either side was unheard of outside of state militias until 17 July 1862; Congress passed two acts allowing the enlistment of African-Americans. However, official enrollment occurred only after September 1862. From the moment they donned the uniforms of the Union, African-Americans proved themselves to be invaluable troops; they exceeded all expectations. At first, however, they were not employed on the battlefield; instead, they were used as labor. White soldiers and officers believed that black men lacked the ability to fight well. African-American soldiers of the 1st Kansas Colored Volunteers silenced their critics by repulsing attacking Confederate guerrillas at the skirmish at Island Mound, Missouri in October 1862.

Although black soldiers proved themselves as reputable soldiers, discrimination in pay and other areas remained widespread. According to the Militia Act of 1862, soldiers of African descent were to receive $10.00 a month, with an optional deduction for clothing at $3.00. In contrast, white privates received $13.00 per month plus a clothing allowance of $3.50.

Following the Civil War, an effort was made to allow blacks to attend the United States Naval Academy. John H. Conyers of South Carolina was nominated by South Carolina congressman Robert Elliota and became a midshipman on 21 September 1872.[1] During his first year at the academy, Conyers was subject to severe, ongoing hazing, including verbal torment, shunning, and beatings. His classmates even attempted to drown him, among other abuses. Conyers finally yielded to the chronic academic, physical, and mental haranguing and resigned in October 1873.[2]

World War I[edit]

When the call finally came for men to join the army, African-American were only too eager to heed their nation's call yet again. By the war's end over 350,000 African-Americans will have swelled the American ranks. While they were eager to join the fight, the U.S. military was still segregated. The white officers didn't particularly like the idea of arming blacks and training them in how to use the weapons. Most African-American units were largely relegated to support roles and did not see combat.

When the Americans finally arrived in France, the allied commanders begged and pleaded for soldiers. They already had competent officers – they just needed soldiers. The American commander General John J. Pershing refused to cannibalize any of his units nor send them into combat until they were ready. Instead he relinquished his black soldiers to their command. In return the allies put them on the hardest, dirtiest, and most dangerous missions they could think of. One of the black units, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, saw some of the toughest battles of the war.

World War II[edit]

During World War II, African-American enlistment was at an all time high, with more than 1 million serving in the armed forces.[3] However, the U.S. military was still heavily segregated. The air force and the marines had no blacks enlisted in their ranks, and the navy only accepted blacks as cooks and waiters. The army had only five African-American officers.[3] In addition, no African-American would receive the Medal of Honor during the war, and their tasks in the war were largely reserved to noncombat units. Black soldiers had to sometimes give up their seats in trains to the Nazi prisoners of war.[3]

It would take over 50 years and a presidential order before the U.S. Army reviewed their records in order to award any Medals of Honor to black soldiers. This war marked the end of segregation in the U.S. military. In 1948 President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, officially ending segregation and racial inequality in the military.


  1. ^ "Black History Legends Nuggets". Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  2. ^ Clare, Rod (July 2005). "The Sixth Wave: Black Integration in the U.S. Naval Academy". Retrieved 9 March 2013. 
  3. ^ a b c Foner, Eric (1 February 2012). Give Me Liberty!: An American History (3 ed.). W. W. Norton & Company. p. 696. ISBN 0393935531. 

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