must prevent the rise of any pronounced degree of intimacy between French
officers and Black officers. We may be courteous and amiable with the
last but we cannot deal with them on the same plane as white American
officers without deeply wounding the latter. We must not eat with them,
must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them or to meet with them
outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too
highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans. Make a point
of keeping the native cantonment from spoiling the Negro. White Americans
become very incensed at any particular expression of intimacy between
white women and black men."
Five months after Lt. Pershing praised black fighting men at San Juan Hill, that same regiment was stationed in Huntsville, Alabama. There, a black civilian killed two black enlisted men. The assassin was apparently motivated by a belief that whites would pay a reward for every dead black soldier. Such is the paradox woven into the history of the black soldier and sailor in American military service.
Blacks contributed to the defense of the colonies long before the Revolution, but were excluded from the colonial militia in peacetime. In fact, there has been no American war and few battles that have not involved Americans of African descent. They fought on both sides in the Revolution and have been in every war, declared or otherwise, from then till the present.
Until 1948, the American military had always been segregated.
In peacetime, the country, and the southern states in particular, were reluctant to arm blacks. And in war, the country generally allowed blacks to serve only after white recruitment shortages became an issue. In spite of that, African Americans often served honorably and fought hard overseas to win or preserve freedoms that they themselves did not enjoy at home.
The story of African Americans in combat is little different then the story of whites in the military. There have been heroes and there have been cowards. There has been competence and there has been ineptitude. However, there are two exceptions...two things that make the experience different: The first exception is that blacks have always had to deal with racism while debunking the stereotype of the unfit black warrior.
The second exception is that the black warriors have often been invisible to the public. Television and movies, from which so much of America learns their 'history', has often glorified white heroes and not even mentioned the roles played by black soldiers and sailors. In the popular movie Patton in which the main character is played by George C. Scott, Patton gives a famous and memorable speech to a battalion of white soldiers. In fact, that famous speech was given to the all-black 761st Tank Battalion.
What follows, then, are the stories of African Americans in the military. Some of the stories are heroic, some are tragic. Most of them are simply little known stories about black warriors who were doing what was expected of them as American fighting men.
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