Black History Month celebrates the achievements of black Americans and recognizes their integral roles in American history. Black history in the military is a narrowed focus to the point of celebrating those men and women who bravely fought for America’s greater good, but who were also groundbreakers in our armed forces and our nation’s long (and scarred) journey for justice in our civil rights.
Black history in the military is most often celebrated by honoring the “firsts.” The men and women who were “firsts’ in whatever rank or branch and this list of firsts from BlackPast.org is a good jumping off point:
- U.S Army unit to have black men comprise more than half of its troops: 1st Rhode Island Regiment, 1778.
- Commissioned officer in the U.S. Navy: Robert Smalls, 1863.
- Commissioned officer above the rank of Captain in the U.S. Army: Major Martin R. Delany, 1865.
- West Point graduate: Henry O. Flipper, 1877.
- Graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy: Wesley A. Brown, 1949.
- Congressional Medal of Honor winner: Sgt. William H. Carney, 1900.
- Combat pilot: Eugene Jacques Bullard, 1917.
- General: Benjamin O. Davis, Sr., 1940.
- Woman general: Hazel W. Johnson, 1979.
- Woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy: Janie L. Mines, 1980.
- Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff: Colin Powell, 1989–1993.
- Woman Rear Admiral in the United States Navy: Lillian Fishburne, 1998.
- – See more at: http://www.blackpast.org/aah/101-african-american-firsts#sthash.aKHYU2Jx.dpuf
Other pioneers in black history in the military:
Willa Beatrice Brown (1906-1992)
Brown earned her Master’s Degree in Business Administration and briefly taught high school before becoming a social worker and then learning to fly. In 1935, she earned her Masters Mechanic Certificate from Curtiss Wright Aeronautical University, and in 1937 became the first African-American woman to earn her commercial pilot’s license.
She trained hundreds of pilots, including many of the men who would later be known as the Tuskegee Airmen. Brown was the first black officer (Lieutenant) in the Civil Air Patrol.
After the war she ran for congress, becoming the first African-American woman to do so.
Howard P. Perry
In 1942, Howard P. Perry was the first black man to enlist in the Marine Corps. Perry was one of 120 black recruits and they trained at Montford Point in NC, a separate camp from the white marines.
The Montford Point Marines
Approximately 20,000 black men joined the U.S. Marine forces, training at Montford Point, and around 12,000 were shipped to combat (mostly) in the Pacific during WWII.
“These brave men of Montford Point were invaluable, both on the battlefield and on the home front, in raising the standards for our military and our country. They deserve to be honored.” –David Moore, Veterans United
In 2012, 368 surviving Montford Point Marines were awarded the Congressional Medal of Honor for their service in WWII.
Among the most well-known, the Tuskegee Airmen were the first black Americans to join the Air Force on the heels of it finally being made legal. The first 5 airmen earned their wings on on March 7, 1942 from the Tuskegee Institute (now the Tuskegee University) in Alabama.
Daniel “Chappie” James, Jr. (1920-1978)
A General in the Air Force, James was the first black officer to achieve 4-start general rank. He was a distinguished public speaker and dedicated to speaking to youth, and minorities in particular. He trained pilots during WWII and is therefore considered a Tuskegee Airmen–perhaps one of the most famous. He flew over a hundred combat missions in the Korean and Vietnam Wars.
Sherian Grace Cadoria was the first African-American woman to achieve Brigadier General rank and the first woman to “command an all-male battalion,” and “to lead a criminal investigation brigade,” and she was “the first African American woman admitted to the U.S. Army Command & General Staff College and the U.S. Army War College. In 1985, she became the first African American woman to serve as a director for the Joint Chiefs of Staff.”
“Success is a shared journey. My mentors were always there for me and I try to be a mentor to young people. To me, success is having the ability to serve others by sharing your talents, your time, your resources, and always extending your hand to pull someone along so they, too, can journey forward.” – Sherian Grace Cadoria (USSKIDD)
Matice Wright (b.1965)
The first black woman naval flight officer in the U.S. Navy. She is the Principal Director for Industrial Policy at the Department of Defense. She names General “Chappie” James and Vice Admiral Walt Davis as two black trailblazers whose footsteps she proudly followed.
These are a handful of the firsts in black history in the military. You can find more “firsts” on our Pinterest board: Black History in the Military. Of course, there are myriad black male and female trailblazers who contributed to the progression of our nation’s legislation and overall paradigm. Even as we honor the men and women we have record of, we know there were many who fought the battles (on and off the literal battlefield) and whose names or photographs weren’t recorded. We owe much to these men and women, named and unnamed, remembered and forgotten, for impacting our history and our future.