Some 27 years ago, the April 1991 issue of The New Orleans Tribune was dedicated to the legacy of Black men and women who served America as part of its military from the Revolutionary War through the most recent war at the time, Desert Storm. Executive Publisher Dr. Dwight McKenna penned Publisher’s Note for that edition. The commentary, titled “Blacks in the Military—Land of the Free, Home of the Slave”, paid homage to and detailed the numbers of Black men and women who had served in every branch of the U.S. armed forces and in every war and conflict—often times fighting for freedom and rights they were not themselves afforded by the country they bravely defended and called home.
As a part of The Tribune’s ongoing series, 300 in Black: A Tricentennial Salute, we are reprinting Dr. McKenna’s editorial to commemorate both Black History Month 2018, the theme of which is African Americans in Time of War, and the New Orleans’s Tricentennial.
by Dr. Dwight McKenna
Black Americans have valiantly served their nation through all of its armed struggles. Patriotism, coupled with thoughts of equal opportunity and even after the guns ceased fire, motivated most.
During the Revolutionary War, approximately 5,000 Blacks fought with the Continental Army—this in spite of the British offering freedom to all slaves joining their cause. About 900 Black soldiers sided with England. The slaves freed by the British settled in London, Sierra Leone and Nova Scotia. American armies returned many soldiers to slavery despite pledges to free them.
About 180,000 Blacks (10 percent of Union forces) joined the armed forces during the Civil War. Frederick Douglass, the great abolitionist, encouraged many to join, again as a way of expediting deliverance from bondage. Roughly 37,300 Black soldiers died during the Civil War. Black Americans were ostensibly free with the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 by Abraham Lincoln.
Americans of color continued combat in subsequent wars. The Spanish American War in Cuba (1898) saw Blacks gallantly battle, with six winning Congressional Medals of Honor. When Teddy Roosevelt charged Kettle Hill, he found Blacks from the 10th Calvary at the top awaiting his arrival, wondering what took him so long. World War I (1914-1918) and World War II (1939-1945) once again featured Blacks in the thick of strife. Although 200,000 served in World War I, only 10 percent were assigned to combat units, mostly with French divisions. And World War II engaged 900,000 Blacks, 8.7 percent of American forces.
Throughout all of the aforementioned wars, Blacks served in segregated units. It was not until 1948 that President Harry Truman desegregated the armed forces; and Korea was the first conflict in which American troops were desegregated. At the time, 219,000 Blacks served in the U.S. armed forces, accounting for 13 percent of service men and women; 3,123 died in combat, accounting for 9.3 percent of total U.S. combat deaths.
The war in Vietnam saw 350,000 Black Americans, or 9.8 percent of all armed forces, serving their nation. Of those, 7,261 were killed in combat—15 percent of all combat deaths.
In the recent Operation Desert Storm in the Persian Gulf, 104,000 Blacks served, representing 20 percent of all United States forces. Included were 12,400 Black females—half of all U.S. women serving in the armed forces in the Middle East conflict. Pentagon statistics show Blacks comprised 29.8 percent of Army troops; 21.3 percent of Navy forces; 13.5 percent of Air Force troops; and 16.9 percent of Marines in the Kuwait theater of operations.
Black Americans have served this nation with distinction through all of its epic conflicts. And they have served through slavery, segregation and degradation. They responded at all times without fail.
They served while others of more privileged circumstances sought refuge in the reserves and National Guard to escape the label “killed in action.”
They served with their blood stained on the battlefield and dripping from the fangs of attack dogs in the South. They served with memories of lynching ropes, bullwhips, firehoses and electric prods ingrained in their minds.
They served with the word nigger and the chant “if you’re Black get back” ringing in their ears.
They served with visions of broken promises and second class citizenship imprinted on their hearts.
Time and time again they returned home knocking at the door of the land of opportunity to find no answer. Perhaps on this occasion somebody will be home.