As we draw near to the end of Black History Month, we couldn’t miss this opportunity to celebrate the incredible achievements of Black men and women who have served in our military throughout history. As a nation we still have growing to do, but thanks to their heroic efforts both at war and in fighting discrimination we have made great progress towards equity and justice. Here at American Dream U we are dedicated to continuing to make every service member’s transition as smooth as possible so that we may all reach our greater future!
In honor of Black History Month, in honor of Black History Month, we have highlighted some amazing Black men and women who have served our country:
1st Rhode Island Regiment
During the Revolutionary War, the 1st Rhode Island Regiment was one of the few that allowed Black soldiers and Native American soldiers, as well as White soldiers, to enlist. The 1st Rhode Island Regiment displayed exemplary skill and bravery.
Of particular note were their roles in the Battle of Rhode Island and the Battle of Yorktown. In the Battle of Rhode Island on Aquidneck Island, they “held their line for four hours against British-Hessian assaults, enabling the entire American Army to escape a trap,” according to the U.S. Army.
In the Battle of Yorktown (1781), the 1st Rhode Island Regiment helped capture Redoubt 10, which allowed the American and French armies to attack the British relentlessly from an advantageous position. Ultimately, “the capture of Redoubts 9 and 10 were the final straw in the defeat of [British General] Cornwallis’ army,” and the Battle of Yorktown was the final battle of the Revolutionary War. Unfortunately, despite their pivotal role, Black soldiers of the 1st Rhode Island Regiment did not receive compensation after the war.
From the very beginning of our nation’s history, Black soldiers played a key role in gaining and defending our freedom.
54th Massachusetts Infantry
The 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment was an all-Black regiment of the Union Army during the Civil War. In the face of great discrimination they fought bravely for freedom. They led an assault on Fort Wagner “through darkness and across a marsh with water 4-feet deep” that opened the door for more Black individuals to enlist in the Union Army.
According to the National Park Service, “The courage of the soldiers in the 54th convinced many politicians and Army officers of their value, prompting the further enlistment of black soldiers.”
One member of the 54th was Sergeant William H. Carney, who was the first African American to receive the Congressional Medal of Honor. Sgt. Carney was born enslaved in Virginia and escaped to freedom in Massachusetts via the Underground Railroad. He then later chose to serve in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment despite discrimination within the government and military, such as unequal pay.
President Theodore Roosevelt awarded him the Medal of Honor 37 years after his service. Since Sgt. Carney, many Black soldiers have received this prestigious award.
369th Infantry Regiment “Harlem Hellfighters”
The 369th Infantry Regiment was composed of all Black soldiers and they were the first to go overseas during World War I. They are better known as the “Harlem Hellfighters,” a nickname given to them by the Germans for their ferocity in battle.
The Harlem Hellfighters faced great discrimination during their service. Even their name “369th Infantry Regiment” was an insult, as members of the Harlem Hellfighters were all volunteers and numbers over 200 were usually given to regiments that had been drafted. After serving labor duties and being barred from the farewell parade, the Harlem Hellfighters were eventually assigned to assist the French overseas.
The unit faced 191 days in combat, longer than any other American unit of its size in the war. They never lost a foot of ground and were awarded the Croix de Guerre, France’s highest reward for bravery, as a whole unit. In addition, 171 individual members of the Harlem Hellfighters were awarded the Croix de Guerre medal.
Two such recipients were Private Henry Johnson and Private Needham Roberts. The two faced a German patrol (at least 24 soldiers) by themselves while on watch. According to the National Museum of African American History and Culture, after Private Roberts was severely injured, Private Johnson “fought off an entire German patrol despite being severely wounded and out of ammunition.”
The Smithsonian Magazine offers this account of Johnson’s actions: “The German forces rushed into the Americans’ dugout. Johnson shot one German in the chest, point-blank, then swung his rifle to club another. Two enemy soldiers tried to haul Roberts away, until Johnson drove his nine-inch knife into one of their skulls. Another German shot Johnson in the shoulder and thigh; Johnson lunged with his knife and slashed him down. The enemy soldiers ran. Johnson chucked grenades as they fled.”
Though Private Johnson was recognized by the French with the Croix de Guerre, he was not recognized by the United States until 2015, when he was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.
6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (Six Triple Eight)
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion (also known as the Six Triple Eight) was a division of the Women’s Army Corps comprised entirely of Black women. These remarkable women where led by Major Charity Adams, herself a Black woman as well.
The Six Triple Eight contributed to World War II by answering the call to fix the mail backlogging problem overseas. Major Adams organized them into three eight-hour shifts so they could work 24/7 to get soldiers their mail. They solved 6-months of backlogging in record time by using 7 million information cards to keep track of the ever-changing whereabouts of soldiers so their mail could be delivered.
The women of Six Triple Eight recognized how detrimental low morale could be to the war effort and worked tirelessly to buoy soldiers’ spirits by receiving mail from loved ones at home.
The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion faced significant discrimination both abroad and when they returned home. According to the US Army Center of Military History, “In February 1946, the remainder of the unit returned to the United States and was disbanded at Fort Dix, New Jersey, without further ceremony. There were no parades, no public appreciation, and no official recognition of their accomplishments, although Charity Adams was promoted to Lieutenant Colonel upon her return to the U.S.”
Celebrating Our History
These are only a few of the incredible men and women who have served in our military to make the United States as it is today. We hope all will honor their bravery and sacrifice by learning more about Black individuals who are important historical figures and by continuing to advocate for equity and justice for all today.