People of color have been integral to American military might from the time of America's inception. Even as settlers of the New World fought for freedom from British rule while enslaving others, many of those slaves—African-Americans who were at that time legally if amorally kept as property by colonists—assisted with war efforts to ensure a more stable future for the forming United States.
Some black soldiers during the Revolutionary War joined up with the British, who sought more manpower against the colonies and offered the promise of freedom to slaves who joined their ranks. Others enlisted on behalf of the colonies, albeit only when Gen. George Washington realized he didn't have enough white soldiers to fight and acquiesced to allow African-American men to join up. Over time, slavery fell out of favor with many property owners, particularly throughout the northern states. During the Civil War, around 200,000 people of color served in the U.S. military, either in the Army, Navy, or non-combat positions (including manual tasks like cooking, cleaning, and otherwise supporting the white soldiers).
Other slaves fought alongside their Confederate masters, though it's hard to know how many did so willingly. In every military action in U.S. history, then, our military has benefited greatly by the assistance and leadership of black Americans. Yet even with the integral benefit of black members of the military, American defense remained segregated through World War I, World War II, and the Korean War. African-Americans, in spite of this backward philosophy, became pilots, nurses, Marines, and West Point graduates. It wasn't until President Harry S. Truman issued an executive order in 1948 that the armed services were forced to integrate; even then, some units refused to do so for several more years.
Even though retired Gen. Colin Powell became a four-star general and the first black chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff back in the ‘90s, black officers remain underrepresented and black members of the armed services continue to face racial discrimination. One 2017 report showed that black troops faced disciplinary action more often than their white counterparts. A year later, the Coast Guard faced accusations of a racially hostile environment.
Using data from the Pew Research Center, news reports, historical archives, and information from government sites, Stacker compiled a list of 50 key moments in the history of African-Americans in the U.S. Armed Forces. Click through to learn about various hardships, breakthroughs, and significant accomplishments of black soldiers in the military.
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