Black Veterans Who Broke Racial Barriers in the Military

November 14, 2022
Black Veterans Who Broke Racial Barriers in the Military

Military service takes a special kind of strength. It’s the ultimate act of patriotism: an oath that means you could fight, and possibly die, for your country. For countless years, Black Veterans exhibited not only extraordinary patriotism, but extraordinary resilience in the face of discrimination from those they helped defend.

Some Veterans fought in wars waged by their slave owners and never saw freedom on the other side. Some fought for their freedom only to return emancipated, but forced into servitude to keep food on the table. And others willingly fought as free men and women, yet came back to lynchings.

Bryan Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative, noted the double standard of military service in the 20th century; how white men were honored, but Black men disgraced. “Just the sight of a Black soldier, just the suggestion that he might take on that empowered, adult, mature identity—that could get him killed,” Stevenson said in The New Yorker.

In spite of this violent, hateful climate, Black Americans never stopped fighting for equality. In World War II, many of them were stunned by the equal treatment they received from Europeans. This empowered them even more; coming back to segregation and slurs was no longer acceptable. In this way, it could be said that the war was one of the catalysts for the civil rights movement. Why fight for social justice in Europe and ignore what was happening in the U.S.?

From the Revolutionary War to recent conflicts in the Middle East, Black Veterans have worked hard to overcome the barriers in their way. Take a look at 12 of the greatest:

1. Crispus Attucks

Crispus Attucks
Illustrations of what Attucks may have looked like.

A famous name in history books, Crispus Attucks is widely regarded as the first American killed in the American Revolution. A man of African and Native American descent, not much is known about Attucks’ life; historians disagree on whether he was a free man from birth or an escaped slave.

Regardless, Attucks is known for his actions on March 5, 1770, later called the Boston Massacre. Fed up with British oppression, Bostonians had started organizing waterfront protests against the British presence in their city. Tensions came to a head when a group of colonists confronted an ornery sentry.

Attucks and some other men came armed with clubs to confront the regiment. One man was said to have struck out with his club, and the soldiers fired their guns in response. Five colonists died, and six were wounded. Attucks was the first to die.

Attucks’ murder turned him into a martyr, and the face of the anti-slavery movement in the mid-19th century. But in that moment, the injustice of it — of a man dying while standing up for personal freedoms — helped to spark the revolution.

2. Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman

An escaped slave herself, Harriet Tubman is well known for her work freeing slaves from the South. She used a network of secret routes and safe houses called the Underground Railroad, and is credited with helping over 70 enslaved people escape.

But more than that, Tubman worked as a cook, nurse, and spy for the Union during the Civil War.

In fact, Tubman was the first American woman in history to lead a military expedition. She used her knowledge of Southern geography to help Col. James Montogomery free slaves from a series of plantations in South Carolina.

On June 1, 1863, Tubman and several hundred male soldiers floated down the Combahee River in three gunboats. Using scouts to gather intel, Tubman knew the Confederates’ positions and where they had placed torpedoes in the water.

They freed 750 slaves and did not suffer a single casualty.

3. Martin Delany

Martin Delany
Army officer Martin R. Delany.

Martin Robinson Delany was one of the earliest-known advocates for Black nationalism; an ideology that promotes and empowers Black communities. Finding pride in being Black was not a popular concept in the 19th century, but Delany lived it until his death in 1885.

Born as a free man in Virginia in 1812, Delany spent his youth as a physician’s assistant. During the cholera outbreaks of 1833 and 1854 in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, he stayed to treat patients, despite not knowing how the disease was transmitted and being abandoned by other medical professionals.

In 1850, Delany made history as one of the first three Black men admitted to Harvard Medical School. However, following widespread protests by white students, Delany and the others were quickly dismissed.

Instead, Delany traveled to the South to see slavery for himself; aligning with Frederick Douglass later in New York to publish “The North Star,” a famous anti-slavery newspaper. He also visited Liberia and Canada, living abroad for several years before the start of the Civil War.

Delany’s service was unique in that he became the first Black field officer in the U.S. Army. He helped recruit Black soldiers for the United States Colored Troops (USCT) and led the 52nd USCT Regiment. After the war ended, he settled in the South and spent his remaining years as a politician and activist.

4. Cathay Williams

Cathay Williams
An illustration of buffalo soldier Cathay Williams. Credit: Teaching Tolerance

Cathay Williams, unlike Martin Delany, was not born free. She was also not born a man. During the Civil War, Williams was forced into service as a cook for Confederate troops, traveling with them through Arkansas, Louisiana, and Georgia.

After her emancipation, Williams quickly came to know the truth of “freedom” as a Black American: there was little employment opportunity and widespread poverty and discrimination. Her cousin and friend, both Black men, were drawn to military service because of the stable pay, basic healthcare, and pension. This is also what attracted Williams to the Army.

Disguising herself as a man by the name of William Cathay, Williams enlisted in the Army in 1867 and was assigned to Company A, 38th Infantry Regiment. She was already war-hardened by her informal service in the Civil War, so it wasn’t much of an adjustment.

Williams was the only known female buffalo soldier.

But her service was marked by injuries. She was hospitalized with smallpox, rheumatism, and neuralgia, and some of her toes had to be amputated, probably due to diabetes. A year into her service, a doctor discovered that she was a woman and issued a certificate of disability. She was honorably discharged.

In 1875, Williams participated in an interview about her time as a buffalo soldier. Unfortunately, the remainder of her life was also marked by health issues, and the government denied her disability pension. She passed away sometimes between 1893 and 1900, poor and in poor health.

5. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first Black man to achieve the rank of brigadier general in the military. Born in 1877, Davis enlisted in the Army after the start of the Spanish-American War. He was later assigned to a buffalo soldiers’ unit, and fought overseas in the Phillippine-American War, as well.

Despite his skin color, Davis was determined to rise in the ranks. He studied to become an officer, and was commissioned as a second lieutenant. He served as a professor of military science and tactics in the 1910s and ‘20s.

Throughout his military career, Davis dealt with postings designed to keep him away from white soldiers, as he would have been considered their superior. But he was able to make a real impact as an advisor on race relations in World War II. In 1948, he retired in a public ceremony that President Truman presided; six days later, Truman abolished racial discrimination in the military.

6. Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

Benjamin O. Davis Jr.
Gen. Benjamin O. Davis Sr., right, pins the Distinguished Flying Cross to his son’s chest in May 1944. Credit: National Air & Space Museum

Davis Sr.’s son, Benjamin O. Davis Jr., followed in his father’s footsteps and became the revered founder and commander of the Tuskegee Airmen. Davis Jr. was a 33-year Veteran of three wars, and one of few Black men to achieve four-star general status in the Air Force.

Davis Jr. faced discrimination very early in his military career. As the only Black cadet in his 1936 West Point Military Academy class, he was routinely shunned, and he could not convince the Army Air Corps to let him become a pilot.

Luckily, his dad was on his side. After Davis Sr. was promoted to brigadier general, President Truman ordered the Army Air Corps to create a flying organization for Black troops. Davis Jr. was ordered to Tuskegee Army Air Field, Alabama, where he earned his wings along with four other Black officers.

He would go on to lead numerous successful combat missions in the European Theater, cementing the Tuskegee Airmen’s status as legendary fliers and American patriots.

7. Medgar Evers

Medgar Evers
Civil rights activist and Army Veteran Medgar Evers. Credit: Alabama Public Radio

Medgar Evers is most famous for his activism. As a field secretary for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP), Evers worked to end school segregation in Mississippi, as well as expand opportunities and advance voting rights for Black Americans.

Evers became politically active at a young age. After the landmark Supreme Court Case Brown v. Board of Education in 1954, Edgars challenged segregation at Mississippi’s own Ole Miss. Although he failed to gain access as a law student, his efforts led him all the way to the Supreme Court, where the university was forcibly desegregated in 1962.

But before Evers was a hero for the Black kids of Mississippi, he was an American hero in World War II. He left school at the age of 17 to serve in a segregated unit of the U.S. Army. Evers was disciplined and brave, and made it to the rank of sergeant during his time in service. He even participated in the post-D-Day invasion of Europe, where he served in Germany and France until he was honorably discharged in 1946.

Unfortunately, his courageous service meant little to white Americans who opposed the civil rights movement. It was a dangerous time to be an outspoken Black man in the U.S. — especially in Mississippi. Just hours after President Kennedy delivered a 1963 landmark speech on civil rights, Evers was assassinated. He was buried with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery, and his wife continued his activism.

It took 33 years for his murderer to be brought to justice.

8. Hosea Williams

Hosea Williams
Veteran and civil rights activist Hosea Williams

Hosea Williams, similar to Medgar Evers, was a civil rights era activist. As a fellow minister, Hosea was a trusted member of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s inner circle. Williams organized peaceful protests under the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) and later founded the Hosea Feed the Hungry and Homeless organization.

Born in Georgia in 1926, Hosea was raised by his grandparents after his mother died. However, he quickly became acquainted with Southern racism. At the age of 13, he was run out of town by a lynch mob for allegedly flirting with a white girl.

Hosea joined the Army during World War II, where he served in a segregated unit under Gen. Patton. His service was also marked by sadness. As the only survivor of a Nazi bombing, Hosea spent more than a year hospitalized in Europe recovering from his injuries; although he did earn a Purple Heart. When Hosea returned from war, he was savagely beaten by a group of white men for drinking from a “white” drinking fountain, and subsequently spent another month recovering in a hospital.

Remarkably, he didn’t let these atrocities harden him — instead, they drove him to greatness.

“I was deemed 100% disabled by the military and required a cane to walk,” Hosea said. “My wounds had earned me a Purple Heart. The war had just ended and I was still in my uniform for god’s sake! But on my way home, to the brink of death, they beat me like a common dog. The very same people whose freedoms and liberties I had fought and suffered to secure in the horrors of war…they beat me like a dog…merely because I wanted a drink of water.”

“I had watched my best buddies tortured, murdered, and bodies blown to pieces. The French battlefields had literally been stained with my blood and fertilized with the rot of my loins. So at that moment, I truly felt as if I had fought on the wrong side. Then, and not until then, did I realize why God, time after time, had taken me to death’s door, then spared my life…to be a general in the war for human rights and personal dignity.”

Hosea’s famous motto was “Unbought and Unbossed.”

9. Hazel Johnson-Brown

Hazel Johnson-Brown
Legendary Brig. Gen. Hazel Johnson-Brown. Credit: Army Women’s Foundation

Hazel Johnson-Brown was not only a champion for Black Americans in the military, but a champion for Black women. Born in 1927 in West Chester, Pennsylvania, she dreamed of becoming a nurse, but was denied admission to the West Chester School of Nursing because she was Black. Instead, Johnson-Brown moved to New York City and enrolled in the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing following the end of World War II.

Joining the Army in 1955 — shortly after desegregation — Johnson-Brown worked her way up to first lieutenant, and then the Army Nursing Corps. She served as a staff nurse in Japan and a chief nurse in Korea, and earned her bachelor’s, master’s, and doctoral degrees all while serving active duty.

In 1979, Johnson-Brown made history when she was promoted to the rank of brigadier general; she was the first Black female general in the U.S. Army. She also became the director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing.

In 1990, well after her retirement, Johnson-Brown volunteered to work in the surgical suite at Ft. Belvoir, Virginia, during Operation Desert Storm. She remained a true patriot until her death in 2011.

Related article: 8 Women Veterans Whose Service Might Surprise You

10. Colin Powell

Colin Powell
Gen. Colin Powell, the first Black secretary of state and chairman of the joint chiefs of staff

Gen. Colin Powell has a long and historic career in the United States Army. He graduated from City College of New York with a commission as an Army second lieutenant in 1958. From there, he was trained at Ft. Benning and assigned to the 48th Infantry in West Germany.

Powell went on to serve two tours in Vietnam, and he would later say that he is “haunted by the nightmare” of the Vietnam War. His tours included a grave injury to his foot after stepping on a punji snake, as well as a helicopter crash. Powell was awarded the Soldier’s Medal when he rescued three other soldiers from the burning wreckage.

After his time in Vietnam, Powell went on to serve a fellowship under President Ronald Reagan, and later became the military assistant to Secretary of Defense Caspar Weinberger. At the age of 49, he became Reagan’s National Security Advisor while still retaining his duties as lieutenant general in the Army.

Finally, in 1989, Powell was promoted to four-star general under President George H.W. Bush. He would go on to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the principal military advisor to both Bush and Bill Clinton. In 2001, he served as the first Black secretary of state, and in 2016 he received three electoral votes for president — despite not even being on the ballot.

11. Guion Bluford

Guion Bluford
Air Force Col. Guion Bluford Jr. Credit: APB Speakers

Guion Bluford, born in Philadelphia, 1942, is one of the U.S.’s first Black astronauts.

Bluford received three degrees in aerospace engineering before commissioning into the Air Force in 1965. He earned his wings the following January, and was assigned to the 557th Tactical Fighter Squadron, Cam Ranh Bay, Vietnam. In his time there, he flew 144 combat missions.

After serving several years as an instructor pilot, Bluford pursued a master’s degree at the U.S. Air Force Institute of Technology, and went on to work as a development engineer for the Air Force Flight Dynamics Laboratory. But Bluford was already looking beyond the Air Force.

In 1978, Bluford was selected as a NASA astronaut. He would spend the next 15 years at NASA, participating in Space Station operations, Spacelab systems and experiments, Space Shuttle systems, and various other flight software development.

Between his time in the Air Force and NASA, Bluford logged over 5,200 hours in a jet and 688 hours in space. He continues work in the aerospace industry and enjoys hobbies such as reading, scuba diving, and golf.

12. Vernice Armour

Vernice Armour
CAPT Vernice Armour, the first Black female combat pilot. Credit:

Vernice Armour started out breaking barriers in the civilian space. She actually became the first Black woman to serve as a police officer in Tempe, Arizona, before commissioning as an officer in the Marine Corps in Oct. 1998.

Armour attended flight school at Naval Air Station Corpus Christi, Texas, and then Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, before earning her wings in 2001. She graduated number one in her class.

Assigned to Camp Pendleton, Armour trained in the AH-1W SuperCobra and made a name for herself as female athlete of the year; as well as winning Pendleton’s Strongest Warrior Competition twice and dominating as the running back for the San Diego Sunfire women’s football team.

In 2003, Armour became the U.S.’s first Black female combat pilot when she flew during the Invasion of Iraq. She went on to serve two tours in the Gulf, work as an equal opportunities liaison officer, and become a motivational speaker outside of the Marine Corps.

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