Black military veterans: A legacy of sacrifice and honor
This week, we celebrate another Veterans Day. As we look around the world, it is clear that this year, as is true with way too many years in the past, American men and women in the military will be called on to solve centuries-old problems. Many of these soldiers will literally put their lives on the line in support of our nation and our government, with the hope that the sacrifice they make will keep us all safer at home and abroad. This choice to serve our country is a choice Black Americans have made for this nation from the beginning.
Start with Crispus Attucks, the first soldier who died in service to this country. He was a Black and Native man killed by British soldiers right here in Boston at the start of the war for independence. But after Attucks, not nearly enough has been written about the history of Black Americans in the military. That is one of the greatest injustices of all, because their true history is one of great sacrifice and valor. African Americans’ contributions to the military represent the very best of our armed forces.
In the beginning, many Black soldiers were denied weapons and uniforms, but none of that mattered, for they were fighting for America’s freedom. Throughout our history of wars all over the world, they fought and died with courage and were seldom recognized. It was only recently that we as a country learned about the many soldiers of the Massachusetts 54th Regiment who bravely fought and died in the Civil War. Prior to the film “Glory” coming out in 1989, their story was not in any school history books, at least not when I was growing up.
Then there’s story of the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment from New York. They were first unit of Black soldiers to fight in World War I. The army refused to have Black and white soldiers fighting alongside each other, so these Black soldiers were forced to change their uniforms and fight with the French. They never fought under the American flag because of racism.
Henry Lincoln Johnson is the most famous of the Harlem Hellfighters. He became a legend within the French Army for his heroic acts during a German raid four months after he arrived in France in 1918.
Johnson and Needham Roberts, accompanied by three other soldiers, were sent on a mission to identify German positions. The soldiers suddenly came under fire from some 20 German soldiers armed with rifles and grenades. Johnson and Roberts were both hit, but managed to return fire and wound a number of enemy soldiers. Roberts was lying on the ground and was being captured when Johnson, out of ammunition, knocked out one soldier with his rifle and stabbed two others. After retrieving the Germans’ grenades, Johnson attacked the remaining troops and rescued his friend Roberts. The pair managed to kill four enemy soldiers and wound 28 others. These acts of valor led General John J. Pershing to praise the “bravery and devotion of two soldiers of color.”
During World War II, there were thousands of stories left untold even in the highest ranks of the military, like that of the first two Black generals, Benjamin O. Davis Sr., the first in the Army, and his namesake son, the first in the Air Force. Their story is chronicled in a new book appropriately titled, “The Invisible Generals,” written by family member Doug Melville. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was the commander of the historic Tuskegee Airmen, known as the Red Tails for the red tail fins of their fighter planes. But unlike the white Colonel Robert Gould Shaw from the 54th regiment, who was included in the movie “Glory,” Davis Jr.’s character was fictionalized in the Hollywood blockbuster “Red Tails.”
On a more local and positive note, on Aug. 1, a statue of Brigadier General Edward O. Gourdin was unveiled at a memorial park in Roxbury’s Nubian Square. Other veterans led the drive to create the memorial to draw attention the thousands of Black American servicemen and women who served our country and who have never truly been honored. We as a nation must continue to tell the whole truth about all who have served in our military, including Black Americans who knew our country did not always have their backs.
Now more than ever is the time to stop hiding their sacrifices and give them the righteous honor that they deserve, so when we say, “Thank you for your service,” they will know we mean it.