Military service has played an important role in Black history
By James Revels
February is Black History Month, a time that allows us the opportunity to reflect on the achievements of a significant portion of our population, who entered the American melting pot from the bowels of slave ships.
In February 1984, I launched my writing career, after 25 years of military service, by penning several columns, detailing the contributions of Black Americans to our history, published in the El Paso Times.
“Taken from their homeland in Africa and chained to the bowels of slave ships, Blacks entered the new world to satisfy the need for manpower. … One outlet for the newly freed Black men was the military,” I wrote in that first column. From the Civil War, our only armed conflict with ourselves to end the institution of slavery, Black soldiers fought in every major subsequent war.
When World War I propelled America into a global war, young Black men answered the call to arms, in numbers that exceeded their portion of the population. “Restricted to service and supply divisions, Black soldiers constituted 75 percent of the expeditionary force,” according to Charles Wesley and Carter Woodson’s account of Black History.
“Abusive language, kicks, cuffs and injurious blows were the order of the day,” added Wesley and Woodson. “Despite such treatment, Black stevedores were the best laborers in the war, and without their efforts, the allies could not have been supplied …”
In World War II, facing discrimination at home, Black soldiers were greeted as heroes in France, following the defeat of Nazism.
Being Black in Vietnam was more than just another military experience. It summoned forth the best and worst in some who gave their all for naught. As a Vietnam veteran, the experience has been a long time passing, and will not soon be forgotten.
“The attention President Lyndon Johnson was giving to the Great Society and Civil Rights programs, was being eroded by his increasing preoccupation with the war,” Wallace Terry wrote in “Bloods,” an oral history of the Vietnam war by Black veterans. “The war was destroying the bright promises for social and economic change in the Black community,” Terry added.
By December 1967, more than 465,000 US forces were in Vietnam and those killed in combat totaled more than 9,378. Black soldiers were disproportionately represented in combat deaths.
“Much of El Paso’s history is tied to Fort Bliss, and that’s true of our African-American history,” wrote Bob Moore in the El Paso Times in February 2017. “Several regiments of all-black Army units known as Buffalo Soldiers were garrisoned at Fort Bliss between 1866 and 1901. Some of these soldiers stayed in El Paso and became pioneers,” Moore adds.
Today, Fort Bliss continues to contribute to El Paso’s economy and Black soldiers continue to make El Paso home.
Fast forward to the modern armed forces, Black soldiers and officers can be found in all branches of service. The U.S. Army is leading the way in the struggle for equality and opportunity. Today, thousands of National Guardsmen are providing security around important Capitol installations. Black soldiers and officers are among them.
Gen. Colin Powell was the first Black officer to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and later, Secretary of State. Today, a Black general heads the U.S. Air Force and a Black retired general officer is now heading the Department of Defense.
The Black experience in the military, while marred by ancient perceptions, prejudices and beliefs, has continued our long tradition of service and patriotism. Black history is American history.
James Revels is a retired Army colonel and former columnist for the El Paso Times who lives in East El Paso.
Cover photo: The 369th Infantry Regiment, “The Harlem Hellfighters,” was the first African-American regiment to serve with the American Expeditionary Forces during World War I. The regiment served on the front lines for 191 days, longer than any other American unit in the war, and was the first unit to cross the Rhine into Germany. (U.S. Army photo)