Black Doughboys


“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.”

Frederick Douglass


National mobilization during World War I meant national mobilization and that included the black citizens of the United States.  In a time of virulent racism some 370,000 blacks were inducted into the Army, dwarfing the 180,000 blacks who served in the Union Army in World War I.  For the first time, over a thousand blacks earned commissions as officers.  Two hundred thousand black troops served in France during the War, most as laborers and stevedores, but many in combat units like the all black 92 and 93 Divisions.   German propaganda leaflets attempted to cause black troops to desert, pointing out, all too accurately, how badly blacks were treated in the United States and the Army.  The propaganda was ineffective, blacks usually fighting with distinction, despite the rampant race prejudice to which they were subjected.  White troops sometimes defended their black comrades from prejudice, especially on the home front.

The worst race riots in the nation’s history broke out in 1919.  The status quo of blacks in a permanent inferior status was beginning to break down, and black service in World War I gave a huge impetus to this process.

Published in: on July 13, 2017 at 5:30 am  Comments Off on Black Doughboys  
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Benjamin O. Davis, Jr.: American Eagle


Benjamin O Davis, Jr, a 1936 graduate of West Point, probably did not have any premonition when he graduated that he and his father were destined to write an interesting chapter in American military history.  At the time of his graduation from West Point, the Army had a total of two black line officers, Davis and his father.  Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. would be the first black general in the United States Army and Benjamin O. Davis, Jr. would be the first black general in the United States Air Force.  They both earned their stars through sheer ability at a time when prejudice against blacks was official policy within the US military.

The grandson of a slave, Davis senior was born in 1880.  He enlisted in the black 8th volunteer infantry during the Spanish-American War, serving as a temporary first lieutenant.  After the war he enlisted in the regular Army as a private, serving in the 9th United States cavalry, one of the Buffalo Soldier regiments.  A promising young soldier, he shot up in rank to squadron sergeant major.  He came to the notice of the commander of his unit, Lieutenant Charles Young, then the only black officer in the Army.  With Young’s encouragement and tutoring, he took the officer’s test at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas and was commissioned a Second Lieutenant on February 2, 1901.  For the next 39 years he served in various postings, including military attaché to Liberia and professor of military science at Tuskegee.  It took persistence to stay in an Army where blacks served only in segregated units and where he was often the only black officer in the entire Army, but on October 25, 1940 Davis became the first black in American military history to earn a general’s star.

His son found the going just as tough initially.  At West Point Davis Junior was officially shunned by almost all of the other cadets, who would only speak to him in the line of duty.  He ate his meals alone and had no room mate during his four years.  However, his hard work and ability earned grudging respect judging from this inscription in the West Point year book for 1936:

The courage, tenacity, and intelligence with which he conquered a problem incomparably more difficult than plebe year won for him the sincere admiration of his classmates, and his single-minded determination to continue in his chosen career cannot fail to inspire respect wherever fortune may lead him.

Such respect did not change the fact that he was black in an Army that had no love for black officers.  His application to the Army Air Corps was summarily rejected because the Army Air Corps did not accept blacks.  He found himself serving as a professor of military science at Tuskegee just as his father had years before.

With the advent of World War II the military was still segregated, and opposition to blacks serving as pilots was intense.   However, the Army Air Corps could not ignore that blacks had passed the tests to qualify as aviation cadets.   To his delight, Captain Davis was assigned to the first training class for black fighter pilots.  He was the first black to solo in the Army Air Corps and got his wings in March 1942.

Trained at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, the 99th Pursuit squadron was activated in 1941 and sent overseas to North Africa in April 1943.  Now a Lieutenant Colonel, Davis Junior was in command.  In September he was called back to the States to help form the all black 332 fighter group.  After he arrived back, an attempt to kill the project was made by senior Army Air Corps officers alleging deficiencies in the record of the 99th.  Furious, Davis held a news conference at the Pentagon, with his father, to defend his men, and challenged the accuracy of the charges.  Further investigations determined that the 99th had performed as well as similar white units. (more…)

A Call to Arms

Something for the weekend.  The song A Call to Arms, from the film Glory (1989), a magnicent and long overdue tribute to the black troops who fought for the Union in the Civil War. (more…)

Published in: on March 26, 2011 at 5:30 am  Comments (1)  
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1rst Rhode Island


The 54th Massachusetts is justly famed for the heroism of its black troops during the Civil War.  Blacks have fought in all of America’s wars, going back to before the Revolution.  In the Revolution blacks fought in many regiments,  but the greatest number of blacks in any one regiment was in the 1rst Rhode Island.

In 1778 Rhode Island was having difficulties meeting the troop quotas assigned to the state by the Continental Congress.  The Rhode Island Assembly voted to allow the enlistment of black troops, and that every slave enlisted was to be immediately freed.  A total of 140 blacks enlisted in the 1rst Rhode Island, 88 of them being slaves.  Whites filled out the rest of the 225 man regiment.  The regiment was commanded by Colonel Christopher Greene, a distant cousin of General Nathaniel Greene. 

The regiment saw service at the battle of Rhode Island where it performed well.  Colonel Greene and some of his men were killed in a skirmish with Tories in 1781.  Colonel Greene’s body was mutilated, presumably because he was leading black troops.  The regiment, after being consolidated with the 2nd Rhode Island, served in the Yorktown campaign.  The troops were mustered out of service in 1783 at the conclusion of the war.

Published in: on February 5, 2010 at 6:39 am  Comments Off on 1rst Rhode Island  
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