Shannon Butler-Mokoro, Ph.D., MSW
Gabrielle “Gabby” Womack
Along with churches and schools, the military is one of the oldest and most important institutions in the United States. The United States Armed Forces include the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. Although an army has existed since the Revolutionary War began in 1775, the official US military was not formed until the US Congress held its first session on September 29, 1789.
African Americans have served in every war on American soil and abroad since the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years’ War. However, they served mostly in separate units. When allowed admission, African Americans were severely abused in military academies, given demeaning military assignments (often relegated to galleys and not combat), and denied promotions and the opportunity to serve as leaders.
About 178 years after their origins, in 1948, President Truman began to investigate these segregated military practices and the racial discrimination that existed. His investigation led to Executive Order 9981 – Desegregation of the Armed Forces.
The desegregation of the armed forces happened around the same time that the Augustinians founded Merrimack College specifically for soldiers returning home after World War II.
During Black History Month, it’s only appropriate to celebrate African Americans who have achieved significant success in their military careers. Here are highlights from each era.
1700 and 1800
- The first African-American American military regiment was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (1775).
- Union war hero Robert Smalls was a slave commissioned into the Confederacy on a steamer named the CSS planter. During the Civil War, Smalls and his crewmates set themselves and their families free by posing as the white captain and turning the ship over to the Union. He later served in South Carolina state politics.
- The first African-American woman to enlist in the US Army (1866) was Cathay Williams. She enlisted under the pseudonym of William Cathay. Women were officially allowed to serve in the army from 1948.
- In 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from West Point and the first African-American officer in the United States Army (2n/a Lieutenant). He became the first non-white officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10e Calvary.
- Richard R. Wright, Sr. was the first African American to serve as a U.S. Army Paymaster (1898). He was the highest ranking African American in the Spanish American War. He was valedictorian of Atlanta University’s first commencement ceremony in 1876, and also college president (first president of the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, later to become the State University of Savannah).
- Charles Young was the first African American to become a colonel in the US Army (1919). He was the third African American to graduate from the United States Military Academy, the first to serve as Superintendent of the United States National Park, and the first African American military attaché. Until his death in 1992, he was the highest-ranking black officer in the regular U.S. Army.
- Tuskegee Airmen were the first black military airmen in the US Army AirCorps (a precursor to the US Air Force)
- Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was among the Tuskegee Airman First Class men. He became the first African-American general in the US Air Force (1959). His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first African American to become a general in any branch of the United States military. He was promoted by President Roosevelt to the rank of brigadier general in 1940.
- The “Golden Thirteen” were the thirteen African-American enlisted men who became the first African-American non-commissioned officers and non-commissioned officers in the United States Navy (1944). At Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command in Illinois (the Navy’s only boot camp), there is a building dedicated to their honor, Building 1405, where recruits first arrive for basic training. .
- Joseph Jenkins was the first African-American officer in the United States Coast Guard (1943).
- Phyllis Mae Dailey was the first African-American woman to be sworn into the Navy Nurse Corps (1945).
- Frederick C. Branch was the first African-American officer in the US Marine Corps (1945).
- Jesse L. Brown was the first black aviator in the US Navy (1948, Korean War).
1950s and 1960s
- Frank E. Petersen became the first African-American airman in the US Marine Corps (1952).
- The first African-American diver in the US Navy was Carl Brashear (1954).
- In 1963 Charles V. Bush became the first African American to graduate from the US Air Force Academy.
- Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African-American general in the US Air Force (1965).
- In 1975, fighter pilot Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. became the first African American to achieve the rank of four-star general in the United States Armed Forces.
- 30 years after women were allowed to serve as permanent regular members of the United States Navy, Joan C. Bynum became the first African-American woman to hold the rank of captain.
- In 1979, Frank E. Petersen became the first African-American flag officer in the US Marine Corps.
1980s and 1990s
- Janie L. Mines is the first African-American woman to graduate from (and attend) the US Naval Academy (graduating in 1980).
- Roscoe Robinson became the first African-American four-star general in the U.S. Army (1982).
- Donnie Cochran was the first African American to serve on the US Navy’s Blue Angels precision flight team (1985) and also the first African American to command the team (1994).
- J. Paul Reason was the first African-American four-star Admiral in the United States Navy (1996).
- In 1997, U.S. Army Sgt. Danyell Wilson has become the first black woman to earn the prestigious position of guardian of the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.
- General Colin Powell was appointed by President HW Bush to serve as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the first African American to hold the position.
- Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell is the Air Force’s first African-American female combat pilot.
- Jeanine McIntosh Menze becomes the first African-American Coast Guard airwoman.
- Michelle J. Howard is the first African-American woman to become a four-star admiral
- Lorna Mahlock is the first African-American woman to serve as a general officer in the US Marine Corps.
- Charles Q. Brown Jr. is the first African American appointed as the Chief of the Military Staff and the first African American to lead a branch of the United States Armed Forces.
- Lloyd Austin is the first African American to serve as US Secretary of Defense.
You want to know more ? Check out these resources.
Theses and Dissertations
Dr. Butler-Mokoro is co-chair of the CSWE Council on the Role & Status of Women in Social Work Education, co-editor of the book Feminist perspectives on social work education: the intersecting lives of women in the 21st century.
Gabrielle “Gabby” Womack is Reference/Access Associate at McQuade Library and Ambassador for Diversity, Equity and Inclusion.