African American Soldiers in the U.S. Army

Presidio Army Museum

As Director of the Presidio Army Museum, Eric Saul produced an exhibit on the history of the African American soldier in the United States Army.  The exhibit was curated in 1977-1978, and opened at the Museum in a special ceremony in 1978. 
The exhibit was entitled, Ready and Forward: The Story of the Black Soldier in the United States Army.  The exhibit told the story of African American soldiers from the Revolutionary War through Vietnam.  The exhibit featured a unique collection of unpublished photographs of African American soldiers from the period of the Indian Wars through World War I.  Many of these photographs were obtained from actual African American veterans of this period.  These photographs were shown for the first time.
In addition, a unique collection of photographs was obtained from the Signal Corps collection of the National Archives and from the Library of Congress in Washington, DC.  Some photographs were obtained directly from the United States Army Signal Corps collection.  These photographs depicted the era of World War II through the Vietnam era.  Many of these photographs were also exhibited for the first time.
The exhibit was created in cooperation with Anthony Powell and Lieutenant Colonel Donald R. Sims, who was the Director of DPTSEC at the Presidio of San Francisco.  Colonel Sims was an African American veteran of Vietnam and was personally decorated with the Silver Star, awarded to him by President Lyndon Johnson.
The guest of honor at the opening of the Ready and Forward exhibit was African American Vietnam Medal of Honor recipient Lawrence Joel.  Joel was the keynote speaker.  In addition, he donated his Class A uniform, which was featured in the exhibit.
The exhibit was shown in 1984 at the African American Museum of History and Culture in Los Angeles, California.  The exhibit was curated at that museum by Lonnie Bunch, III.  Lonnie Bunch is currently the founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture.
The exhibit was reshown at the Presidio Army Museum in 1994 as part of the U.S. Postal Service’s celebration of the issuing of a commemorative postage stamp honoring the Buffalo Soldier.
The Ready and Forward exhibit has been on tour throughout the United States since 1995, being shown at numerous venues.
The Ready and Forward exhibit was an outstanding success for the Presidio Army Museum.  Many African American veterans visited the Museum during its showing.  This exhibit inspired a series of other exhibits depicting the role of other minority groups in the United States Army.  These included the story of Japanese American soldiers in World War II, which opened in 1981, the role of women in the United States Army, which opened in 1983, and the story of Filipinos and Filipino-Americans in the United States Army during World War II, which opened in 1985.  The Japanese American exhibit, entitled Go For Broke, was adapted for a special exhibition at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History.  It opened in September 1987 as a featured program celebrating the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution and was shown for more than two decades.


The Fort Point Salvo
Newsletter of the Fort Point and Army Museum Association
Volume 5, No. 1
March 1980

We have chosen "Ready and Forward", the motto of the 10th Black Cavalry as the title for our display at the Presidio Army Museum which is the first exhibit anywhere to tell the true story of a forgotten part of American military history. The story spreads over 200 years. It begins before that fateful year 1776 and it is still unfolding today in 1980.

Lafayette First to Recommend Enlistment of Black Soldiers

We begin with America's quest for freedom from Britain in 1776. Most people don't realize that one of the first to shed his blood for American independence was a black man. General Lafayette recommended the active enlistment of black soldiers to General Washington. As the war progressed more blacks joined the ranks in the American effort for freedom. A total of 5,000 fought in that first war.

During those early years black soldiers served side by side with their white counterparts in integrated units and also served in all black units with black officers. During the War of 1812 for the first time in American history a black militia with its own black line officers was authorized by state legislative enactment in Louisiana.

Under General Andrew Jackson the two all black militia battalions joined in defending front line positions in the Battle of New Orleans. Both battalions were commended highly by General Jackson. These, as other black troops, received the same pay and treatment as white soldiers and were among the last troops to be mustered out of federal service.

186,000 Black Troops Fought for the Union

During the Civil War on the Union side there was a total of 186,000 black combat troops, 130 Infantry regiments, 7 Cavalry regiments, and 19 Artillery regiments. These troops fought in 449 major and minor engagements. Sixteen black soldiers earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Black officers for the short time they had their commissions were able to display extraordinary leadership on the battlefield. Black front line troops fought under Generals Grant, Sherman, Hunter, Banks and Butler.

After the Civil War, a bill was passed by Congress in 1866 that created two regular black Cavalry regiments: the 9th and 10th, and two regular Infantry regiments: the 24th and 25th. These soldiers served on the American frontier for 30 years.

The Indians called the Cavalry units the "Buffalo Soldiers" and had a healthy respect for their dash and marksmanship. A famous western artist, Frederick Remington caught their spirit in scenes of the men in action, on horseback, sabres drawn, flags flying. During that time, 13 soldiers from these regiments were recipients of the Medal of Honor.

In 1870, a unique unit was formed. It was known as the Seminole-Negro Indian Scouts. It never numbered more than 50 men at any one time. Four members of the unit, during the years 1870-1914, were awarded the Medal of Honor.

First Black Cadets at West Point

In 1873, a tall, slim young man, Henry Ossian Flipper, entered the United States Military Academy. His arrival caused a stir among the Cadet Corps. This son of a Georgia slave was to be the first black to graduate from West Point and the first to become an officer in the regular army.

Almost unnoticed in Army history is John Hanks Alexander, the second black to become an officer in the regular army. Charles Young became the third black regular army line officer in 1889. An outstanding officer, he eventually reached the rank of Colonel. In 1896, he set a new precedent by transferring to the famous 7th Cavalry, a white regiment, where he remained on the rolls for one year.

These were not the only blacks to live in officers' quarters. Five of the Chaplains appointed to the black regiments before the end of the 19th century were blacks.

Black Cavalry Saves Rough Riders at San Juan Hill

The first black troops mobilized for service in the Spanish-American War were the four black regiments of the regular army. One reason that the black regiments were among the first called to duty in Cuba was the War Department's assumption (erroneous) that blacks possessed a "natural immunity" to the ravages of the climate and diseases of the tropics. Whatever the motives for mobilizing the black regulars, the soldiers themselves welcomed the assignment as an opportunity to demonstrate their "soldierly qualities" and to win respect for their race.

Despite the prejudice which they encountered in Florida, or perhaps because of it, the black troops accredited themselves with distinction on the battlefield of Cuba, particularly at Las Guasimas, El Caney and San Juan Hill.

There never were braver, "come-hell-or-highwater" soldiers than Teddy Roosevelt and his Rough Riders. The only trouble was their daring exceeded their training and battle wisdom. The equally brave black regulars of the 10th Cavalry had plenty of these and saved the day.

As the Rough Riders advanced up San Juan Hill they found themselves attacked from all sides and in great danger of being cut to pieces. The black troops of the 9th and 10th Cavalry were some distance away when the word reached them. They went to help on the run. They advanced under heavy fire. Despite a trail of dead and wounded they left behind, the troopers of the 10th, according to a New York reporter, went "firing as they marched, their aim was splendid. Their coolness was superb and their courage aroused the admiration of their comrades." It was this action that led a grateful Rough Rider Corporal to say, "If it hadn't been for the black Cavalry, the Rough Riders would have been exterminated." Five black soldiers of the 10th Cavalry won the Medal of Honor and over 20 others won Certificates of Merit during the Cuban Campaign of '98. Four of the Medal of Honor winners were at San Juan Hill.

After the turn of the century, black regiments like all those in the Army, had ceremonial duties, including acting as escorts and marching in parades. Two troops of the 9th Cavalry escorted President Roosevelt when he visited San Francisco in 1903. The occasion was, according to a newspaper account, "the first instance in the West where black soldiers have held the position of honor in a public procession". The same regiment also participated in the 1905 Presidential Inaugural Parade.

To Mexico - and on to World War II

In 1916, the 10th Cavalry was part of the Punitive Expedition into Mexico under General John J. Pershing. In fact, the nickname he always liked, "Black Jack," was given him as a result of his command of the black Cavalry.

During the first World War, over 200,000 blacks were in the Army. Serving again under General "Black Jack" Pershing, there were two fighting divisions: the 92nd and 93rd. The 369th Infantry spent 191 days at the front. Black soldiers were also the first Americans to reach the Rhine. The 93rd Division fought most of the war under the command of the French. The rewards for all the blood and sweat black troops left in France were few.

They were not permitted to march in the great Allied Victory Parade in Paris, although the Parade included black troops of both England and France. After the Armistice, black soldiers became the objects of segregation and discrimination. At the heart of most of the Post-Armistice restrictions put upon black soldiers was the fear of them mingling with French people. Another reason for restrictions on blacks was uneasiness lest they become infected with a foreign, radical ideology which might lead them to demand equality when they got home. Would black soldiers still be "Ready and Forward"?

Three Black Combat Units in World War II

With the outbreak of World War II, the Army activated three combat units comprised of black enlisted men and white and black officers ... the 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions and the 2nd Cavalry Division. In the same year of 1942, black troops, mostly engineer and quartermaster units, were among the first to be sent overseas. Also during the war there was formed the all black 99th Pursuit Squadron of the Army Air Corps. They flew over 1,500 missions during the war.

Innumerable accounts report the difficulties experienced by black military personnel with segregation on the Jim Crow Railroad System, even when they were traveling under government orders.  Station restaurants often refused them service leaving them hungry for hours.

Most galling was the denial of the facilities and hospitality that were extended to German prisoners of war. In March 1945, the "Crisis" declared: "Nothing so lowers Negro morale as the frequent preferential treatment of Axis prisoners of war in contrast with deprecatory Army policy toward American troops who happen to be Negro."

On one occasion, a group of German prisoners of war traveling under guard to the West Coast ate with the white passengers in the main section of the dining car, but the black soldiers assigned to guard them were fed behind a curtain at the far end of the car. The poet Wittner Bynner recorded the incident in the following verse:

"On a train in Texas German prisoners eat
With white American soldiers, seat by seat,
While black American soldiers sit apart ...
The white men eating meat, the black men - heart."

So the question was, as the war came to an end, Would black soldiers after their disillusionment, continue to be "Ready and Forward"?

The Years After

With the outbreak of the Korean War in 1950 and assignment of all-black units to the Korean front, they again responded to the call. Two enlisted men of the 24th Infantry won the Medal of Honor before that war ended; also black soldiers for the first time in many years fought side by side with white men. By the 1960's the Army was totally integrated as America entered the Vietnam War. Black officers and enlisted men figure proudly throughout that unfortunate war. Over 20 black soldiers won the Nation's highest award -- the Medal of Honor.

As we end this short story of a part of America's past, I am sure some of it we would like to forget and some of it we will cherish forever. As the dawn of a new decade begins, black soldiers, as always, will be "Ready and Forward."


Congressional Medal of Honor winner, SGT Lawrence Joel, 20-year Army veteran (Retired) joined LTG Charles M. Hall in opening "Ready and Forward" exhibit on the history of the black soldier at Presidio Army Museum, February 13. SGT Joel's citation reads in part:

"Specialist Five Lawrence Joel distinguished himself by gallantry and intrepedity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty on November 8, 1965, while serving as a medical aidman, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, First Battalion (Airborne), Five Hundred Third Infantry on a battlefield in the Republic of Vietnam. Specialist Joel demonstrated indomitable courage, determination, and professional skill when a numerically superior and well-concealed Viet Cong element launched a vicious attack which wounded or killed nearly every man in the lead squad of the Company. After treating the men wounded by the initial burst of gunfire, he bravely moved forward to assist others who were wounded while proceeding to their objective. While moving from man to man, he was struck in right leg by machine gun fire. Although painfully wounded, his desire to aid his fellow soldiers transcended all personal feeling. He bandaged his own wound and self administered morphine to deaden the pain, enabling him to continue his dangerous undertaking . . . After being struck a second time and with a bullet lodged in his thigh, he dragged himself over the battlefield and succeeded in treating thirteen more men before his medical supplies ran out ... As one of the platoons pursued the Viet Cong, an insurgent force in concealed positions opened fire on the platoon and wounded many more soldiers. With a new stock of medical supplies, Specialist Joel again shouted words of encouragement as he crawled through an intense hail of gun fire to the wounded men. Throughout the long battle, Specialist Joel never lost sight of his mission as a medical aidman and continued to comfort and treat the wounded until his own evacuation was ordered. His meticulous attention to duty saved a large number of lives and his unselfish, daring example under most adverse conditions was an inspiration to all. Specialist Joel's profound concern for his fellow soldiers, his conspicuous gallantry, and his intrepedity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty are in the highest traditions of the United States Army and reflect great credit upon himself and the armed forces of his country."


Medal of Honor recipient SGT Lawrence Joel gives keynote address at the opening of the Ready and Forward exhibit at the Presidio Army Museum, February 13, 1980. Joel was the first medic to receive the Medal of Honor during the Vietnam War. He was also the first living African American to receive the medal since the Spanish American War. Joel was also awarded a Silver Star for heroism in Vietnam. Joel passed on February 4, 1984, and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Nearly a quarter of a million African American men served in the Union Army and Navy. That was almost 10% of the total Union forces that fought in the war. They were not officially allowed to serve until 1863, and yet they suffered disproportionately high casualties for their service. Abraham Lincoln credited these black soldiers with turning the tide of the war and with the ultimate Union victory. They were fighting not only for the Union, but also for their very freedom. Abolitionists and antislavery Members of Congress were largely responsible for allowing African Americans the right to serve their country. Visit the Black Soldiers page on our American Abolitionists website to read their story.