In recognition of Black History Month, we reflect on the service of African Americans in the U.S. armed forces.

Since the very inception of our nation, African Americans have played an integral role in patriotic causes. It was, after all, an African American, Crispus Attucks, who first gave his life in defense of our new nation’s sovereignty, when he was shot and killed by British soldiers during the Boston Massacre of March 5, 1770.

From the Revolutionary War on, many African Americans have served with great distinction, and although they have always been integral, they have not always been integrated.

Before the Civil War, African Americans had been officially barred from military service, but the Second Confiscation and Militia Act of July 17, 1862 opened the door for African American enlistments. Various National Guard units formed shortly thereafter: among them, the First, Second and Third Louisiana Native Guard, which became the 73rd, 74th and 75th United States Colored Infantry. Still, whether fighting for the Union or the Confederates, segregation of black Americans from their white counterparts was the norm.

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World War I was much the same. While members of the National Guard’s 369th (“Harlem Hellfighters”), 370th (“Black Devils”), and 372nd Infantry Regiments—all part of the U.S. Army’s 93rd Division—served heroically, they were also segregated. The all-black regiments were, ironically, more fully integrated into the foreign French army during their tour overseas than they were at home.

Still, the heroism of WWI’s African American soldiers did not go unnoticed. On Feb. 17, 1919, 3,000 soldiers from the Harlem Hellfighters arrived in New York to a thunderous reception from the public. The New York Times estimated the crowd in the hundreds of thousands. The next day, a 3-page spread in the New York Tribune began:

Up the wide avenue they swung. . . . In every line proud chests expanded beneath the medals valor had won. The impassioned cheering of the crowds massed along the way drowned the blaring cadence of their former jazz band. The old 15th was on parade and New York turned out to tender its dark-skinned heroes a New York welcome.

But despite this grand show of appreciation for our nation’s African American war heroes, integration would not come until the end of the next world war, about 40 years later.

In WWII, African American service started with a whimper and ended with a bang. According to one account,

In 1941 fewer than 4,000 African Americans were serving in the military and only twelve African Americans had become officers. By 1945, more than 1.2 million African Americans would be serving in uniform on the Home Front, in Europe, and the Pacific (including thousands of African American women in the Women’s auxiliaries).

African Americans comprise about 17% of both the Reserve Components and total U.S. Military. (Source: Department of Defense Demographics Report, 2014)

Reserve Components

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Total U.S. Military

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However, it was not until July 26, 1948 that the U.S. military became fully integrated. On that day, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981, establishing that “there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.”

It is upon this basis, years ahead of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, that the U.S. military began to take the shape that it has today: a force whose solidarity transcends apparent differences in pursuit of a common cause.