Military History Race in the US Military
Alexander M. Bielakowski
  • LAST REVIEWED: 26 August 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 August 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199791279-0122


The issue of race in the United States has existed since before the creation of the nation itself. Therefore, it should come as no surprise that race played a role in the American military since before its origins as well. The history of race in the US military has been written in two general schools. The first school, written almost exclusively by members of racial groups and predating the second Civil Rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s, presented the history of racial groups in the military as a continuing struggle for acceptance. This school often presented a “two steps forward, one step back” story regarding acceptance and equality in the military as gains were often tempered by short- or long-term setbacks. The other major school, which appeared after the 1960s, was still largely written by members of racial groups (though other historians have now begun to contribute). This school has presented the history of racial groups in the military as one in which the members of these groups were largely either the protagonists or the victims of the dominant white race and other races as they themselves gained acceptance.

African Americans

Arguably, when discussing race in America, African Americans are the first group of people most Americans consider. African Americans arrived in the colony of Virginia in 1619 and have been an integral part of American history ever since. They have also served in every American war from colonial times to the present day. Reflecting this long and distinguished service, several works deal with the entire span of African American military history. Astor 1998 and Buckley 2001 provide a good overview of African American military history. Edgerton 2001 is more focused on combating the myth of African American cowardice. Nalty 1986 is one of the first books in the more recent wave of historiography, while Shaw and Donnelly 1975 is the first to deal with African Americans in the US Marine Corps. Sutherland 2004 is the best reference work, while Wright 2002 is the volume with the best illustrations.

  • Astor, Gerald. The Right to Fight: A History of African-Americans in the Military. Novato, CA: Presidio, 1998.

    While providing a comprehensive work from the colonial era to the 1990s, Astor focuses on the period from the Civil War to the Korean War since it was during this period that the status of African Americans in the military began to change. Though he deals with the official racism of both the US military and the American nation, Astor also acknowledges the success story of race relations in the military after the 1960s.

  • Buckley, Gail L. American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military from the Revolution to Desert Storm. New York: Random House, 2001.

    Buckley, a journalist and the daughter of Lena Horne, used interviews and other first-person primary materials heavily throughout this comprehensive work. In addition to describing the unfair circumstances under which African Americans performed honorable service for the United States throughout its wars, she also argues that the modern military has recognized its past racism and now affords African Americans with a better situation than they enjoy in the rest of American society.

  • Edgerton, Robert B. Hidden Heroism: Black Soldiers in America’s Wars. Boulder, CO: Westview, 2001.

    Unlike most other general histories of African Americans in the US military, Edgerton’s work focuses most specifically on the racist myth that African Americans were cowards, who naturally shirked and malingered. Despite the performance of African Americans in the Civil War, this myth persisted as white Southerners continued to play a disproportionate role in the US Army’s officer corps.

  • Nalty, Bernard C. Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military. New York: Free Press, 1986.

    Nalty’s work was the first comprehensive history of African Americans in the US military to be written by a professional military historian. As a professional historian, he provides a less anecdotal and more narratory account of the subject. While many other general histories have been produced since this work first appeared, none can be said to have truly supplanted this work; rather, they have simply updated it.

  • Shaw, Henry I., Jr., and Ralph W. Donnelly. Blacks in the Marine Corps. Washington, DC: History and Museums Division, Headquarters Marine Corps, 1975.

    While technically an “official” history, Shaw and Donnelly’s work is the only comprehensive volume to focus on a single branch of the service. The work is necessarily limited in focus, both because of its single branch approach and because the US Marine Corps only officially accepted African Americans starting in June 1942.

  • Sutherland, Jonathan. African Americans at War: An Encyclopedia. 2 vols. Santa Barbara, CA: ABC-CLIO, 2004.

    Not a narrative history, but rather an encyclopedia, Sutherland’s two-volume work deserves inclusion because of the wide range of coverage and the accessibility of information. Included among entries on individuals, events, and units are a more than forty-page chronology and a list of African American Medal of Honor recipients.

  • Wright, Kai. Soldiers of Freedom: An Illustrated History of African Americans in the Armed Forces. New York: Black Dog & Leventhal, 2002.

    Wright’s primarily photographic history of African Americans in the US military draws heavily on the photo archives at the National Archives and Records Administration and the Library of Congress. Participation of African Americans in the military is depicted in both photos and other illustrations from the colonial era through the 1990s. Not all of the depictions are heroic since military service involves routine duties for which African Americans were often disproportionally assigned.

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