As we enter Black History Month, let us pause to remember the sacrifice of African-American soldiers, past and present. The soldiers currently serving in Afghanistan and Iraq should know that the veterans who paved the road for them went through hell and high water. During the colonial era black slaves were promised their freedom if they fought in the Revolutionary War against the British. Thousands enlisted in the Continental Army with liberty etched in their hearts but, for many, freedom was denied after the victory.
During the Civil War, my great-great-great grandfather Sandy Wills, fled his slave master Edmund Wills' brutal plantation, and enlisted in the 4th Heavy Field Artillery based out of Union City, Tennessee. Although he was a strapping 23 year old man, he was considered too dumb to fight, so like most of the 200,000 members of the United States Colored Troops, he guarded the fort. After the war, there was no hero's welcome in the South for the black veteran. Apparently, he was so terrified of being targeted by disgruntled Confederates (now newly minted Klansmen) , that he told practically no one of his heroic duty. I was the first to uncover his story in some 150 years.
Tuskegee Airman Dabney Montgomery is celebrated as a hero nowadays, but during his service in World War II, he says he was treated like a second class citizen. Attached to the segregated 332nd Air Fighter Group and deployed to Italy, Montgomery says his white comrades expected the black Airmen to fail. "They actually believed there was something wrong with our brains!" Montgomery said. The surviving Tuskegee Airmen are now held up as celebrities, but it took more than thirty years for the trailblazers to get their just due.
Vietnam veteran Benjamin Freeman was a Navy Seaman and he vividly recalls the hostility he faced from 1969 to 1971. "I got a double whammy because I was black and I was from New York." Freeman says. During his service overseas, he says he is still saddened when he thinks of blacks doing all the cooking and serving -- but still barred from eating in certain parts of the mess hall. After all these years, such memories leave a bitter taste in Mr. Freeman's mouth.
Master Sergeant Clinton Ford also served overseas during the early Vietnam Era from 1963-1966. He says black soldiers caught more hell in the U.S. than they did when they were in a foreign country. But like all of the black soldiers I spoke with, he says he is proud to have served -- even though the going got rough from time to time.
Here's to the proud soldiers who believed in America and fought for her most sacred principles, even when only a handful believed in them. Semper Fi!