Military

Lost Memories of the Black American Soldier

A Memorial Day reflection on the service and sacrifice of blacks who loved this nation.

Patrick Hampton · May 25, 2020

“Once let the black man get upon his person the brass letter, U.S., let him get an eagle on his button, and a musket on his shoulder and bullets in his pocket, there is no power on earth that can deny that he has earned the right to citizenship.” —Frederick Douglass

As we reflect on Memorial Day, we talk much about our forefathers and military heroes and how they sacrificed so much, including their lives, to ensure and secure our American liberties.

But what did these valiant individuals look like, and does it really matter? So many of my black colleagues and friends seem to envision these brave soldiers as a bunch of old white men who took patriotism seriously.

Sadly, among the black collective, we hardly ever talk about the men of color, our black men, who died in the name of our great nation — for the very same causes as their white counterparts. Few know that the numbers of black Army and Navy recruits reached close to 200,000 by the end of the Civil War.

Yes, barriers once existed preventing young and eager black men from enlisting, such as the act passed in 1791 that prevented black soldiers from bearing arms in the U.S. Military. After the ban was lifted, black recruitment in the Army increased — many from South Carolina, Massachusetts, and the Volunteer State we know to be my home state of Tennessee.

Also, these black units continued to serve even when prejudices from white solders prevented black Army soldiers from engaging in combat and earning the same wages. Eventually, black soldiers would earn equal pay and medical care and enlistment followed suit.

The takeaway? Why did these brave black soldiers want to serve in the first place despite slavery having taken place? Despite the prejudices within the military? Why did black soldiers choose to fight for the right to fight at all?

It’s because they believed in the same freedom to protect Old Glory the same as any white American would. Despite slavery, despite prejudice, they inherited the same pride and patriotism and were willing to die for it all the same. America meant something to them unlike the social justice warriors of today.

The mainstream media would lead you to believe that America, if you are black, was never worth dying for. Yet many black people can trace their history back to grandparents and great-grands who served. If America were never great, then were these deaths — the deaths of black solders on duty — in vain? Did they enlist while not knowing why?

Every Memorial Day, we reflect on the lives of the many who paid the ultimate price. These men and women of all backgrounds owed no one, yet gave their all to everyone. But especially today, I reflect on the black man who way back when had more pride in his country in his one finger than many black people have in their entire being.

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