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Celebrating African American Military Milestones

Shannon Butler-Mokoro, Ph.D., MSW

Gabrielle “Gabby” Womack

Alongside churches and schools, the military is one of the oldest and most important institutions in the U.S. The U.S. Armed Forces include the Army, Marine Corps, Navy, Air Force, Space Force, and Coast Guard. Even though an army has existed since the start of the Revolutionary War in 1775, the official U.S. military was not formed until the U.S. Congress had its first session on September 29, 1789.

African Americans have served in every war on American soil and abroad since the French and Indian War, also known as the Seven Years War. However, they served predominantly in segregated units. When allowed admission, African Americans faced harsh mistreatment in the military academies, received demeaning military assignments (often relegated to the galley and not to combat), and were denied promotions and the opportunity to serve as leaders. 

Approximately 178 years after their origins, in 1948, President Truman began to investigate these segregated military practices and the racial discrimination that existed. His investigation led to Executive Order 9981 – Desegregation of the Armed Forces.

The desegregation of the armed forces happened around the same time that the Augustinians founded Merrimack College specifically for soldiers who were returning home from World War II.

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Merrimack College in 1947

During Black History Month, it is only fitting to celebrate those African Americans who earned milestone achievements in their military careers. Here are the highlights from each era.

1700s and 1800s

  • The first African American U.S. military regiment was the 1st Rhode Island Regiment (1775).
  • Union war hero Robert Smalls was an enslaved man pressed into service within the Confederacy on a steamer named the CSS Planter. During the Civil War, Smalls and his crew mates delivered themselves and their families into freedom by impersonating the white captain and surrendering the ship to the Union. He later served South Carolina state politics.
  • First African American woman to enlist in the U.S. Army (1866) was Cathay Williams. She enlisted under the pseudonym William Cathay. Women were officially allowed to serve in the Army beginning in 1948.
  • In 1877, Henry Ossian Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point and the first African American commissioned officer in the U.S. military (2nd Lieutenant). He became the first non-white officer to lead the Buffalo Soldiers of the 10th Calvary.
  • Richard R. Wright, Sr. was the first African American to serve as a U.S. Army paymaster (1898). He was the highest-ranking African American during the Spanish-American War. He was valedictorian of Atlanta University’s first commencement ceremony in 1876, and also a college president (first president for the Georgia State Industrial College for Colored Youth, which would later become Savannah State University).

Early 1900s

  • Charles Young was the first African American to become a Colonel in the U.S. Army (1919). He was the third African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy, the first to serve as U.S. National Park Superintendent, and the first African American military attaché. Until his death in 1992, he was the highest-ranking Black officer in the regular U.S. Army.
  • Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army AirCorps (a precursor to the U.S. Air Force)
  • Benjamin O. Davis Jr. was among the men in the first class of Tuskegee Airmen. He went on to become the first African American General in the U.S. Air Force (1959). His father, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. was the first African American to become a General in any branch of the U.S. military. He was promoted by President Roosevelt to Brigadier General in 1940.
  • The “Golden Thirteen” were the thirteen African American enlisted men who became the first African American commissioned and warrant officers in the U.S. Navy (1944). At the Great Lakes Naval Recruit Training Command in Illinois (the Navy’s only boot camp) there is a building dedicated to their honor,Building 1405, where recruits first arrive for basic training.
  • Joseph Jenkins was the first African American commissioned officer in the U.S. Coast Guard (1943).
  • Phyllis Mae Dailey was the first African American woman sworn into the Navy Nurse Corps (1945).
  • Frederick C. Branch was the first African-American U.S. Marine Corps officer (1945).
  • Jesse L. Brown was the U.S. Navy’s first Black aviator (1948, Korean War).
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The Tuskegee Airmen. Photo Credit: Military.com

1950s and 1960s

  • Frank E. Petersen became the U.S. Marine Corps’ first African American aviator (1952).
  • The first African American U.S. Navy diver was Carl Brashear (1954).
  • In 1963, Charles V. Bush became the first African American to graduate from the U.S. Air Force Academy.
  • Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African American U.S. Air Force General (1965).

1970s

  • In 1975, fighter pilot Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. became the first African American to reach the rank of four-star General in the U.S. Armed Forces. 
  • 30 years after women were allowed to serve as permanent regular members of the U.S. Navy, Joan C. Bynum became the first African American woman to advance to the rank of Captain.
  • In 1979, Frank E. Petersen became the first African American U.S. Marine Corps general officer.

1980s and 1990s

  • Janie L. Mines is the first African-American woman to graduate from (and to attend) the U.S. Naval Academy (graduated in 1980).
  • Roscoe Robinson became the first African American U.S. Army four-star General (1982).
  • Donnie Cochran was the first African American to become a member of the U.S. Navy’s Blue Angels precision flying team (1985) and also the first African American to command the team (1994).
  • J. Paul Reason was the first African American U.S. Navy four-star Admiral (1996).
  • In 1997, U.S. Army Sgt. Danyell Wilson became the first Black woman to earn the prestigious job of guarding the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery.

2000s

  • Gen. Colin Powell was appointed by President H.W. Bush to be the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, making him the first African American to serve in that post.
  • Shawna Rochelle Kimbrell is the first African American woman combat pilot in the U.S. Air Force.
  • Jeanine McIntosh Menze becomes the first African American female aviator in the Coast Guard.
  • Michelle J. Howard is the first African-American woman to become a four-star admiral
  • Lorna Mahlock is the first African American woman to be a U.S. Marine Corps general officer.
  • Charles Q. Brown Jr. is the first African American appointed as a military Chief of Staff and first African American to lead any branch of the United States Armed Forces
  • Lloyd Austin is the first African American to serve as a U.S. Secretary of Defense.

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Author Bios

Dr. Butler-Mokoro’s is the co-chair for the CSWE Council on the Role & Status of Women in Social Work Education, co-editor of the book Feminist Perspectives on Social Work Education: The Intersecting Lives on Women in the 21st Century.

Gabrielle “Gabby” Womack is a Reference/Access Associate at McQuade Library and a Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Ambassador.