Veteran’s Day: The History of African Americans in the Military

November 12, 2015


By William S. Gooden

Special for the Milwaukee Times

If you look at data from a 2012 Department of Defense report, you will find that African Americans are the second largest racial group (after Caucasians) in the United States military. You will also find that minorities serving in commanding officer positions is up across all branches of the military and the numbers are only increasing as the years go by. But it’s not just recent history that has seen African Americans in combat, and serving our country as soldiers and as leaders. The military history of African Americans spans from the arrival of the first black slaves during the colonial history of the United States to the present day. There has been no war fought by or within the United States in which African Americans did not participate, including the Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, the Mexican–American War, the Civil War, the Spanish–American War, the World Wars, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Gulf War, and the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, as well as other minor conflicts.

The most notable African Americans to serve our country are the Tuskegee Airmen, who served as pilots during World War II and a tumultuous period of segregation in the military. They went on to become leaders in the military and the private sector, leaving an impressive legacy. Colin Powell, a retired four-star general in the United States Army as well as the 65th United States Secretary of State, served under U.S. President George W. Bush from 2001 to 2005. He is the first African American to serve in that position. During his military career, Powell also served as National Security Advisor (1987–1989), as Commander of the U.S. Army Forces Command (1989) and as Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (1989–1993), holding the latter position during the Persian Gulf War. He was the first, and so far the only, African American to serve on the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and was the first of two consecutive black office-holders to hold the key administration position of U.S. Secretary of State.


Emma Didlake, the nation’s oldest living veteran at 110 years old who dedicated her time and service during WWII, meets with President Barack Obama during an event held on July 17, 2015.

Michelle Howard is a United States Navy admiral who currently serves as the 38th Vice Chief of Naval Operations. Prior to that, she served as the Deputy Chief of Naval Operations for Operations, Plans and Strategy (N3/N5). Howard has achieved many historical firsts throughout her naval career. She was the first African American woman to achieve three star rank and the rank of admiral in the U.S. Navy. She was the first African American woman to command a U.S. Navy ship, the USS Rushmore. In 2006, she was selected for the rank of rear admiral (lower half), making her the first admiral selected from the U.S. Naval Academy class of 1982 and the first female graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy selected for flag rank.

On July 1, 2014, Howard became the first woman to become a four-star admiral. As Vice Chief of Naval Operations, which she began that same day, she is the first African American and the first woman to hold that post. It is not just as leaders that African Americans have made their mark in the military. Many men and women of color have served their country quietly with duty and honor, returning to civilian life to become leaders in their comunities. In July, President Barack Obama met with Emma Didlake, the nation’s oldest living veteran at 110 years old. Born in Boligee, AL in 1905, she was a 38-year-old wife and mother of five when she joined the Women’s Army Auxiliary Corps in 1943. Making the decision to join the army was a bold move for the veteran from the segregated south, during a period when many women remained at home. During her service, she held the rank of private and served for seven months stateside as a driver.

After the war, Didlake joined the NAACP and marched with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., in 1963, where she received a lifetime achievement award two years ago from the West Bloomfield, Detroit chapter. Didlake traveled around the world and was proud to earn medals for her military contribution. She earned the Women’s Army Corps Service Medal, American Campaign Medal, and World War II Victory Medal. On Friday, February 27, 2015. The Milwaukee Times Weekly Newspaper honored ten outstanding, local women who have or are currently serving in the five branches of the U.S. military.

They were honored as part of our annual Black Excellence Awards. Those five women were Major Michele Carter, U.S. Army Reserve and National Guard; Captain Berdie Cowser, U.S. Army; Staff Sergeant Lisa Cross, U.S. Army Reserve; Master Chief Mary C. Fowlkes, U.S. Coast Guard; Major Dorothy Greer, U.S. Army; Technical Sergeant Linder Jines, U.S. Air Force; Corporal Michelle Lipsey, U.S. Marine Corps; Petty Officer 2nd Class Virdia Ofei, U.S. Navy; Captain Sedoria Outlaw, U.S. Army; and Master Sergeant Barbara Robinson, U.S. Air Force and Army. Even the Milwaukee Times Newspaper’s own founder, Nathan Conyers, served four years in the U.S. Army during the Vietnam era. After his service he returned to civil life to started a career as a journalist, started a family, and become a leader in the African American community of Milwaukee.

Our service men and women of color deserve to be honored, not just on Veteran’s Day or during Black History Month, but everyday – for their commitment to their country and community, for taking a stand and protecting all our freedoms and for breaking open doors for African Americans. For they have overcome more than just the hardships of duty or faced in times of war. They have often overcome prejudice and discrimination on a day-to-day basis and still served bravely as defenders of liberty and as leaders in our community. They deserve to be saluted, not just for their contributions to Black history, but to American history. Happy Veteran’s Day to all our Vets!