General Says African American History Is American History
By Rudi Williams
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Feb. 16, 1999 African Americans' contributions to the nation are not just black history, but an integral part of American history, said Army Lt. Gen. Joe N. Ballard.
Thousands of black Americans' contributions are absent from American history books because historians ignored them, Ballard told attendees at DoD's Feb. 8 kick off observance of National African American History Month. For years, he said, African American history was "told through whispered tales passed down from one generation to the next.
"Remnants left behind by our ancestors also tell the stories -- worn shackles from a slave ship; records left from a Southern plantation; quilts, painstakingly stitched and hung out to air to point the way to the next stop on the Underground Railroad; and tattered boots of an unknown black soldier who died at Bunker Hill," Ballard told the packed crowd in the Pentagon auditorium.
"This is black history -- this is American history," said Ballard, commander of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
"Today, we Americans are proud of our diversity," he said. "We celebrate and honor our unique traditions, our special heritage -- whatever that may be. But regardless of our roots, we remain -- first, last and always -- Americans."
Ballard said much of American history has been shaped by the military, from Bunker Hill to the Civil War, two world wars, Korea, Vietnam and Desert Storm. "All American service men and women have left their mark on American history and American society," he said.
African Americans fought at the Battle of Concord in April 1775, crossed the Delaware River with Gen. George Washington on Christmas Day 1776, and served by the thousands in the Continental Army, Ballard said.
"Unfortunately," the general said, "the contributions of black Americans to the birth of our nation were, for the most part, unrecorded and were soon forgotten by society." He pointed out that after the Revolutionary War, the military eliminated blacks from their rolls. And in 1792, Congress passed legislation that limited military service only to "free, able-bodied, white male citizens."
But, despite this law, African Americans were called to serve during the War of 1812. When New Orleans was threatened in 1815, a battalion of free men of color held their portion of the American front line and then counterattacked, Ballard said. "You surpassed my hopes. The nation shall applaud your valor," Gen. Andrew Jackson told his black troops after the battle.
Jackson was wrong. Despite their heroism, African Americans were again barred from military service until the Civil War, Ballard noted. President Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 declared that former slaves could join Union forces. That was the beginning of a national policy of recruiting and organizing African American regiments, the general said.
During America's expansion westward, black soldiers, known as "Buffalo Soldiers," protected American interests, he told the audience. Ballard said Buffalo Soldiers served long, isolated tours of duty in the Southwest, protecting settlers, building roads, and guarding the mail and engineers and laborers who built the railroads.
"Buffalo Soldiers fought in more than 100 battles with Indians," Ballard said. "Their presence was key to the growth of America in the West."
In World War I, more than 400,000 black Americans served in the armed forces in segregated units. However, because of the color of their skin, they were considered mentally and morally unfit to serve on the front lines, Ballard said.
That myth was shattered by the all-black 369th Infantry Regiment. Spurned by American commanders, the 369th was assigned to the French and fought under their command. Ballard added, they supported the French army for 191 days on the front lines and received French awards for bravery in combat.
African American nurses also served with distinction in World War II. Working side by side with their white colleagues they treated all patients, regardless of race, he pointed out.
Perhaps the best-known African Americans of World War II are the Tuskegee Airmen, who trained to be aviators in the experimental Tuskegee (Ala.) Training Program.
"Skeptics of the program believed that blacks were incapable of mastering the complex skills of aviation," Ballard said. "But their skepticism was proven wrong, and many German combat planes fell from the skies at the hands of the Tuskegee pilots."
Although African Americans fought with distinction in World War II, they returned home to a segregated America, Ballard said. "Black Americans who had served their country alongside their white counterparts were not permitted to drink from the same water fountains or sit at the same lunch counters," he noted.
"Unfortunately, this is also black history -- this is also American history," Ballard said.
In 1948, President Harry Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which called for equal opportunity for all members of the armed forces. That, Ballard said, made the segregated Army a thing of the past. "Soon, the segregation of society as a whole would begin to crumble," he noted.
Since that time, African Americans have fought and died for this country alongside men and women of all races, he said. In Korea, Vietnam, the Persian Gulf and Bosnia, the U.S. armed forces couldn't accomplish their goals without the skills and dedication of all their members, he said.
Today, the general said, African Americans make up about 25 percent of the armed forces, and they serve at every level of military leadership. "For example," one-third of the sergeants major in the Army are black," Ballard said. "These are the folks who are directly responsible for making sure our troops are trained and ready to defend American interests."
He said America's future leaders, sergeant major of the Army, Navy captain, chief of staff of the Air Force, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff are today in a boot camp, ROTC or a military academy.
"We don't know the names of these leaders or what they look like, but that's no longer important," Ballard said. "The men and women of today's armed forces have the opportunity to go as far as their dreams will take them. They will not be hindered by the color of their skin.
"This is the legacy of black history -- this is the legacy of American history."