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Feature   Observances

DOD, Nation Celebrate Black History Month

Jan. 31, 2022 | BY Dave Vergun , DOD News

Black History Month, also known as National African American History Month, is an annual celebration of achievements by Black Americans and a time to recognize the positive impact they've had on the history of the United States and the Defense Department.

Black people have fought in every United States war, from the Revolutionary War through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ninety African Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Airmen mill about a table.
Tuskegee Airmen
Tuskegee Airmen gather around a table and talk in Ramitelli, Italy, in March 1945.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 450309-O-D0439-001

Yet, throughout most of American history, Black service members were placed in segregated units. Desegregation didn't occur until Jan. 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 directing the armed services to integrate.

Active-duty service members number 1,319,283; of those, 227,974, or 17.3%, are African American, as of December 2021.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020, the Black or African American population was 41.1 million, representing 12.4% of the U.S. population.

Notable Dates

  • Black people, both slave and free, served on both sides during the Revolutionary War. African Americans also served on both sides in the War of 1812 (1812-1815). Many served with the British in order to gain their freedom and resettle in non-slave nations, particularly Canada, Bermuda and Sierra Leone.
    Soldiers stand in formation.
    Civil War Soldiers
    Black soldiers with the Union Army's 36th Colored Regiment stand in formation during the Civil War's Battle of Chaffin's Farm in Virginia, Sept. 29-30, 1864.
    Photo By: Army photo
    VIRIN: 640929-O-D0439-001
  • In the Civil War (1861-1865), over 186,000 African Americans fought for the Union Army and Navy. A lesser number of African Americans were used as laborers on the Confederate side. 
  • Six regiments of African Americans, known as buffalo soldiers, served in the Indian Wars from 1863 to the early 1900s and in the Spanish-American War in 1898.
    Soldiers pose for a group photo.
    Buffalo Soldiers
    Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo in 1890.
    Photo By: Library of Congress
    VIRIN: 900929-O-D0439-001
  • About 367,000 African Americans service members served in Europe during World War I (1917-1918).
  • Around 1.3 million African American service members served during World War II (1941-1945).
    Troops rest amid rubble.
    Special Seabees
    During World War II, the 17th Special Seabees, attached to the 7th Marine Regiment, rest amid the rubble on the island of Peleliu, Sept. 1944.
    Photo By: National Archives
    VIRIN: 440909-O-D0439-001
  • During the Korean War (1950-1953), about 600,000 Black service members served in the armed forces.
  • About 300,000 African Americans served in the Vietnam War (1961-1975).
  • The two top-level Black Americans in DOD have been Army Gen. Colin Powell, who served as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff from 1989 to 1993, and Secretary of Defense Lloyd J. Austin III who was sworn in January 2021.

History of the Celebration

The origin of Black History Month is associated with the noted African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. In 1926, he initiated the celebration of Negro History Week during the second week in February. 

Soldiers move an artillery piece on a road.
Artillery Unit
Black soldiers in an artillery unit move forward in Belgium, Nov. 9, 1944.
Photo By: Library of Congress
VIRIN: 441109-O-D0439-001

February was chosen because that is the birth month of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and social reformer, and President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery.

The celebration was expanded to the entire month of February in 1976 by President Gerald Ford; since that time, every president has designated February as Black History Month.

Soldiers pose for a group photo.
Heading Home
Officers of the U.S. Army's segregated 366th Infantry Regiment head home on board the Royal Majesty Ship Aquitania, after World War I service in 1919.
Photo By: National Archives
VIRIN: 190219-O-D0439-001

During his 1976 Black History Month announcement, Ford linked the commemoration to the nation's 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that year.

Freedom and the recognition of individual rights are what our revolution was all about. They were ideals that inspired our fight for independence, ideals that we have been striving to live up to ever since. Yet, it took many years before these ideals became a reality for Black citizens."
President Gerald Ford

On Feb. 11, 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, which designated each February as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month."

Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom also celebrate a Black history month.