National Freedom Day is official held on February 1st, but we decided to highlight the importance of African Americans and their contribution to the day. President Harry S. Truman signed the legislation into law on June 30, 1948 to commemorate Abraham Lincoln’s signing of the 13th Amendment outlawing slavery on the 1st of February 1865. This law was subsequently ratified by the required three-fourths of the states. Georgia was the 27th of the then 38 states to ratify clearing the required supermajority mark on December 6, 1865.
That is not the only Georgia connection to this historic event. This commemoration came about largely due to the efforts of Major Richard Robert Wright, Sr., a former slave born in a log cabin near Dalton, Georgia. From these humble beginnings, he rose to become an Army officer, an educator, and a successful banker. Commissioned as a Major by President William McKinley in 1898, Wright was the first African American Army paymaster and was the highest ranking African American officer during the Spanish American War. Wright was also the first president of what is now Savannah State University.
National Freedom Day preceded Black History Month, initiated in 1926 but not officially recognized until the 1976 Bicentennial. Black History Month itself was a result of the efforts of Harvard educated historian Dr. Carter G. Woodson, who established the Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) in 1915. He selected February for this tribute as it contained the birthdays of both Abraham Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. Appropriately, “African Americans in Times of War” is the ASALH African American History Month theme during the 2018 World War I Centennial year.
This is, of course, the theme every February for the U.S. Army as it pays tribute to black Soldiers and their service and sacrifice from the Revolution to the present day. For example, Crispus Attucks, a black stevedore, is believed to be the first American killed during the Boston Massacre in the early days of the impending Revolution, and over 5,000 black Soldiers would fight during this Nation’s first war. This number included the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, which participated in the nighttime assault with unloaded muskets and fixed bayonets to capture the key Redoubt 10 at the decisive battle of Yorktown.
Significant African American contributions continued in every subsequent war. Two battalions participated in the critical Battle of New Orleans in the War of 1812. In the Civil War, roughly 186,000 served in uniform, including the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, immortalized in the movie Glory. Many subsequently joined the famed “Buffalo Soldiers” (9th and 10th Cavalry and 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments) to fight in the Indian Campaigns and then again in the Spanish American War in 1898. Few people realize that at the famous Battle of San Juan Hill, the 10th Cavalry and the 24th Infantry played the leading roles and were first to the top–not Teddy Roosevelt and the “Rough Riders.” One young lieutenant in the 10th would become famous in another war, General John J. “Black Jack” Pershing.
World War I saw the 369th Infantry become the first all-black combat formation to arrive in France. Labelled the “Hellfighters” by the Germans, the unit spent 191 days in the line and suffered 33% combat casualties but never had a man captured or lost a foot of ground. World War II had its own famous all-black units including the 78th Tank Battalion (today the 64th Armor Regiment) and, of course, the Tuskegee Airmen. Less well known are the heroic actions of the black field artillery units who fought beside the 101st Airborne Division at Bastogne, earning a Presidential Unit Citation in the process.
On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman signed an executive order initiating full integration of the Armed Forces, and, in October of 1951, the last all black combat unit, the 24th Infantry Regiment, was disbanded. Of note, these actions preceded major civil rights legislation by over a decade.
Today, the percentage of African Americans in the U.S. Army (22%) is almost twice their percentage of the service eligible US population (13%) and, their achievements are manifest. Among their ranks are a number of full four-star general officers including GEN Colin Powell, former Secretary of State, as well as several who served as Secretary of the Army. Most tellingly, eighty nine have earned the Congressional Medal of Honor. Few groups have better demonstrated by their actions the Army Values, especially Loyalty, Selfless Service, Honor, and Personal Courage, while overcoming extreme adversity. Perhaps the determination of these American Citizens is best captured in the 9th and 10th Cavalry regimental mottos: “We Can, We Will”… “Ready and Forward.”