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A Soldier’s Play looks at one chapter in a long chronicle of Black history: since the founding of the United States, Black soldiers have served and defended a country that denied them basic rights as citizens at home.

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Revolutionary War

At the start of the Revolutionary War, George Washington feared arming Black people who had been slaves; however, he developed respect as he witnessed their loyalty. The Revolution resulted in a mixed victory for Black Americans. Blacks in Northern states were given freedom and, in some cases, enfranchisement; but the constitution permitted slavery in southern states. 

Civil War

At the start of the Civil War, Black men fled Confederate states to join Union forces. At first, Black men served unofficially as soldiers and laborers, while Black and white women worked as nurses, cooks, and laundresses. Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation in 1863 officially sanctioned the enlistment of Black soldiers into the Union Army. Still, Black soldiers faced prejudice from white Union officers, risked greater danger if they were captured by Confederate troops, and were not paid equally. 

William H. Carney, a former slave (pictured above), served in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an entirely Black unit. On July 18, 1863, the 54th took Fort Wagner in South Carolina. A wounded Sgt. Carney proved his valor by climbing to the top of the fort and planting the Union flag, earning him the first Medal of Honor ever given to a Black soldier. 

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The Buffalo Soldiers

Black soldiers in the 9th and 10th Cavalries and the 24th and 25th Infantries aided US western expansion by building roads, serving as the first National Park Rangers, and, paradoxically, fighting in government-led wars against Native Americans. Some of the soldiers obtained property, better jobs, and higher education as a result of their service; however, they also faced discrimination within the Army and in frontier towns, and some were lynched upon their return home. 

World War I

Black men enlisted for WWI to defend democracy in Europe and earn greater rights at home. Nevertheless, they were segregated, used mostly in labor-intensive service positions, and only a small percentage were given the chance to prove themselves in combat. 

The "Harlem Hellfighters" (the 369th Army Infantry Regiment) fought on the French front lines for six months – longer than any other American unit in the war – losing no prisoners or territory. The entire unit was awarded the Croix de Guerre, France's highest military honor. 171 members of the regiment were awarded the U.S. Legion of Merit.

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World War II

Black soldiers mobilized to fight fascism abroad; meanwhile, they were denied employment, housing, education, and voting rights at home. They faced racial violence near Southern military bases, where Jim Crow laws held firm. Some journalists and activists drew comparisons between the racists ideology of Nazis and white supremacists in the US Attitudes about Blacks in the military gradually shifted throughout the war. Some units were desegregated for the defining Battle of the Bulge (1944-1945). Following the war, President Truman ordered the complete desegregation of the Armed Services in 1948. Historians attribute Black contributions to the war effort as a key factor in the Civil Rights movement of the '50s and 60s. 

Tuskegee Airmen

In 1941, responding to pressure from the Black press and civil rights organizations, the Army Air Corps found a squadron of Black pilots based in Tuskegee Alabama, who were trained and ultimately deployed to fight. Through their accomplishments and military victories, the Tuskegee Airmen proved that Black Americans were capable and helped pave the way for full integration of the military.

The Double V Campaign

The Pittsburgh Courier, one of the nation's largest Black newspapers, launched the Double V Campaign in 1942. The paper published two interlocking Vs, with the text: "Democracy: Victory at home, Victory Abroad" to encourage Black Americans to support the war effort while fighting for civil rights at home. The campaign attracted readers and brought national attention to the issues of segregation and discrimination within the US.

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The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War coincided with a transformational (and turbulent) period for civil rights at home. It was the first major war fought with the military fully integrated and featured the highest proportion of Black soldiers to serve in an American war. The early years saw a high proportion of Black casualties (25% of all deaths in 1965), leading to protests and reduction in the number of Black soldiers sent to combat. Many white and Black soldiers discovered new camaraderie amid fraternization with fellow soldiers of different races. As the war went on and as racial conflicts escalated at home – especially after Martin Luther King Jr.'s assassination – conflicts emerged between white and Black soldiers. 

Recent Years

The US ended the draft in 1973, making military service all-voluntary. Black recruitment rose steadily for the next decade, then began to fall off after the mid-1980s, possibly reflecting skepticism in the Black community for American policy in Iraq and Afghanistan. Black soldiers are still underrepresented in leadership positions and tend to be assigned to service jobs rather than combat positions, which lead to higher advancement. Black soldiers face a disproportionate amount of casualties, court-martials, and hardships as veterans.

General Colin Powell began his military career in Vietnam, and in 1989 he became the first Black man to serve as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. In 2000, Powell was appointed Secretary of State by George W. Bush, a position he held through 2004.

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