African American History Month

  • Published
  • By By Robert Kane
  • Air University Directory of History
Throughout the history of the United States, African Americans have significantly contributed to the rich heritage and culture of this country in all areas of society.  Since 1976, the United States has celebrated their contributions to the history and heritage of this nation.  This special observance began as "Negro History Week" by historian Carter G. Woodson and the Association for the Study of Negro Life in 1926.  By 1929, 46 of 48 states had distributed literature to their schools through state departments of education. 

In February 1969, Kent State University expanded the special celebration to the entire month.  In 1976, the U.S. government officially recognized February as Black History Month to honor the accomplishments of African Americans in every area of endeavor throughout American history.  The theme for this year's observance is "Hallowed Grounds:  Sites of African Memories."

Throughout the history of the United States, African Americans have served in all of the U.S. Armed Forces.  From the Civil War to the present, 88 African Americans have received Medals of Honor for their heroic service in combat or peacetime.

During World War II, about 2.5 million African Americans registered with Selective Service, and, of these, 1. 2 million served in all U.S. military.  Perhaps, the most famous African-American unit of World War II was the 332nd Fighter Group, manned by the Tuskegee Airmen. The first African American squadron of the U.S. Army Air Forces, the 99th Fighter Squadron, activated on March 22, 1941, at Chanute Field, Illinois, entered combat in North Africa in June 1943.  By May 1945, the Group, now consisting of the 99th, 100th, 301st and the 302nd Fighter Squadrons, had established an outstanding combat record.

By September 1945, the Army Air Forces (AAF) had about 152,000 African-Americans in various units, all segregated.  In addition to the 14,600 of the 332nd Fighter Group, about 38,400 served in aviation engineer battalions which constructed airfields on numerous islands across the Pacific as U.S. forces advanced toward Japan.  Another 100,000 served in over 250 aviation squadrons, which provided various administrative and labor services on AAF installations in the Continental United States.

Maxwell Field had the 4th Aviation Squadron, activated on June 10, 1941, and Gunter Field had the 22ndAviation Squadron, activated on May 8, 1942.  By fall 1944, the AAF had inactivated both units, activated the 213th AAF Base Unit, and assigned the African Americans of both former aviation squadrons to Squadron F under this new unit.  On both installations, the African American airmen lived in a separate part of their respective installations.

Because the U.S. Armed Forces were segregated during World War II, African American pilots and ground support enlisted members were trained in segregated facilities.  For example, after the AAF activated the 99th Pursuit (later Fighter) Squadron in March 1941, the squadron's ground element transferred to Maxwell Field, Alabama, from November 5 to November 9, 1941 on its way to Tuskegee, Alabama, where the AAF had begun construction of several airfields and three flight schools to train African American combat pilots.  These flight schools under the Southeast Air Corps Training Center (later Eastern Flying Training Command), headquartered at Maxell Field, had graduated almost 1,000 pilots by the war's end.

In many places, African American airmen not only had to deal with the prejudices of white commanders and white enlisted personnel but also the prejudices of the people in the local communities.  In general, AAF installation commanders, including those at Maxwell and Gunter Fields, worked with local community leaders to protect the civil rights of the African American airmen assigned to these installations and ameliorate the problems of off-installation segregation policies.

Although some people at the start of the war had severe reservations about the use of African Americans in the AAF, especially as combat pilots, the African-American men and women who had served in the AAF during the war performed well in leadership as well as technical and service positions.  In addition, their generally excellent performance during the war demonstrated the illogic and inefficiency of the wartime segregation policies.

After 1945, these policies, racial prejudices of some white base commanders, and few promotion and career field opportunities for African-Americans in the military produced several base disorders.  Investigators squarely placed the underlying cause of the disorders on the military's segregation policy.  As a result, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order 9981 in July 1948, integrating the U.S. military services.

The integration of Maxwell and Gunter facilities in the late 1940s generally occurred without incident.  Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., the Air Force's first African American general officer, wrote this assessment about the integration of Maxwell AFB in 1949 when he was there for Air War College.

"At Maxwell, as at other Air Force bases, legal, proper, and reasonable actions by commanders appeared to solve most problems in enforcing the new regulations.  With its new concepts of equal opportunity and treatment, Maxwell Air Force Base set an example for the surrounding community and the whole state."

Prominent African American military individuals include Army Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Sr.; his son Brigadier General Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., a Tuskegee Airman and the first U.S. Air Force general officer; General Daniel "Chappie" James, who became the first Air Force four-star general; Army General Colin L. Powell, who became the first and only African American Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff; and Chief Master Sergeant Thomas N. Barnes, the first and only African American Chief Master Sergeant of the Air Force.

Today, about 18 percent of the members of all U.S. Armed Forces are African Americans, roughly the same percentage of African Americans who are of military enlistment age.