White Americans have been ambivalent over the years about Black participation in military organizations and in most instances have encouraged or allowed Blacks in military activities only when forced by circumstances to do so. - shsu.edu
Across the Atlantic Ocean in Europe, defending one's city or country was the responsibility of all male citizens. Wealthy, prominent men became prestigious officers and lower class men served as regular soldiers for service overseas. Similar military practices were adapted in the New World, where settlers from Spain, France, Britain, and the Netherlands established colonies in America.
The institution of slavery was also brought to America. A range of policies existed for militia participation of both Free Blacks and Enslaved Africans. Major milestones during the Colonial Era and Revolutionary War listed below gives us a foundation on prevailing attitudes prior to forced desegregation of the armed forces. Early Black Military Experiences included outright banning, and eventually inclusion. Many of the heroic contributions were quickly forgotten.
- 1639 - the Commonwealth of Virginia enacted a bill excluding Negroes from being provided with arms or ammunition.
- Dutch West Indian Colony of New Amsterdam (New York) armed slaves with a "tomy hawk and a half pike" to assist in fighting murderous Indians (Native Americans).
- 1653 - Massachusetts Colony required all Negroes and Indians from sixteen to sixty years of age "inhabitants or servants", to attend Military training along with the English.
- New England later followed Virginia in excluding Blacks from the militia. However, this led to Blacks having the same social standing as upper class men who were excluded from the militia. Blacks were then assigned laborer type tasks, such as building defensive fortifications.
- South Carolina, on the other hand allowed for "trusty" servants to help in defending the colony in 1703.
- Other Southern colonies did not allow for Blacks to become members of militia. There were larger populations of Blacks in the South and the power establishment feared slave mutinies and revolts.
- North Carolina, did make an exception when it came to Indian uprisings. In these cases every able bodied man was allowed to help terminate Indian uprisings.
|Revolutionary Hero Salem Poor*|
American Revolution (America's Independence from Britain) (1775-1783)
- 20% of the Colonial population of 22 million was Black.
- April 1775 - Black Minuteman fought at Lexington and Concord.
- May 1775 - Massachusetts adopted a resolution that no slaves be admitted into the Continental Army.
- July 1775 - Under General George Washington and General Horatio Gates, Continental Amy recruiting officers were not to enlist any "stroller, Negro, or vagabond."
- November 1775 - John Murray, Royal Governor of Virginia, representing the opposing British, offered freedom to enslaved Blacks willing to bear arms against the colonists. Murray was known as the Earl of Dunmore or Lord Dunmore.
- December 1775 - 300 Blacks joined on the British side with "Liberty to Slaves" etched on their uniforms, calling themselves the "Ethiopian Regiment."
- December 1775 - As a result of Dunmore's Ethiopian Regiment, Washington changed part of his policy and allowed free Blacks in the Continental Army.
- 1777 - It was reported that some slaves substituted for their masters despite the policy barring slaves.
- 1778 - Washington's Continental Army integrated a number of African Americans. There was also an all Black battalion from Rhode Island and Black companies from Connecticut and Boston, called the Colonials and Bucks of America.
- 5,000 Black Soldiers fought in the 300,000 Continental Army
1775 - Several states paid bonuses to Black crew members and granted freedom. In short, the Continental Navy did not bar Blacks. The Navy was supplemented by individual state and private funding. Ship crews were integrated and Black crew members came with prior maritime experience. (It was reported that some made it up the ranks of pilots; pilots are responsible for navigating a ship through narrow or congested waterways.)
|Secretary of War James McHenry|
Established Policy Banning Negroes in the Marines.
- A dozen or more African Americans served in the Marines.
- First African American to fight as a Marine was John Martin (Keto). He was enlisted without his Delaware slave owner's permission and saw combat on the USS Reprisal. He was at sea for a year and a half and perished when his ship sank in October, 1777.
Early Black Military Experiences demonstrate the willingness for men, who in some cases, did not have their freedom, but were ready to fight. The Colonial Era and the Revolutionary War provided a preview of what Blacks in combat could achieve.
Notes: * Despite Salem Poor's surname, he was able to purchase his freedom as a slave with a year's salary in 1769. Salem Poor was sent to build a fort in Bunker Hill during the Revolutionary War. He killed British Lieutenant Colonel James Abercrombie in Charlestown, MA during combat. The Battle of Bunker Hill had approximately 1,000 African American casualties. 14 American Officers sent a petition to the Massachusetts legislature, proclaiming that Poor "Behaved like an experienced officer as well as an excellent soldier." Salem Poor was featured on an American Postal Stamp two centuries later. From www.fold3.com
In 1736, Blacks served as officers in a military unit to defeat the Natchez Indians in Mobile, Alabama. This marked the first time Negroes were officers.