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8 African Americans Who Couldn’t Fight for Our Country, but Did Anyway

May 25, 2015

The facts about Memorial Day that have always concerned us include the historical names we undoubtedly learned from textbooks, or perhaps from playing a lead role in the mandatory elementary school play that recreated our country’s first world war. In whichever form or forum you learned about the victories and heroism of America’s past, a few key players were inevitably left out. This list highlights the eight African American individuals and groups that have served our country devotedly without widely held praise, until now.


  1. Crispus Attucks


On the morning of March 5, 1770, a runaway slave of mixed race named Crispus Attucks, in collaboration with a number of other Boston patriots, protested the exploitation of their liberties by the British government in Massachusetts colony. After a scuffle ensued, these brave men were shot repeatedly by British soldiers and lost their lives. This historic event is widely known as the infamous ‘Boston Massacre’ and studied in every classroom in the country, but it is necessary to highlight the leadership and tenacity of a man who stood on the front line, and that man was none other than Crispus Attucks.


2. Free Men of Colour


‘Free Men of Colour’ is the name given to the two battalions and three companies composed completely of black individuals who served in the Battle of New Orleans. These soldiers were mostly refugees from Haiti and Santo Domingo, as well as some black volunteers, and they dug massive trenches and constructed forts around the city. When the British attacked their company, about 50 black soldiers were killed, but the Free Men of Colour thwarted the British 85th and 95th regiments. These men secured the victory for the American battalion during that devastating attack.


3. Frederick Douglass


This remarkable black speaker and abolitionist vehemently engaged in instrumental discussions with President Lincoln, urging the president to free the slaves and, subsequently, to arm black individuals willing to fight for America. Frederick Douglass went on to recruit his own two sons to fight in the Union Army. Douglass also traveled from his home in New York to Mississippi to recruit more colored troops and was one of the key players in advocating for the right of African American involvement in the U.S. Army.


4. Sgt. William H. Carney


This Medal of Honor recipient and former slave was a soldier in the 54th Massachusetts Infantry, an all-black regiment of the Union army. When his regimental commander, Col. Robert Gould Shaw, was killed in battle at Fort Wagner along with the company’s flag bearer, Sgt. Carney retrieved the Union flag without letting it touch the ground. Despite sustaining wounds in his chest, arm and legs, he climbed the fort’s parapet and planted the flag at the top. This heroic act inspired Carney’s fellow soldiers to fight on and was recreated in the 1989 movie Glory.


5. Harlem ‘HellFighters’


During World War I, the 369th Infantry Regiment was the first all-black military unit to be shipped overseas for combat. At the time, there was no official role for black soldiers in America’s army, so the 369th Infantry was sent, upon request, to assist the French army in combat. The unit was later given the name ‘HellFighters’ after they stood their ground for 191 days with no men captured or ground taken by the opposition. The French military awarded the entire regiment with the Croix de Guerre for heroism in combat.


6. Freddie Stowers


As an African American Corporal in the U.S. Army, Freddie Stowers was awarded the Medal of Honor for his incomparable heroism on September 28, 1918, at Hill 188 Champagne Marne Sector, France. When the enemy seemed as if they had surrendered to the American army, Stowers’ soldiers came out from their shooting position and approached the opposition. The enemy quickly jumped back into position and resumed their attack, killing almost half of Stowers’ men. Without hesitation, Stowers kept advancing while fatally wounded. He overtook one machine gun position and crawled onward until he succumbed to his wounds.


7. Della Raney


As a graduate from Lincoln Hospital School of Nursing, Della Raney was the first black nurse to be commissioned as a lieutenant in the U.S. Army Nurse Corps during World War II. Raney went on to be chosen as the first black Chief Nurse in the ANC while at Tuskegee Air Field. In 1945, Raney was promoted to captain and later promoted to major in 1946. Della Raney set the ranks for the nearly 500 black nurses who served in the Army Nurse Corps during World War II.




8. Pfc. William Thompson


During a surprise attack from enemy forces during the Korean War, Pfc. William Thompson was the first to set up his machine gun in the path of the opposition, withholding the enemy forces long enough for his own soldiers to attain weaponry and better positioning for combat. Thompson was repeatedly hit with machine gun fire and grenade fragments, but stayed steadfastly at his machine gun post until killed. Thompson was later awarded the Medal of Honor for his fateful and magnanimous actions on August 6, 1950.



Across the decades, these men and women helped in resurrecting our country from defeat and devastation. Their service and incomparable bravery exemplify the kind of heroism that is typical of the entirety of the United States Armed Forces. Keeping their memory alive and strong is the obligation of each and every citizen of the country for which they fought and, in all too many cases, died.


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