This years’ Black History Month theme is African Americans in Times of War. The African American Museum and Library at Oakland [AAMLO] is commemorating this every Saturday in the month of February with programs honoring our veterans.
Saturday February 3 “Black Warriors, The Buffalo Soldiers of World War II”
Saturday February 10 “Finding Our Place: The Oakland Black Veteran Experience”
Saturday February 17 “Col. Charles Young and the Buffalo Soldiers at the Presidio”
Saturday February 24 “Why We Fight”
African Americans have served our country with pride for centuries in the United States military. Dating back to the days of the Revolutionary War, free blacks enlisted and served aboard Union ships in various ranks. Many blacks served and fought in the Civil War. This war was not only a war about North vs. the South but a war in which the outcome would settle issues pertaining to African Americans slaves. The results of this war would eventually lead to the Emancipation Proclamation and freedom for slaves.
In September 1861 the Navy began recruiting former slaves to become a part of the military regiments. Now able to serve their country, African Americans continued to encountered racism and discrimination. What resulted were all-black units such as the 24th and 25th Infantry Regiments being formed to defend a country that still did not see them as first-class citizens.
Blacks found themselves fighting two conflicts; the enemy abroad and racism at home. As the 20th century dawned, America found itself in World War I and World War II. With the advent of World War II, Port Chicago Naval Magazine became the site of military operations in which African Americans would load ships with bombs and ammunition to send overseas.
On July 17, 1944 two ships being loaded exploded resulting in 320 men dying, including 202 African Americans. On August 9, survivors were sent to other locations to continue their job of loading. Out of the 400 survivors, 258 refused to return to work. With pressure from the chaplain all but 44 were willing to go back to work. The 44 along with another 6 were charged with mutiny. The “mutineers” were put on trial and found GUILTY of the charges. They were sentenced to 8 – 15 years hard labor and dishonorably discharged.
Lawyers began to investigate and found that soldiers were not given direct explicit orders to go back to work. Thurgood Marshall who observed the trial for the NAACP is quoted as saying, “They have told me they were willing to go to jail to get a change of duty because of the terrific fear of the explosives, but they had no idea that verbal expression of their fear constituted mutiny.”
Had these soldiers been ordered to go to work, many would have done so. Once confined to the brig many asked to go back to work but were not given the opportunity to go back to work. Investigations also revealed that interviewers who wrote the reports wrote them from their notes and were not in the soldiers own words.
Many of the convictions of these brave men still exist to this day even though efforts have been made to have the convictions erased.
African Americans continue to serve today in all branches of the military. We thank them for their service and the sacrifice they make to keep our country safe.