(This article by Mark Cantrell originally appeared in the February 2020 issue of Military Officer, a magazine available to all MOAA Premium and Life members. Learn more about the magazine here; learn more about joining MOAA here.)
African Americans have been fighting for their country — and equality — for centuries, paving the way for future generations. Our timeline below, which is not meant to be comprehensive, begins during the Civil War; you can learn more about events leading up to and beyond the American Revolution here and here, and in a future edition of Military Officer.
The Bureau of Colored Troops is established, designating African American regiments as United States Colored Troops.
After stealing a Confederate ship and later saving it from being sunk by artillery, Robert Smalls (pictured) is named captain of USS Planter, becoming the first black man to command a U.S. military vessel.
Congress passes the Army Reorganization Act, creating six all-black cavalry and infantry regiments. They later became known as the Buffalo Soldiers.
Former slave Henry O. Flipper (pictured) becomes the first black man to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y. He later became the first commissioned African American officer in the regular Army.
Sgt. William H. Carney is presented the first Congressional Medal of Honor awarded to a black soldier due to his heroic actions during the Civil War. During a charge on Fort Wagner, Carney rescued the flag from a dying color guard soldier, holding it aloft throughout the battle despite being shot several times.
Eugene Jacques Bullard earns his wings, becoming the first black combat pilot. His Spad 7 C.1 reportedly bore the slogan, “All Blood Runs Red.”
Spanish-American War veteran and former Buffalo Soldier Benjamin O. Davis Sr. (pictured) becomes the first black general officer when promoted to brigadier general.
The War Department establishes the 99th Pursuit Squadron, otherwise known as the Tuskegee Airmen. In 1943, Capt. Charles B. Hall becomes the first African American pilot to shoot down an enemy aircraft.
The Marine Corps recruits African American men, who train at Montford Point near Camp Lejeune, N.C. The 20,000 men who enlisted between 1942-49 became known as the “Montford Point Marines.” Their exemplary performance helped break down racial barriers and pave the way toward desegregated armed forces.
Recruits take on the obstacle course at Montfort Point in April 1943. (Photo via National Archives)
Members of the 761st Tank Battalion, also known as the Black Panthers, become the first African American tank battalion to see combat in World War II. Their heroic acts included breaking through Nazi Germany’s Siegfried line, which allowed Gen. George Patton’s troops to enter Germany.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Olivia Hooker (pictured) becomes the first African American woman in the Coast Guard to serve on active duty. Hooker was the last survivor of the 1921 Tulsa Race Riots before she passed away in 2018.
Frederick C. Branch earns his second lieutenant’s bars, becoming the first African American commissioned officer of the Marine Corps. His first application for Officer Candidate School was denied. He was promoted to captain when he returned to the Reserves, but he became disillusioned by continuing discrimination and resigned in 1955.
President Harry S. Truman signs Executive Order 9981, abolishing racial discrimination in the military and mandating equality of treatment and opportunity.
Jesse L. Brown (pictured) becomes the first black naval aviator. Tragically, he died in a crash during the Korean War. In 1972, the Navy launched destroyer escort USS Jesse L. Brown (DE-1089) in his honor.
Wesley A. Brown graduates from the U.S. Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md., despite severe discrimination. He retired as a lieutenant commander in 1969 after 20 years in the Navy Civil Engineer Corps.
Benjamin Davis Jr. becomes the first African American brigadier general in the Air Force. His father, Benjamin Davis Sr., was the first African American general officer in the Army. Benjamin Davis Jr. was promoted to general (four stars) in December 1998.
Frederic Davison and Otho van Exel become the first African Americans to graduate from the U.S. Army War College. Davison went on to become the first black major general in the regular Army, and to command an Army division (8th Infantry Division).
Former Tuskegee Airman Daniel “Chappie” James Jr. (pictured) becomes the first African American to attain the rank of four-star general. James served in World War II, the Korean War and in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War.
Sherian Cadoria becomes the first black woman to attend the U.S. Army War College. She previously graduated from the Army’s Command and General Staff College, and was promoted to brigadier general in 1985.
Hazel W. Johnson is promoted to brigadier general in the Army, becoming the first black woman to attain the rank of general officer. She was also the first African American appointed as chief of the Army Nurse Corps.
Janie L. Mines (pictured) becomes the first black woman to graduate from the U.S. Naval Academy. In a class that included 55 women — the first to graduate from Annapolis — Mines was the only African American.
The Space Shuttle Challenger blasts off from the Kennedy Space Center, with Col. Guion “Guy” Bluford, USAF, aboard, making him the first African American in space.
Gen. Colin Powell, USA, (pictured) is named chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the first black person to hold the position. He later became the first black secretary of state.
The African American Military History Museum opens in Hattiesburg, Miss., in a building once used as a USO club for black soldiers stationed at Camp Shelby.
Lt. Gen. Nadja West becomes the first African American female three-star general in the Army as well as the Army’s first black surgeon general.
Brig. Gen. Lorna Mahlock (pictured) becomes the first African American woman to be nominated as a one-star general in the Marine Corps.