The Legacy of Heroes

Henry Louis Gates. Jr

This year, the online version of the African American National Biography will expand to include all of the African American winners of the Medal of Honor, the most prestigious military honor awarded by the United States government. It is fitting that we will be adding the bulk of these new biographies during Black History Month, the annual celebration of the achievements and contributions of African Americans. When the scholar Carter G. Woodson first proposed a Negro History Week (the precursor to Black History Month) in 1926, it was not only in the era of Jim Crow, but was also right in the middle of a nearly fifty-year period in which not a single black soldier, airman, sailor, or marine was recognized with a Medal of Honor. Indeed, only one black soldier from the heavily segregated era of World War IFreddie Stowers—received the award, but that was not until seventy-three years after he had been killed while advancing on a German machine gun position.

During Stowers' time, it was the French government that saw fit to honor the African American soldiers who died in the trenches of Europe. Acquiescing to the social mores of a segregated America, US General John Pershing placed his black troops under French command; it was understood, at the time, that they would be unreliable in actual combat conditions. The French, however, did not see it that way, at one point issuing the Croix de Guerre to an entire regiment of black soldiers in recognition of their valor. But, when those war heroes returned home, they found the same conditions they had left behind, and many of their acts of bravery were forgotten or, in some cases, downplayed or even deliberately expunged from history. It would take a formal investigation into the era, ordered by Congress in 1990, to set the record straight on Stowers and many soldiers like him. That investigation, along with the extraordinary efforts of relatives, historians, and activists, helped to bring to light the numerous stories of heroism and sacrifice that could have been lost forever.

It is easy, looking back, to view this positive development as inevitable. After all, the American military is now among the most ethnically diverse organizations in the world, with more people of color serving in positions of authority than the most politically liberal colleges, the most well-intentioned non-profits, and the most egalitarian religious institutions. Perhaps the most famous African American member of the military, Colin Powell, has stated that the armed forces have pursued "the democratic idea ahead of the rest of America." But the work of reclaiming this heritage is relatively new, and still has much to redress. In 1997, President Bill Clinton admitted as much when presenting the Medal of Honor (LINK NEEDED) to seven African American veterans of World War II, who had not been invited to the largest Medal ceremony held over fifty years earlier. What is needed, he implied, is both recognition and preservation of their accomplishments, to which we hope our modest efforts with the AANB can contribute. But, just as important, we should value the change in our culture that these heroes helped to bring about. That the military is more of a meritocracy than before—allowing for greater participation of women, gays, and religious minorities—is the most obvious change. In addition, the people who have emerged from their experiences in the integrated military have proven to be some of the most successful, talented, and influential figures, from Powell (Army) to baseball (AT A GLANCE - link needed) legend Jackie Robinson (AT A GLANCE - link needed) (Army) to astronaut Guion Bluford (AT A GLANCE - link needed) (Air Force) to Professor Hazel Winifred Johnson (Army) to reggae singer Shaggy (USMC). If one of the goals of Black History Month is to place the African American story within a larger American narrative, then one of the best places to start is with those who sacrificed the most.

Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Editor in Chief
Oxford African American Studies Center
The Alphonse Fletcher University Professor, Harvard University
February 2012