Featured Essay - A History of Black Medal of Honor Winners

Since the dawn of the nation, the armed forces have included black Americans. As early as 1652, leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony mandated that all Indians and people of African descent residing in "settled" areas enlist in a local militia. Prince Duplex, Sr. was one of nearly 300 men of African descent to enlist in the Connecticut militia during the Revolutionary War, and Oscar Marion, a slave on the South Carolina plantation of war hero General Francis Marion, fought side by side with his master, also serving as "personal assistant, bodyguard, sous-chef, bugler, courier, confidant, and oarsman." When the Medal of Honor—the nation's highest award for military valor—was established in 1861, African Americans were not excluded. In time, however, conferral of the award began to mirror the status of black Americans in general, embodying a tumultuous history that has not always been so honorable.

The origins of the award lie with the Civil War. On 21 December 1861—exactly a year and a day after the secession of South Carolina—President Abraham Lincoln signed Senate Bill 82 into law. The measure, created to honor "non-commissioned officers and privates as shall most distinguish themselves by their gallantry in action, and other soldier-like qualities," was at first an honor exclusively for Navy sailors, but by the following year was expanded to include the Army. Though originally intended to cover only the length of the Civil War, the Medal of Honor was made a permanent decoration in 1863, and has remained the highest honor of all military branches. Almost immediately after the award's establishment, black Americans—of whom nearly eighteen thousand are estimated to have served with Union forces—became eligible for the honor, at least in principle.

During the first forty years or so of the Medal of Honor, African American servicemen were regularly considered as recipients, although recommendations were not made in equal proportion to white soldiers. The first African American to earn the Medal of Honor was Sergeant William Carney, a flag-bearer in Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry. Though Carney was part of the 18 July 1863 assault on Fort Wagner, a Confederate stronghold in South Carolina, he would not receive the medal until 1900. Such delays were not uncommon, however, among both white and black soldiers that served in the Civil War.

The first African American to actually receive the Medal of Honor was the contraband sailor Robert Blake, who was awarded it in April 1864 for his naval exploits the previous December. While serving on the U.S.S. Marblehead, a Union battleship operating on the Stono River in South Carolina, he helped fend off heavy Confederate fire with his rifle. Another critical moment in Medal of Honor history occurred on 29 September 1864, when, during the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia, thirteen black soldiers earned the award for their valor in leading the charge against Confederate fortifications after many of their officers were killed or wounded. The last Civil War soldier to be honored with the medal was Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith, who fought in the Battle of Honey Hill in 1864 but whose medal was not awarded until 2001. His original nomination had been considered, but was ultimately turned down because his regimental commander, wounded early in the battle, was not aware of Smith's actions, leaving Smith's heroics unreported in the battle record.

After the Civil War, as African Americans transitioned from volunteer service members to career military men, the potential for combat action increased. Through the end of the nineteenth century, thirty-two black soldiers and sailors earned the medal while serving in the Indian Wars, the Spanish-American War, and the intervening peacetime years. The most significant of these men were the eighteen "Buffalo Soldiers" and scouts, men like sergeants Moses Williams and John Warrior, who, in a bitter twist of fate, helped conquer the western frontier from 1866–1890. (Notably, while the Medal of Honor today is reserved for only combat feats of heroism, prior to World War II the Navy awarded two versions of the medal, one of which was for peacetime acts of heroism. Robert Sweeney, the only double Medal of Honor recipient among African Americans and one of eight black peacetime recipients—all in the Navy—earned his awards in 1881 and 1883, both times for saving a man from drowning.)

It was not until World War I that the color of a man's skin came to be a serious barrier to Medal of Honor consideration. Though there was no written policy specifying discrimination, all branches of the military were well in step with the Jim Crow conditions of racism, and would continue to be so until the Korean War over thirty years later. As a result, no African Americans were awarded the Medal of Honor during World War I and World War II, and only a few were even considered for the award.

Following President Truman's order to desegregate the military in 1948, award practices for the Medal of Honor slowly began to change. In the Korean War, two soldiers—Cornelius Charlton and William Thompson—earned the award, but it was not until the Vietnam War that black servicemen not only served on an equal footing with whites, but were also awarded the Medal of Honor in the same proportion. Of the twenty African Americans to earn the Medal of Honor in Vietnam, the first was Milton Olive III (1965); two years later, James Anderson, Jr. became the first ever black member of the Marine Corps to receive the Medal of Honor. Vietnam Special Forces soldier William Bryant (1969) was the last African American to be awarded the Medal of Honor, and today there is but one living African American recipient, Vietnam veteran Clarence Sasser.

Despite the important strides made during the Vietnam War, the Army and the Navy had yet to reckon with the obvious inequities that occurred during both World Wars. Sadly, the Navy, which nominated no black sailor for the Medal of Honor in the years 1941–1945, has never made any attempt to correct the discrimination that took place during World War II, and no African American sailor has earned the Medal of Honor since Robert Penn in 1898. This was not, however, the case with the Army. In the 1990s, in response to pressure from historians and the general public, the Army embarked on a series of studies looking into the conferment of past awards. In 1991, after his case was reopened and it was learned that his original recommendation for the award may have been misplaced, Freddie Stowers became the only black World War I Medal of Honor recipient. In 1992, the Army commissioned an independent study, conducted by Shaw University (the oldest historically black college in the south) to examine its records.

After four years of research, the study concluded that ten men, all but one of whom had been awarded the Distinguished Service Cross—the highest decoration for Army personnel, but not across all armed forces branches—were possible candidates for an upgrade to the Medal of Honor. The Army subsequently examined these recommendations and reduced the number of award upgrades to seven, thereby helping to rectify, at least in part, the discrimination of the past. Those who were chosen to receive the Medal of Honor included officers Vernon Baker and John Fox, both of the 92nd Division, as well as Sergeant Edward Carter, Jr. Of all these recipients, however, Vernon Baker was the only one still alive to receive his medal, which was presented by President Bill Clinton at a special White House Ceremony on 14 January 1997.

Though additional tributes for valor have since been established, the Medal of Honor remains America's highest and most prestigious combat award. Given the progress of African Americans in the military, and its recent willingness to acknowledge its past misdeeds, there is no reason not to believe that future Medal of Honor candidates, no matter what their skin color or gender (now that women are serving in combat), will continue to be judged solely on the merit of their deeds. This practice is as it should be in a country that, by its very founding principles, holds that all men are created equal.

Glenn Allen Knoblock