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1945 - Black Soldiers: Fighting America’s Enemies Abroad and Racism at Home

After visiting Fort Hood Army base in Texas, the journalist Ray Suarez observed that as much as it represented a separate military culture, with distinct rules and protocols, it was also a microcosm of the nation. “One of the most attractive aspects of the people I met at Fort Hood was their very ordinariness,” Mr. Suarez wrote in 2010. “They are tall, short, men, women, rural, urban, skinny, buffed, chubby, provincial, worldly, with accents and life experience from every corner of the country.”

And for much of its existence, the U.S. military mirrored the nation in another, less auspicious way: its sanctioning of racial segregation. “Double Exposure: Fighting for Freedom,” published by D Giles Limited in association with the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, documents the complex history of black soldiers, illuminating their triumphs and challenges.

The fifth volume in the museum’s Double Exposure series, “Fighting for Freedom” presents more than 50 works from its photography collection that exemplify the bravery, patriotism and dignity of African-American men and women in uniform. While black participation in the military dates back to the Revolutionary War, the book spans the history of African-American service from the Civil War to Iraq. In addition to the short texts that accompany many photographs, the book includes essays by the museum’s director, Lonnie G. Bunch III, the retired Marine Maj. Gen. Charles F. Bolden Jr. and the journalist Gail Lumet Buckley.

“The images in this volume offer an insightful view into the long history of African Americans who served our country through the military,” Mr. Bolden wrote. “They demonstrate the willingness of a people to stand up and be counted, even when they were not fully recognized in the legal and social systems of their day. They give us a window from which to see a small sample of the hard work and sacrifice that African Americans continue to pour into the greater life of the United States.”

The book documents a proud — but contradictory — history: a cabinet card of the Medal of Honor recipient Sgt. William Carney holding an American flag during the Civil War; a stereograph from the 1870s of the headstones of black troops at Arlington National Cemetery; a panoramic group portrait of an all-black unit recently returned from World War I; an elegant photograph of a member of the famed Tuskegee Airmen in World War II, the first black servicemen to become military aviators; Leonard Freed’s contemplative image of a black soldier in Berlin in 1962; and a photograph of a racially diverse group of officers discussing troop progress in East Bagdad, Iraq, in 2007.

Desegregating the armed forces in the last century was slow. While the U.S. military was the largest minority employer during World War II, it remained segregated. Black enlistees were assigned to racially separate units and were typically relegated to combat support roles, like gravediggers, truck drivers, cooks and quartermasters. The few that made it into combat served with distinction, though in largely segregated platoons under the command of white lieutenants.

When African-American soldiers returned home, they encountered more racism and segregation. Rather than honor veterans who risked their lives protecting freedom and democracy, an ungrateful nation often rejected and ostracized them. Returning soldiers were routinely blocked from white neighborhoods, not only in the Jim Crow South but in sprawling northern developments like Levittown on Long Island. They encountered similar discrimination at universities and professional schools. In the end, black soldiers were fighting a double war — against America’s external enemies and the enemy within.

A 1948 executive order by President Harry S. Truman began the process of desegregation, establishing “equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed forces without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin.” Because of considerable resistance from white military personnel, it took many years to meet the order’s objectives.

The last all-black unit was eliminated in September 1954. Nine years later, Defense Secretary Robert McNamara issued a directive instructing commanders to protect military personnel and their dependents by opposing discriminatory practices and fostering equal opportunity in the communities that surrounded bases. While the Vietnam War was the first U.S. war to “begin with blacks and whites serving as equals under the American flag,” as Ms. Buckley noted, it was marked by racial tensions and demands by African-American soldiers to use controversial Black Power symbols, like the Dignity and Pride handshake and soul power fist, to express cultural pride and solidarity.

Ultimately, the portraits of African-American heroes in “Fighting for Freedom” speak to an evolving military, one that has reflected society’s racial limitations as well as its capacity to change. From the celebration of black heroes in the 18th and 19th centuries to the abject segregation of the 20th century, the U.S. military has revealed much about the state of race relations in the United States.

“Wartime creates some of the most trying circumstances a human being can endure and its crucible strips away all but the true essence of those who endure the heat of battle,” Mr. Bolden wrote. “Perhaps in the greater scheme of things, that experience of men and women of all races fighting side by side, suffering injury and loss and also achieving great things, has advanced the necessary cause of racial equality so essential to our future and the outcomes of the battles that lie ahead.”



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