History of African American Military Service

African Americans have participated in every war fought outside (and inside) the United States, dating all the way back to the Revolutionary War. The Miami Military Museum celebrates the history of African Americans. Below find stories that highlight African Americans’ contributions the history of the US Military.  

Tuskegee Airmen

Before the Tuskegee Airmen, no African-American had been a U.S. military pilot. In 1917, African-American men had tried to become aerial observers but were rejected. African-American Eugene Bullard served in the French air service during World War I because he was not allowed to serve in an American unit. Instead, Bullard returned to infantry duty with the French.

The racially motivated rejections of World War I African-American recruits sparked more than two decades of advocacy by African-Americans who wished to enlist and train as military aviators. The effort was led by such prominent civil rights leaders as Walter White of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, labor union leader A. Philip Randolph and Judge William H. Hastie. Finally, on 3 April 1939, Appropriations Bill Public Law 18 was passed by Congress containing an amendment by Senator Harry H. Schwartz designating funds for training African-American pilots. The War Department managed to put the money into funds of civilian flight schools willing to train black Americans.

Men of the 332nd Fighter Group attend a briefing in Italy 1945

Florida Hero 

Lieutenant Colonel Leo R. Gray was born on May 30th, 1924 in Boston, Massachusetts. Lt. Col. Gray enlisted after high school and began training in 1942 at Tuskegee Army Field, by ‘43 he was an active-duty pilot.  While stationed in Italy as a fighter pilot, Lt. Col. Gray flew 15 combat missions in P-51s for a total of 750 hours flying time. He left active duty in 1946, but remained in the USAF Reserves until 1984. Later in life Lt. Col. Gray moved to Florida, where in 2013 the Broward Sheriff's Office recognized Gray, along with Col. Eldridge Williams and Judge Richard Rutledge, for serving their country while battling racism and bigotry.

Lt. Col. Leo R. Gray WWll Draft Card

During WWII, more than 2.5 million African American men registered for the draft, and African American women volunteered in large numbers.  At home, African Americans proactively fought for their right to work in positions in the Defense industry, facing discrimination and segregation. As we remember their contributions to WWII, we are reminded of the Nation's struggle for equality.

 

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first Black military aviators in the U.S. Army Air Corps (AAC), a precursor of the U.S. Air Force. Trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field in Alabama, they flew more than 15,000 individual sorties in Europe and North Africa during World War II. Their impressive performance earned them more than 150 Distinguished Flying Crosses, and helped encourage the eventual integration of the U.S. armed forces.

One of the most famous black unit of the war was the 99th Fighter Squadron. One among several units of the famous Tuskegee Airman. The Tuskegee Airman flew 1578 combat missions: 179 bomber escort mission, with a record of 112 enemy aircraft destroyed in the, another 150 destroyed on the ground and 148 damage.

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Poster of a member of the Tuskegee Airmen promoting war bonds during World War II. 

Image courtesy of Hulton Archive/Getty Images.

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At least nine Floridians served with the Tuskegee Airmen, including Daniel “Chappie” James of Pensacola, Florida. Chappie was the first African American to reach the rank of 4-star General. He instructed African American pilots during WWll and he flew combat missions during the Korean and Vietnam War.

 

Historic photo of Daniel "Chappie" James Jr. (center) during his days with the famed Tuskegee Airmen.

Local Hero 

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Eldridge F. William was born in Washington County, Texas, on Nov. 2, 1917, Williams moved to Richmond Heights, a community in South Miami-Dade established for black serviceman returning from World War II, in 1949. He retired from military service in 1963. He taught physical education at Richmond Heights Middle School.  Within two years, he was promoted to administrator, tasked with integrating Dade County public schools. He retired in 1985.

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On October 28, 1942, Williams graduated from OCS in the same class as actor Clark Gable, and was commissioned as a Second Lieutenant.  He was then assigned to the Tuskegee Airmen Program as Assistant Director of Physical Training.  At Tuskegee he trained cadets in parachute landing and survival techniques.  By 1944 Williams was promoted to Captain.  Over his three years at Tuskegee Williams trained almost all of the 992 African Americans who eventually became Tuskegee Airmen.

MATT1/C Leonard Roy Harmon

Leonard Roy Harmon was an American sailor who died in action during World War II and was posthumously awarded the Navy Cross for his valor. He is the first African American man to have a US warship, the USS Harmon (DE-678), named after him.

 

On November 13, 1942, San Francisco was raked by Japanese gunfire during the battle, killing nearly every officer on the bridge. Harmon rushed in to evacuate the wounded. He was then assigned to assist Pharmacist's Mate Lyndford Bondsteel in evacuating and caring for the wounded. While the ship was being raked by enemy gunfire, Harmon helped evacuate the wounded to a dressing station. While doing so he deliberately stood between Bondsteel and enemy gunfire in order to protect his wounded shipmate. This action resulted in his death.


USS Harmon was a destroyer escort built at Bethlehem Steel Co. In Quincy, Mass. The USS Harmon was commissioned on August 31st, 1943. It served in the South Pacific during WWll, it saw action at the Lingayen Gulf and Iwo Jima. 

MAtt1/c Leonard Roy Harmon was born in Cuero, Texas, on 21 January 1917. He enlisted in the Navy in June 1939 as a mess attendant third class. He trained at the Naval Training Station, Naval Operating Base, Norfolk, Virginia, and reported to San Francisco (CA-38) on 28 October 1939. He advanced to MAtt2c on 16 July 1940, and to Matt1c on 5 November 1941.  This image is of the Muster Roll of Crew of the USS San Francisco from Dec. 14, 1941. 

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