As we honor our veterans on Memorial Day, we should also take the time to honor the roots of the holiday. On May 1, 1865, in Charleston, South Carolina, recently freed African-Americans held a parade to honor dead Union soldiers. This tribute led to the American tradition that we now know as Memorial Day. Let's look at notable Black soldiers in our country's history who made history and deserve to be remembered today and beyond.
Charles Young, the First Black Colonel in the US Army
Young was born on September 24, 1864, in Tennessee. After graduating from West Point, he became an officer in 1886. He is noted for being one of only three African Americans appointed as a regular infantry officer during that period. While serving in World War I, Young earned multiple awards, including Croix de Guerre with palm leaf cluster, Purple Heart with oak leaf cluster, Army Distinguished Service Medal with oak leaf cluster, French Fourragère, Legion of Honor and Order of Leopold II. His death was front-page news across America. In 1921, President Warren G. Harding promoted him posthumously to brigadier general — making him the highest-ranking Black soldier in U.S. history until 1989, when Colin Powell was promoted to four-star general.
Sergeant William Harvey Carney, The First African American Medal of Honor Recipient
William Harvey Carney was an African American soldier in America’s Civil War. He became famous for refusing to surrender his American flag to Confederate forces when he came under attack at Fort Wagner, South Carolina on July 18, 1863. After 62 years of persistent attempts by veterans’ groups and activists—including a particularly difficult struggle led by poet James Weldon Johnson—Carney was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor for his actions that day. He is considered one of only three African Americans who received that honor during World War I. The other two were Sergeant Henry Johnson and Corporal Willy Frank Janssen, both members of the 369th Infantry Regiment.
Alvin C. York, America's Most Notable WWI Hero
Alvin York was an American soldier from Tennessee who served in World War I. He received widespread publicity during World War I when he single-handedly captured 132 German soldiers during a surprise attack in October 1918. Later, Sergeant York was awarded the Medal of Honor and was promoted to second lieutenant. He saw action in France three times, but during World War I, most of his service time occurred on logistics duty. After returning home at the war's end, York refused to exploit his fame by making public appearances or giving speeches. In addition to refusing several lucrative offers for product endorsements, he turned down many lucrative Hollywood offers because they would have required him to leave his rural home near Pall Mall, Tennessee.
Daniel Chappie James Jr., A True Role Model and Hero
Chappie James was a young man who served his country during World War II and later became a teacher and coach. He joined one of the most prestigious units of World War II: The Tuskegee Airmen. He served as a navigator and flew in combat missions over Europe, once flying 18 missions in 24 days without relief. His aircraft crashed over Nazi-occupied Austria on another mission, and Chappie James spent two months behind enemy lines before being rescued by American troops. For his service, he received many honors, including Distinguished Flying Cross with Oak Leaf Cluster; Air Medal with four Oak Leaf Clusters; Purple Heart; French Croix de Guerre with Palm; Belgian Croix de Guerre with Palm; and numerous other awards. After returning home from war, James taught at Booker T. Washington High School in Atlanta, where he coached football and track & field.
Frank E. Peterson Jr., The First African American Marine Corps Aviator and General
Frank E. Peterson Jr. served as an observation pilot in France during World War I and earned a Silver Star for gallantry in action. Later promoted to general, he commanded all Marine Corps aviation when World War II broke out. Peterson died on Christmas Eve 1944 while serving as head of the Pacific Fleet naval aviation, just two months before World War II ended. In 2014, he was posthumously awarded his Navy Cross for heroism in 1918. The city of Chicago also named its new airport after him. His last words were: "This is it, boys! Let's go get them!" A mural depicting Peterson hangs at Chicago O'Hare International Airport. It reads: "He led his squadron with courage and skill through heavy fire, destroying enemy aircraft until shot down himself..."
Hazel Johnson-Brown, The First African American Female General in the US ArmyJohnson-Brown was one of only three African American female generals in U.S. history—the first to achieve such a rank. She also founded Military Women Across Continents, an organization that connects women worldwide with international military standards, helping them support each other and improve their own militaries' gender equality efforts. Today, her legacy lives on, and her commitment to fighting for gender equality and improving women's lives worldwide. In 2012, she received France's highest award to civilians: Chevalier de la Legion d'Honneur. It is not surprising that she has also been inducted into many halls of fame, including The National Black Hall of Fame, The World War II Veterans Committee; The Ohio Women's Hall of Fame; and The Michigan Women's Historical Center & Hall of Fame.
Vernice Armour, the First African American Female Combat Pilot
Vernice Armour flew combat missions and was awarded two Distinguished Flying Crosses and four Air Medals. She was also part of the 3rd Platoon, 91st Combat Crew, and is now known as one of America’s first black female combat pilots. Armour passed away on March 9th, 2007, at 92 years old. Her funeral was held at Arlington National Cemetery, and she is buried there with full military honors. Armour enlisted when she turned 21 in 1943, lying about her age so that she could join up before her father put his foot down. Once she joined up, however, he supported her wholeheartedly – even paying for flying lessons himself! She served from 1943 to 1945 and became a school teacher after being discharged from service.
Corporal Jesse Lee Turner, America's First African American Military Pilot in WWII
In World War II, Corporal Jesse Lee Turner was America's first African American military pilot. He was a Tuskegee Airman, one of three black aviation squadrons that helped combat racial segregation within our country. Corporal Turner served as a flight engineer on a B-25 Mitchell Bomber and flew twenty-eight missions into enemy territory. He was killed when his plane crashed while attempting to land at an airstrip in Yugoslavia on his last mission. Jesse Turner is buried at Arlington National Cemetery along with other heroes who gave their lives for our freedom.
Sgt. Henry Johnson of the Harlem Hellfighters
Henry Johnson was awarded a Distinguished Service Cross—the second highest award for bravery during battle—for his heroism in combat during World War I. Johnson served with the 369th Infantry Regiment of New York's all-black Harlem Hellfighters unit. During a war when only one Black combat soldier was awarded a Medal of Honor, Sgt. Johnson deserves to be known as an American hero. In 2014, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Sgt. Johnson a Purple Heart and Gold Star and seven other African Americans who had been denied their rightful recognition. The men were collectively referred to as The Harlem Hellfighter Honorees. According to historians, more than 2,000 African Americans buried at Arlington National Cemetery fought in WWI. Still, they were never recognized because they served under segregated units or were simply overlooked due to racial discrimination.
Oleta Crain, Military Officer and Advocate for Black Women's Rights and Desegregation
Oleta Crain was a trailblazer who served her country in World War II and Korea. She fought for equality in her career as an officer, advocating for increased visibility and leadership roles for black women in the U.S. military when it was rare for female officers to hold command positions. During World War II, she saw extensive action as part of an all-black Military Intelligence Service (MIS) detachment sent to support French resistance fighters against Nazi Germany's occupation of France. In 1942, she became one of only two African American women to receive a Distinguished Service Cross—the nation’s second highest military honor. After retiring from active duty in 1953, Crain continued working for racial equality as president of the Women’s Army Corps Veterans Association; later on, she worked with NASA on its Apollo program. Crain died at age 90 in 2006 and is buried at Arlington National Cemetery.