[ The Real McCoy Online Home ]                                                                                                                 February 27, 2009

African-American 'firsts' provide 
key points in Army history

By Philip H. Jones, Army News Service

WASHINGTON, D.C. ó Each February, communities across the nation celebrate African-American History Month, using this annual observance as an opportunity to honor the contributions of African-Americans and create greater awareness regarding the richness of African-American culture.

This year, the nation celebrates the election of President Barack H. Obama, the countryís first African-American president and commander-in-chief of the armed forces. This significant first for the nation was built on the foundation of many great African-American leaders throughout history.

African-Americans have a long and distinguished history of service in defense of the nation, and in particular, in service to the U.S. Army.

And while President Obama is the most recent and perhaps the most celebrated "first" for African-Americans, listed below are a few notable "firsts" for African-Americans who answered their nationís call to duty in the Army.

On Oct. 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis Sr. became the first African-American to serve as a general officer in the U.S. Army. He entered the military service on July 18, 1898 during the war with Spain as a temporary first lieutenant of the 8th U.S. Volunteer Infantry. He was mustered out on March 6, 1899 and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in Troop I, 9th Cavalry, of the regular Army. He then served as a corporal and squadron sergeant major, and on Feb. 2, 1901, he was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the regular Army.

Davisí military decorations included the Bronze Star Medal and the Distinguished Service Medal.

First female Soldier

Immediately following the Civil War, William Cathey enlisted in the U.S. Regular Army in St. Louis, Mo. Cathey, intending to serve three years with the 38th U.S. Infantry, was described by the recruiting officer as 5í9" with black eyes, black hair, and a black complexion. The cursory examination by an Army physician missed the fact that William was actually Cathay William, an African-American woman.

Cathey served from Nov. 15, 1866 until her discharge with a surgeonís certificate of disability on Oct. 14, 1868. Despite numerous and often lengthy hospital stays during her service, her sex was not revealed until June 1891, when she applied for an invalid pension and disclosed her true identify.

She did not receive the pension, not because she was a woman, but because her disabilities were not service-related. She has been noted in military history journals as the only documented female Buffalo Soldier and as the only documented African-American woman who served in the U.S. Army prior to the 1948 law that officially allowed women to join the Army.

First West Point graduate

In 1877, Henry O. Flipper became the first African-American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point in New York. His assignment in July 1877 to the 10th U.S. Cavalry, one of two Black cavalry regiments organized after the Civil War, was the realization of a personal dream. Unfortunately, his dream was short-lived as he was wrongfully court-martialed and dishonorably discharged.

Assigned to the 10th Cavalry over Buffalo Soldiers, Lt. Flipper served at Forts Elliott, Concho, Quitman, Sill, and Davis, and he fought twice at Eagle Springs, Texas, during the Victorio campaign against the Apache Indians in 1880. In 1881, while stationed at Fort Davis, Texas, he was framed by white officers and charged with embezzlement. At his court-martial he was found not guilty of embezzlement, but guilty of "conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman." He was dishonorably discharged, and for the rest of his life he fought to restore his good name.

Following his death in 1940, his descendants continued advocating to have his dishonorable discharge overturned, and in 1976, with the recognition of his mistreatment, he was finally granted an honorable discharge by the Department of the Army.

A bust of Flipper was unveiled at West Point in the same year. In 1999 President Bill Clinton granted him a full pardon. West Point now gives an award in his honor to the graduating senior who has displayed "the highest qualities of leadership, self-discipline, and perseverance in the face of unusual difficulties while a cadet."

First 4-Star General

In 1947, Roscoe Robinson Jr. attended St. Louis University for only a year before he transferred to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. He graduated with a degree in military engineering in 1951. During the next 34 years, he would become a distinguished combat commander and the first African-American to become a four-star general.

After graduating he served in the Korean War in 1952 as a platoon leader and rifle company commander. For his actions he received the Bronze Star.

In 1967 he served as battalion commander in Vietnam. For his achievements there he received the Legion of Merit, the Distinguished Flying Cross, 11 Air Medals, and two Silver Stars.

First female general

When Hazel Johnson, an operating room nurse who graduated from the Harlem Hospital School of Nursing, joined the Army in 1955, she thought it would be an opportunity that would allow her to explore the world and hone her nursing skills. She had no idea she would become a part of military history ó which she did in 1979 when she became the first African-American female general officer and the first African-American appointed as chief of the Army Nurse Corps.

Timing had much to do with Johnsonís success in the military as she entered the Army shortly after President Harry Truman banned segregation and discrimination in the armed services. As chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Gen. Johnson commanded 7,000 male and female nurses.

To learn more about the contributions of African-Americans who have served, and continue to serve the nation proudly, visit: http://www.army.mil/africanamericans/main_content.html.

(See related story)


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