Editor's Note: Attorney Douglas Lewis, director of the University of Michigan's Student Legal Services, has a longtime interest in African American history, particularly as it pertains to the settling of the West. This is his final column in a three-part series written for The Legal News during Black History Month.
African Americans have fought and died in every conflict involving United States, from Crispus Attucks at the beginning of the revolution to combat troops in Afghanistan.
Military service was seen as a way to make themselves part of the American dream, and they proved their bravery and loyalty again and again. These individuals thought that if they could fight for their country, their country would fight for them. They were often disappointed.
It was not until after the Civil War that African Americans became part of the standing army. When they fought in the Civil War, they were members of state militias such as the Massachusetts 54th immortalized in the movie "Glory."
In July 1866, after a long argument in congress, it was decided that blacks were to be allowed to serve their country as part of the standing army. After much urging by the Republicans, they voted to create six units of black soldiers and authorized the formation of the ninth and tenth cavalry and four units of infantry.
One thing that made these units unique was the fact that they were all black. The military was not yet on the bandwagon of integration. The officers of the units, however, were all white. The belief was that African Americans were not intelligent enough to lead men into battle, despite the heroic action of so many men.
The absence of black officers changed in 1877 when Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point Military Academy after being shunned by white classmates.
Flipper was then assigned to a western post with the cavalry, and became the only black officer in the army. His career lasted only two years, but during that time he accomplished an engineering feat that other officers had failed when he built an aqueduct named Flipper's Ditch.
In his spare time, he liked to go riding with the daughter of another officer. The problem that caused was no surprise. Flipper was brought up on charges of embezzlement and conduct unbecoming an officer. The embezzlement was dismissed. But he was dishonorably discharged, even though the exact conduct was never specified.
There were other black men who served in the military of that era. In fact, the Buffalo Soldiers boasted that they had the highest rate or reenlistment and the lowest rate of desertion of any unit in the army. There were many who were awarded the Medal of Honor.
The recent movie "Redtails" tells of another group of African Americans who answered the call of duty. Now from my last article you may have guessed that I like movies that involve black history, even when it isn't quite right. In "Redtails," Cuba Gooding plays an officer in the all-black 99th named Emmanuel Stance.
Now what could be wrong with that? Well, Emmanuel Stance was a real person. He was the first African American to win that coveted Medal of Honor for his heroics at Kickapoo Springs. He was a sergeant in the cavalry, not an officer in the air corp. His demeanor wasn't as calm and cool as the character Cuba Gooding portrayed. Stance was unusual for his time. He was a former slave who could read. In that era, it was illegal to teach a black man to read. It was also dangerous to be one who could. It is said that he walked from Florida to Louisiana to join the Ninth Cavalry.
After he joined, Stance was quickly promoted to the rank of sergeant. But it didn't last. He was demoted to private because of attitude problems. He was soon promoted again to sergeant and then demoted again. This continued until his death, which remains something of a mystery. It's believed that his own men killed him in retribution for his cruelty imposed on them. He was a hero. But aren't all heroes just a little tarnished?
Published: Mon, Feb 27, 2012