On August 23, 1945, high-ranking military officials and civilians gathered at the White House to watch President Harry Truman bestow the Medal of Honor among 28 veterans who served with valor during World War II. Family members and loved ones of the men honored that day for “conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of life above and beyond the call of duty” mingled with other distinguished guests while a band played outside of the East Room before the president took the stage. When he concluded the official ceremony, Truman stood to address the crowd and declared that the men who were honored “loved peace and were able to adjust themselves to the needs of war” and represented a cross-section of American society.
But within this cross-section was a noticeable absence: no Black veterans were present.
Out of the more than one million Black servicemen, not one displayed courage in action or was deserving of the honor during World War II?
Or was there something else that prevented Black veterans from standing among their fellow soldiers, sailors, and Marines at the White House?
The lack of Black servicemembers at Truman’s ceremony reflected the award’s fraught history. President Abraham Lincoln signed Senate Bill 52 in 1861 to honor sailors, and one year later, soldiers were eligible for the award. Black men serving in the Army were also eligible, though few actually received the honor. William Harvey Carney was the first Black soldier to be recognized for performing an act worthy of the honor (saving regimental colors during the Battle of Fort Wagner in 1863) but did not officially receive the honor until 1900. Robert Blake, a Black sailor who received the Medal in 1864 for his defense of USS Marblehead, was the first to be honored, followed by 13 Black soldiers for leading charges against Confederate fortifications during the Battle of New Market Heights in Virginia. Some, like Sergeant Andrew Jackson Smith, who fought in the Battle of Honey Hill in 1864, did not receive the honor until 2001, and such delays were common. After the Civil War until the outbreak of World War I, Black servicemen continued to be nominated for and receive the Medal of Honor—though in less proportion than their white servicemembers.
Despite this early recognition, no Black veterans received the Medal of Honor for their service in either World War. There was no written policy that encoded racism into the process of consideration but, as historians Glenn Allen Knoblock and Robert Child explain, Jim Crow-era racism seeped into the nomination process as racist policies in American society contributed to a “culture of discrimination” at the highest reaches of the War Department.
Though desegregation of the military in 1948 created opportunities for Black veterans who later served during the Korean and Vietnam Wars to receive the award, Black scholars and veterans spoke out on the glaring lack of Black Medal of Honor recipients for World War II. What they discovered was a larger and deliberate movement among white politicians and leaders (including those in the military) to discredit not only the service of Black veterans during the war, but Black veterans themselves. In his recent work, Half American: The Epic Story of African Americans Fighting World War II at Home and Abroad, historian Matthew F. Delmont describes white politicians who degraded Black soldiers as “failures in combat” who “disgraced” rather than honored the United States in battle and the erasure of Black veterans from histories of World War II.
But a Black historian, Lawrence Reddick, pushed back against this campaign of hatred and racism to restore Black veterans’ honor. Reddick, who was curator of the Schomburg Collection of Negro Literature, History and Prints at the Harlem branch of the New York Public Library, developed an exhibit, “The Negro Warrior: His Record and His Future,” for Negro History Week in 1947 featuring oral histories from those who served. Black veterans, including Black women who served in units including the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, also formed social organizations and associations to join together to recognize their service when few others did.
In the early 1990s, as the nation recognized 50th anniversary milestones of World War II and after Black Americans spent decades pushing for their civil rights and recognition, the Army commissioned a report on the denial of Black veterans the Medal of Honor for their WWII service. Aptly titled The Exclusion of Black Soldiers from the Medal of Honor in World War II, a team of scholars spent countless hours combing through thousands of pages of records to uncover why Black veterans of World War II had not received the Medal of Honor and to investigate whether “racial disparity” was a contributing factor. What they discovered was that while there was “no official explicit, official documentation for racial prejudice in the award process…and although the study found no official documentation for a black nominee…the failure of an African American soldier to win a Medal of Honor most definitely lay in the racial climate and practice within the Army during World War II.” Segregated units, racist and prejudiced leaders, and unacknowledged verbal and physical attacks on Black veterans on and off bases during the war all contributed to a denial of courageous Black men the highest honor to be bestowed upon a member of the Armed Forces.
In response to the monumental report, President Bill Clinton urged Congress to make an exception to extend the amount of time to award the Medal of Honor to seven Black servicemembers in 1993. And on January 13, 1997, those men received the recognition they deserved.
Before friends and family members of those who were to be recognized and dignitaries, including General Colin Powell, Clinton stood at the same place Truman did 52 years earlier to correct past racial wrongs and address the awardees and the audience, explaining what was missing from Truman’s “cross-section” of American society in August 1945:
But that day [August 23], something was missing from [Truman’s] cross-section of America. No African-American who deserved the Medal of Honor for his service in World War II received it. Today we fill the gap in that picture and give a group of heroes, who also love peace but adapted themselves to war, the tribute that has always been their due. Now and forever, the truth will be known about these African-Americans who gave so much that the rest of us might be free.
Of the seven men honored—Sergeant Ruben Rivers, Staff Sergeant Edward A. Carter Jr., Lieutenant Charles Thomas, Private First Class Willy James, Private George Watson, Lieutenant John Fox, and Lieutenant Vernon Baker—only Baker was alive to receive his award and witness the recognition of the others. Baker was modest in his remarks after the ceremony. “'The only thing that I can say to those that are not here with me is, ‘Thank you, fellas, well done,’” he remarked. “I was an angry young man. We were all angry. But we had a job to do, and we did it. My personal thoughts were that I knew things would get better, and I’m glad to say that I’m here to see it.”
This Black History Month and every day, The National WWII Museum honors these seven recipients for their sacrifices and courage. Be sure to read the profiles of Black recipients featured in the online Medal of Honor profiles.
Stephanie Hinnershitz, PhD
Stephanie Hinnershitz is a historian of twentieth century US history with a focus on the Home Front and civil-military relations during World War II.