What does Memorial Day really have to do with Black folks in America? What’s been our relationship with the U.S. military? What does any of this have to do with Ethiopia?
To tell you the truth, as a young man, I always looked forward to Memorial Day. It was the first, official day of the summer, and I was, and still am, a “summer person.”
I knew Memorial Day was somehow supposed to be about honoring the U.S. war dead and the contributions made by U.S. military personnel. I also knew there would be barbecues full of people who, like me, never thought for more than two seconds about Memorial Day’s meaning, at all, or its relationship to the Black community.
I began to sit up and take notice, however, once I learned that a significant number of people who volunteered to fight, even in America’s earliest wars, were African Americans.
For example, it’s been estimated that about 5,000 African Americans, including a guy named Crispus Attucks, fought in the Revolutionary War on the side of the Colonies. At the same time, however, about 20,000 Black slaves actually fought in that same war on the side of the British, because the Redcoats promised to free them from slavery if England won the war.
Further raising Black suspicions about the Colonists, Gen. George Washington, in response to the fears by Revolutionary leaders that armed slaves would turn against them, famously issued an order on Sept. 17, 1775, that the Colonial Army should not enroll “any deserter ... Negro or vagabond.”
Following an upsurge in British military aggression, Washington “flipped” once more, in December 1775 and issued orders to re-enlist free Blacks.
In the War of 1812, Blacks comprised about 15 percent of all persons serving in the U.S. Navy, despite U.S. policy which prohibited their active recruitment. Fighting also to win their own freedom, more than 4,000 Blacks wound up being freed from slavery, based upon their military performance during that war.
Then came the bloodiest war in U.S. history, the Civil War, in which 620,000 soldiers on both sides lost their lives. By the end of that war, Black soldiers represented 10 percent of all Union forces, and 37,000 had died on Civil War battlefields, even though Blacks constituted only one percent of the Northern population. In some cases, it has been reported that Black prisoners of war were actually “hung or shot” for having fired a weapon during battle, at white men who fought on the side of the Confederacy.
Happy Memorial Day to you, too.
Author Edward Van Zile Scott wrote, “In the Spanish-American War of 1898, veteran Black troops (the Buffalo Soldiers) were more responsible than any other group for U.S. victory at San Juan Heights, in Cuba.” According to Black historian Rayford Logan, “Negroes had little at the turn of the century to help sustain faith in ourselves except the pride we took in the (Black, segregated) 9th and 10th Cavalry and the 24th and 25th Infantry. Many Negro homes had prints of the famous charge of the colored troops up San Juan Hill. They were our Ralph Bunche, Marian Anderson, Joe Louis and Jackie Robinson.”
Had we 21st-century Black people been made appropriately aware of all of that?
But there’s more — it’s a historical fact that 200,000 Black soldiers fought for the U.S. during World War I. About 160,000 of them were used as servants and sources of labor for white soldiers — to paint, to do construction and to dig ditches. Maybe that had something to do with John J. (Black Jack) Pershing’s “secret” correspondence with French military leaders about how white soldiers should interact with Black soldiers: “We must not eat with them, must not shake hands with them, seek to talk to them, or to meet with them outside the requirements of military service. We must not commend too highly these troops, especially in front of white Americans.”
Nevertheless, members of the all-Black 92nd and 93rd divisions managed to distinguish themselves in battle. The 93rd’s “fighting 369th” fought with such distinction under French officers that they were presented by the French government with the Croix de Guerre, one of that country’s highest recognitions for bravery and distinguished service during war.
Despite their great success on the battlefield, returning Black troops were subjected to the same racist treatment they had been suffering prior to leaving and fighting for their country. In fact, it’s been reported that 70 Black Americans were lynched during the first year following the war, some of them still wearing the military uniforms they had been given while fighting for their country.
Think about that for a minute as you sit down to your Memorial Day barbecue.
This is where Ethiopia comes in.
At the end of the 19th century, following the infamous Berlin Conference, the only independent African nation was the Ethiopian Empire, which traced its monarchy directly back to King Solomon and which was a source of great pride to Black people in Africa and across the world.
In 1895, however, the ambitious and imperialistic Italian government, which had been assigned after “Berlin, only two small African states — Eritrea and Somalia — decided to move militarily against Ethiopia.
To Italy’s great surprise, at the decisive battle at Adwa in Ethiopia, a superior Ethiopian fighting force killed 7,000 Italian soldiers, and wounded an estimated 1,500. It was reported that, in their haste to retreat, the Italians left behind all of their artillery pieces, 11,000 rifles and 3,000 prisoners-of-war.
Thirty-eight years later, still embarrassed by what was the first modern-day African defeat of a colonial power, Italy’s new fascist dictator Benito Mussolini wanted to avenge the Italian loss at Adwa, and in 1935 launched a “bruta” invasion of Ethiopia.
In response, in February 1935, 3,000 Black Americans attended a rally in New York City that featured, among others, the Rev. Adam Clayton Powell Jr., the pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church. By the way, Abyssinian Baptist had been established in 1808 in New York City by a group of African Americans and Ethiopian merchants who had become frustrated with having to pray each Sunday at the segregated First Baptist Church in Lower Manhattan.
Recruiting stations for Black volunteers were actually set up on street corners in Harlem (see “http://ethiopia.org/">Ethiopia.org presents African-American volunteers” on YouTube, and note the “register here” signs).
By one account, nearly 30,000 Black volunteers had stated their intention to join the defense of Ethiopia. According to the Black newspaper the Pittsburgh Courier, “thousands of men and women from 38 states wrote to the paper offering to fight.”
Regrettably, however, the U.S. State Department issued a warning to all Americans who were planning to volunteer for military service in Ethiopia that serving in a war against a country with which the U.S. was at peace (Italy) would be punishable as a “high misdemeanor and shall be fined not more than $2,000 and be subjected to imprisonment of not more than 3 years.”
With such direct and blatant discouragement by their own government, only two Black Americans, both of whom happened to be aircraft pilots, actually wound up fighting for Ethiopia during the war against Italy. They were Herbert Julian, “the Black Eagle of Harlem,” and Col. John C. Robinson, the “Brown Condor.” Both played leading roles in training the Ethiopian Air Force.
While Mussolini’s Italian troops did eventually win the war, Ethiopia successfully regained its independence five years later under Emperor Haile Selassie.
There have been, of course, other wars in recent U.S. history, in which Black men and women have played widening, less-segregated roles. We should be aware of that information also, as we consider what Memorial Day actually should mean to Black Americans.
A. Bruce Crawley is president and principal owner of Millennium 3 Management Inc.