African-American History at Arlington National Cemetery


Civil War

Over sixteen-thousand Civil War soldiers are buried at Arlington National Cemetery. Among these are many U.S. Colored Troops (the U.S. government designation for African-Americans who served in segregated U.S. Army regiments during the war) buried in sections 27 and 23. Their headstones are marked with the Civil War shield and the letters U.S.C.T. Three of these men are Medal of Honor recipients.

Although 180,000 African-Americans served with Union forces, less than 100 of them were officers. Maj. Alexander T. Augusta (section 1, site 124) was the first black surgeon in the Army. Although given an officer's rank, he was paid black enlisted wages during much of his service.

Civilian gravestone

Freedman's Village was established on the southeast portion of the Arlington Estate in June 1863, as a camp for Civil War "Contrabands" (the U.S. government designation for slaves who were freed as Union forces moved South, or who had escaped from local Virginia and Maryland slave owners). The village was run by the Freedmen's Bureau during most of its existence, and at one point employed U.S.C.T. to protect fugitive slaves from their former slave owners. Existing for more than 30 years, Freedmen's Village provided housing, education, training for employment, medical care and food for the former slaves.

Homes in the village were wooden and housed two to four families each. Villagers lived mostly on crops they grew themselves or on Army rations. There were frequent outbreaks of scarlet fever, measles and whooping cough. The average death rate was two-per-day, which was lower than the five-per-day average in Washington, D.C. Although living on the Arlington Estate, burials of residents of the village occurred off the property, in a separate cemetery from Arlington. However, Section 27, the original burial ground at Arlington National Cemetery, contains over 3,800 Freedmen who were residents of other villages in the area or employed in some capacity by the U.S. government during the war.

Spanish American War

When the battleship Maine was sunk in Havana Harbor, Cuba, in 1898, 22 African-American sailors went down with the ship. They are among the 163 sailors buried in section 24, adjacent to the mast of the USS Maine Memorial. Four months after the Maine explosion, American forces aboard the USS Florida near Tayacoba, Cuba, were providing reconnaissance on Spanish outposts in the area. They were discovered by Spanish scouts and came under heavy fire.Two African-American privates in the 10th U.S. Cavalry, Dennis Bell (section 31, site 349) and George H. Wanton (section 4, site 2749), volunteered to go ashore in the face of the enemy and aided in the rescue of wounded comrades; their rescue efforts followed numerous attempts. Both men were awarded the Medal of Honor for heroism.

World War I

Over 400,000 African-Americans served in uniform during World War I. Most of these men were assigned to stevedore-depot and other laborer units, but approximately 10 percent were assigned to combat units.

Despite segregation and discriminatory assignments, 1,300 African-Americans were commissioned officers. The highest-ranking black officer, and the first African-American to reach the rank of colonel, was Charles Young (section 3, site 1730). Much controversy surrounded the medical retirement of Col. Young, who was the third black graduate of West Point. To protest his forced retirement, he rode his favorite horse from Ohio to Washington, D.C., to prove his stamina and appeal for reinstatement. Many people felt he was retired to prevent his eventual promotion to general officer during wartime expansion.

Col. Young was not reinstated until a few days before the war ended. He died in 1922, while serving as military attache in Liberia. His memorial service was conducted in the Memorial Amphitheater with more than 5,000 people present.

The first African-American combat troops arrived in France in December 1917. The 369th Infantry, known as the Harlem Hellfighters, joined the French 4th Army at the front. The unit stayed in the trenches for 191 days, the longest front-line service of any American regiment. Among the soldiers was 30-year-old Spotswood Poles (section 42, site 2324). Although a combat veteran with five battle stars and the Purple Heart, Poles was often referred to as "the black Ty Cobb." His claim to fame came in baseball; he was considered the finest player in the Negro leagues in the early 1900s. In 1914, for example, Poles recorded a batting average of .487.

Henry Johnson (section 25, site 64) was also a member of the 369th. He fought in the Argonne Forest and was the first American soldier to earn France's highest military honor – the Croix de Guerre. On the night of May 14, 1918, Pvt. Johnson and Pvt. Needham Roberts were on sentry duty when a squad of Germans began firing at them. Roberts was severely wounded soon after the firing began. Johnson continued fighting even after taking bullets in the arm, head, side and suffering 21 wounds in hand-to-hand combat. Johnson was posthumously awarded the Purple Heart and the Distinguished Service Cross. On June 2, 2015, President Barack Obama posthumously awarded Johnson the Medal of Honor to Pvt. Johnson for "conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty." 

World War II

When World War II arrived, more than 2.5 million African-Americans registered for the draft. Almost 75 percent of them were assigned to the Army. By September 1944, 8.7 percent of the Army was black. African-Americans were predominately assigned to service or combat-support units, and only a small percentage to combat arms. Within the combat-support units, African-Americans were segregated in quartermaster and transportation units.

By war's end, members of the segregated 92nd Infantry Division received more than 12,000 decorations and citations, including nearly 1,100 Purple Hearts, 16 Legion of Merit Awards, 95 Silver Stars and two Distinguished Service Crosses. They suffered more than 3,000 casualties. Two black division officers, 1st Lt. John R. Fox and 2nd Lt. Vernon J. Baker (section 59, site 4408), received belated Medals of Honor on January 13, 1997. Fox's Medal was presented posthumously.

The segregated 761st Tank Battalion fought for 183 continuous days in more than 30 major assaults in the European Theater of Operations. After six nominations, the battalion finally received the Presidential Unit Citation in 1978. The battalion's white commander, Col. Paul L. Bates, was buried in Arlington National Cemetery, March 1, 1995. Staff Sgt. Ruben Rivers, a black member of the battalion, received a posthumous Medal of Honor January 13, 1997, for his World War II service.

Staff Sgt. Edward A. Carter II, an African-American non-commissioned officer who served with Company D, 56th Armored Infantry Battalion of the 12th Armored Division was awarded a posthumous Medal of Honor January 13, 1997. He was reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery (section 59, site 451) the following day. Other black soldiers who received posthumous Medals of Honor on January 13 were Maj. Charles L. Thomas, Pfc. Willy F. James Jr. and Pvt. George Watson.

On October 25, 1940, Benjamin O. Davis, Sr. (section 2, site 478) became the first African-American general in the regular armed forces. In the course of his 50 years of service, Gen. Davis received the Distinguished Service Medal, the Bronze Star Medal, the French Croix de Guerre with Palm and the grade of commander of the Order of the Star of Africa, Liberian Government.

Almost 150,000 African-Americans served in the Navy during World War II. In 1943, the USS Mason (a destroyer escort) and PC1264 (a submarine chaser) were staffed with all-black crews and all-white officers and petty officers. Within six months, African-American petty officers replaced white petty officers on PC1264. In 1945, the first African-American officer to serve aboard a fighting ship, Ensign Samuel Gravely, was assigned to PC1264.  In 1962, then Lt. Cmdr. Samuel Gravely became the first African-American to command a U.S. warship, the USS Falgout. Gravely (section 66, site 7417) would become the first African-American flag officer.

African-Americans did not enter the U.S. Marine Corps until 1942. All 17,000 of them served in segregated units, mainly in service positions. Even though 7,590 were sent overseas, few saw combat.

On Jan. 16, 1941, when the Army Air Force formed the all-black 99th Pursuit Squadron, the "experimental" Tuskegee Training Program was initiated. African-Americans were selected and trained to be pilots at Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. The all-black 332nd Fighter Group was formed soon after and was placed under the command of then Lt. Col. Benjamin O. Davis Jr. (Davis was the first black graduate of the U.S. Military Academy to become a general officer in the regular army. He retired at the rank of lieutenant general). During World War II, African-American women had their first opportunity to serve in significant numbers in the military. Forty of the first 440 officer candidates in the first class of the Women's Army Auxiliary Corps were black. Approximately 800 African-American women from the Army, Air Force and the Army Service Forces became the 6888th Central Postal Battalion. Under the command of Maj. Charity Adams, the unit was charged with establishing a postal directory for Europe. Black women also served in the Army Nurse Corps. In 1944, on a "trial basis" African-American women nurses were permitted to treat white American soldiers. The "experiment" was deemed successful.

Arlington National Cemetery was established in 1864, and for more than 80 years African-Americans were buried separately from white service men. On July 26, 1948, President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981, which established, "that there shall be equality of treatment and opportunity for all persons in the armed services without regard to race, color, religion, or national origin." The new policy was to go into effect "as rapidly as possible, having due regard to the time required to effectuate any necessary changes without impairing efficiency or morale."

Although it was years before the services effectively integrated, national cemeteries throughout the country adopted the policy immediately and disbanded burial segregation regulation in 1948.

The Vietnam War

The Vietnam War was the first large-scale battlefield for an integrated American armed force. There is no argument as to the role African-Americans played in combat nor in the casualties of the war. There were 20 African-Americans among the 237 Medal of Honor recipients.

U.S. Army Gen. Roscoe Robinson Jr. was the first African-American in the Army to attain four-star rank. In a 34-year military career that began in 1951, the U.S. Military Academy graduate served with the 7th Infantry Division during the Korean War and the 1st Cavalry Division in Vietnam. He earned two Silver Stars, three Legion of Merit awards, the Distinguished Flying Cross and a Bronze Star Medal. He served as the U.S. representative to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization for the three years preceding his retirement in 1985. He died July 22, 1993, and is buried in Section 7A, site 18.