Until the late 20th century, not much was taught in our schools about positive achievements in American history from Black men and women. We learned about slavery, white supremacists like the KKK, and the fight to give Black Americans their Constitutional right to vote. Students never knew about the enormous contributions made by anyone other than white Americans.
The truth is southern whites and men and women who support white nationalism did not want the majority to know about the many contributions from men and women of color.
It is estimated that between 5,000 and 8,000 Blacks fought for the colonies in the Revolutionary War, and as many as 20,000 for the crown. The more significant number of Black men fighting with the British Army were current or former slaves, promised their freedom.
During the Civil War, Black Americans not only served in the infantry and the artillery divisions but were valuable behind the lines performing duties including carpenters, chaplains, cooks, guards, laborers, nurses, scouts, spies, steamboat pilots, surgeons, and teamsters also contributed to the war cause.
Of course, most people know about the efforts of Harriet Tubman, who created the “Underground Railroad,” which saved the lives of hundreds of Black men and women enslaved in the South. But there were others.
Unable to go to medical school in the United States, Alexander Augusta, working as a barber in Baltimore, moved to Toronto, Canada. After receiving his medical degree, he moved back to America to serve in the Union Army. Back in Baltimore in 1861, Augusta wrote President Abraham Lincoln, offering his services as a surgeon. “He received a major’s commission as head surgeon in the 7th U.S. Colored Infantry, the Army’s first African American physician out of eight in the Union Army—and its highest-ranking African American officer.”
After escaping from a vessel carrying slaves to the North, Abraham Galloway returned to the South to free other slaves.
The Union Army recognized his potential value. Pretending to be enslaved within the Confederate army, he gathered information and created an information highway. He also organized Black slaves who formed an insurgency fighting against the rebels’ forces. Galloway was involved in several civil rights efforts after the war and, in 1868, was one of the first Black men elected to the North Carolina State Legislature.
Frederick Douglass clashed with President Lincoln, who refused the enlistment of former slaves. His primary fear was increasing the number of secessionists by men who remained racists. However, as the Union’s position strengthened, Black units were established in 1863. Two of Douglass’ sons became members of the famous 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.
Robert Smalls was raised in slavery in South Carolina. Learning how to become a rigger and a sailor, he served as a deckhand in the Confederate navy.
In May of 1862, while the white men were asleep, he took the boat’s controls and sailed towards Charleston Harbor. Onboard were eight Black men, five women, and three children.
Smalls had prepared to blow up the boat if caught but gave the correct signals at Fort Sumter and other checkpoints. He then fixed a white sheet on the boat’s bow, surrendering the craft to the Union Navy. He handed over the craft’s guns and ammunition, as well as documents detailing Confederate shipping routes, departure schedules, and mine locations. After multiple missions and efforts to recruit other Black sailors, he was eventually given the rank of brigadier general in the South Carolina militia. After several business ventures, he ran for political office, serving in the South Carolina House and Senate.
Born into slavery in Georgia in 1848, Susan Baker King Taylor eventually moved to Savannah to live with her free grandmother. However, she received an education in secrecy because Black women were not allowed to become educated.
“After escaping slavery with her uncle and others, she joined hundreds of formerly enslaved refugees at Union-occupied St. Simons Island off Georgia’s southern coast. At just 14 years old, she became the first Black teacher to openly educate African Americans in Georgia.”
She married Edward King, a Black officer in the 33rd United States Colored Infantry Regiment. She spent time as a nurse, doing their laundry, and educating Black men and women, helping them learn to read and write.
While nursing in Beaumont, South Carolina, she met and worked with Clara Barton, who would find the Red Cross.
After the war, she and her husband moved back to Savannah. After her husband passed and their business failed, she took a job as a domestic servant. In 1902, Taylor became the first and only African American woman to write a memoir about her experiences in the “Civil War, Reminiscences of My Life in Camp with the 33d United States Colored Troops, Late 1st S.C. Volunteers.” She wrote of the persistent racism decades after the conflict but reflected on a glorious time of the fight for freedom.
I would like to offer information about the many heroics of Black men and women in WWII, but I would need several hundred more pages.
I consider myself a real America, and we should all be proud that the United States was founded on diversity. If the present rate of change continues, the number of racially mixed Americans will soon outnumber pure whites, and the dream will become a reality.
I doubt if I will live to see the time when there will be no reason to refer to our nation’s people as “Black Americans,” “Hispanic Americans,” “Asian Americans,” or even “Native Americans.” Because the truth is, we are all “Americans.”
Lastly, I would be remiss not to mention one of my heroes, Dr. Martin Luther King. Without committing a single act of violence, he influenced millions of lives, whether white or Black. His words inspire me and millions of others to this day and will for generations to come.
Op-ed by James Turnage
History: 6 Black Heroes of the Civil War; by Ivan Roman
Black History: The History of Black History
Oprah Daily: 26 Little-Known Black History Facts You May Not Have Learned in School; by McKenzie Jean-Philippe
Featured and Top Image Courtesy of Larry Darling’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License
First Inset Image Lee Wright’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License – Creative Commons License
Second and Third Inset Images Courtesy of GPA Photo Archive’s Flickr Page – Creative Commons License