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African American Medal of Honor Recipients

During the month of February, the United States celebrates Black History Month. As part of our nation's ongoing learning about great African American heroes, the history of the African American Medal of Honor recipients seemed timely. Twenty-five African American men received the Medal of Honor for their bravery during the Civil War. Most were received posthumously, sometimes decades after the war, but that was true for most recipients in general. Of these 25 men, 14 were awarded to men who fought at the Battle of Chaffin's Farm. See NPS.gov and Wikipedia.org to learn more about this battle. Four of the men were sailors who fought during the Battle of Mobile. Eighteen African Americans earned the Medal of Honor during the wars between the US and the Native Americans in the western United States. These conflicts are categorized as the Indian Wars and fourteen of the recipients were "Buffalo Soldiers," a nickname that the Indians had given the black soldiers they fought from the 10th Cavalry Regiment from Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The fourteen men were part of the 9th Cavalry Regiment, the 10th Cavalry Regiment or the 24th Infantry Regiment. The remaining four men were US Army Scouts.

During World War I most African American soldiers fought under French leadership since both the American and British forces were hesitant to have black soldiers. Only one African American was awarded a medal during World War I, Freddie Stowers. Stowers' Medal of Honor was presented on April 24, 1991 - seventy-three years after he was killed in action. According to Wikipedia.org, while fighting in France, Stowers had led an assault on German trenches, continuing to lead and encourage his men even after being twice wounded. Stowers died from his wounds, but his men continued the fight and eventually defeated the German troops.

No African American soldier was awarded the Medal of Honor during World War II. Although 1.2 million blacks had served in the war, and 443 Medals were awarded, not a single one was given to an African American. In 1993 the Army contracted Shaw University in Raleigh, North Carolina, to research and prepare a study "to determine if there was a racial disparity in the way Medal of Honor recipients were selected." Shaw's team researched the issue and, finding that there was disparity, recommended the Army consider a group of 10 soldiers for the Medal of Honor. Of those 10, seven were recommended to receive the award. In October of 1996 Congress passed the necessary legislation which allowed the President to award these Medals of Honor since the statutory limit for presentation had expired. The Medals of Honor were presented, by President William Clinton, in a ceremony on January 13, 1997.

First Lieutenent Vernon Baker receiving the Medal of Honor. Public domain.

Vernon Baker was the only soldier still alive to attend the presentation of the Medal of Honor from President Clinton in 1997. Please read the NY Times article about the ceremony and Baker's incredible act of bravery.

Two enlisted men were Medal of Honor recipients following their actions during the Korean War. They both served in the 24th Infantry Regiment which at the time was still a segregated unit. Cornelius H. Charlton and William Thompson both received their awards posthumously. Charlton was killed in action, but was credited with saving most of his platoon. PFC Ronald Holmes described Charlton's actions, "He got the rest of the men together, and we started for the top. The enemy had some good emplacements...we couldn't get to him. Grenades kept coming at us and we were chased back down. Again we tried, but no luck. Sgt. Charlton said he was going to make it this time, and he yelled 'Let’s go,' and we started up again. We reached the top this time. I saw the sergeant go over the top and charge a bunker on the other side. He got the gun but was killed by a grenade." (See Wikipedia.org to learn more about Sgt. Charlton.)

The Vietnam War saw many great accomplishments by many African Americans, including twenty who received the Medal of Honor for their actions. One of the recipients was James Anderson Jr., who was the first African American U.S. Marine to receive the award. President Johnson signed the citation for the award for PFC Anderson and it reads:

PRIVATE FIRST CLASS JAMES ANDERSON, JR.
UNITED STATES MARINE CORPS
For conspicuous gallantry and intrepidity at the risk of his life above and beyond the call of duty as a rifleman, Second Platoon, Company F, Second Battalion, Third Marines, Third Marine Division, in Vietnam on 28 February 1967. Company F was advancing in dense jungle northwest of Cam Lo in an effort to extract a heavily besieged reconnaissance patrol. Private First Class Anderson's platoon was the lead element and had advanced only about 200 meters when they were brought under extremely intense enemy small arms and automatic weapons fire. The platoon reacted swiftly, getting on line as best they could in the thick terrain, and began returning fire. Private First Class Anderson found himself tightly bunched together with the other members of the platoon only 20 meters from the enemy positions. As the fire fight continued several of the men were wounded by the deadly enemy assault. Suddenly, an enemy grenade landed in the midst of the Marines and rolled alongside Private First Class Anderson's head. Unhesitatingly and with complete disregard for his own personal safety, he reached out, grasped the grenade, pulled it to his chest and curled around it as it went off. Although several Marines received shrapnel from the grenade, his body absorbed the major force of the explosion. In this singularly heroic act, Private First Class Anderson saved his comrades from serious injury and possible death. His personal heroism, extraordinary valor, and inspirational supreme self-sacrifice reflected great credit upon himself and the Marine Corps and upheld the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service. He gallantly gave his life for his country.

Prior to WWII, Medals of Honor could be issued for heroism and valor during peace time. Robert Augustus Sweeney is one of nineteen men, and the only African American, to have been awarded two Medals of Honor. In 1881 he jumped from the USS Kearsage to save a drowning shipmate who could not swim and was in rough water and two years later, Sweeney rescued a sailor who had fallen into the water from the USS Jamestown.

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