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Black Americans in War

Several recent acquisitions featured in As They Saw It highlight the military service of Black Americans, whose contributions have often gone underrepresented in history. In 1861, at the start of the Civil War, Black Americans were prohibited from serving despite their eagerness to fight for a cause so interwoven with their fate. Frederick Douglass, who escaped slavery to become an abolitionist leader, wrote: “We are ready and would go, counting ourselves happy in being permitted to serve and suffer for the cause of freedom and free institutions.” At the urging of Douglass and others, Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862 officially allowing freed Black men to enlist in the armed services. Nearly 200,000 answered the call, but they served in segregated regiments and were denied equal pay, protection, promotions, and treatment. 

In World War I, injustices and discrimination against Black soldiers continued. Although depot brigades and some other functions were integrated, it was not until 1948 that the military was fully desegregated by executive order of President Harry S. Truman.