Skin, whether it’s dark brown or peach, won’t stop a bullet. And whether fallen soldiers are black or white, their families pay the same price of anguish, grief, and loss, or the labor of caring for a body that will never be whole again.
“Combat, it’s very impartial,” notes retired Col. William DeShields, an African-American veteran who works to make the contributions of black soldiers better known.
The cost of war is high, and black soldiers in the United States have paid that price for generations, often without the same recognition and rights that their white counterparts received. Sometimes, black Americans had to fight just for the right to fight.
A number of local African-American veterans remember the days when they were serving in the military and facing segregation and other overt discrimination as civilians. President Harry Truman signed an executive order in 1948 that desegregated the military, and local black veterans speak well of the way they were treated while in the service. But they were still serving a society that considered them unequal.
When civil rights activist Walter Black, now a resident of Easton, served stateside in the infantry in 1963 and 1964, 15 years after Truman’s order, he said he did not experience discrimination on the base, but off-base it was a different story. He remembers once in Georgia when he pulled into a gas station in his first lieutenant uniform, and the water fountains were marked separately for whites and everyone else. He walked over to the whites-only fountain and took a drink, and no one stopped him.
That kind of boldness was par for the course for Black, who had been active in the NAACP before joining the military, serving almost a year as staff field secretary for the Maryland conference. He organized and led demonstrations against segregation and fielded complaints from people alleging discrimination. He recalls organizing a sit-in in Easton in 1961 at a restaurant on Route 50. He was one of five white and five black demonstrators at the establishment, when a crowd of about 40 or 50 people came in who, in Black’s low-key way of phrasing it, disagreed with their being in the place. The crowd was very angry, he said, and might have attacked them had there not been a state trooper in the building who calmed things down.
DeShields, who lives in Arnold and spends time at another home in Bellevue, recalls discrimination both inside and outside the Army when he began his 30-year military career in the 1950s. He served in artillery and ordnance, and early on in his career flew planes in Army aviation.
DeShields related one incident that happened while he was stationed in Glen Burnie. The brigade commanders, he said, didn’t want any black officers to come to a party they were throwing. DeShields had just been on duty at the artillery batteries, but found himself assigned for a second day in a row.
“If you called all four batteries that night, all four officers that reported would have been black officers,” he said. “These are some of the subtle things that went on, and not-so-subtle.”
He also said when troops rode the train through segregated states, they had to get in segregated cars.
DeShields pointed to flight school as another example of subtle discrimination. Dozens of blacks would apply to flight school, but only a couple would actually make it through, and some didn’t even get in the door — they were deemed unqualified, he said.
Soldiers faced discrimination when they interacted with civilians, despite their uniforms. DeShields told of helping lead a convoy of guns down to Bethany Beach, Del., from Glen Burnie in 1954. Early in the morning they stopped at a restaurant.
“The lady told us, she said well, we can feed your white enlisted men … but we can’t feed you black officers. So here we are, we’re sitting out in the truck … that’s the way things were.”
He also remembered traveling with his family to an assignment in the South, where they drove by signs for businesses with messages like “We wash white clothes only.”
“The kids wanted to know, there’s a motel, why can’t we stop here. Well, we can’t stop here, we’re not welcome,” he said.
Royce Sampson, of Easton, currently the vice president of Blake-Blackston Legion Post 77, served in the infantry from 1959-62 in Germany. He said his military service was one of the first times he had gotten equal opportunity. “It was a good experience,” he said. In Europe, blacks were accepted. The hardest thing, he said, was having to come back to civilian life in the United States, where he didn’t have equal opportunity in the workforce. Blacks made less money and had less opportunity for promotion, he said.
DeShields also spoke highly of his experiences in Germany, where he served for more than four years. Discrimination morphed strangely when it crossed national borders. Germany had just fought a long and bloody war under the banner of white domination, during which the government had attempted to exterminate Jews. But DeShields said he was treated well. Germans would buy black soldiers drinks at clubs.
“I didn’t have to worry about, could I go here … I didn’t have to worry about going in the back door.”
He said blacks were a curiosity to Germans. “Every time I walked on the sidewalk, I noticed that German kids would turn around and point to me and they’d start laughing,” he said, laughing himself as he recalled it. He wondered at the time if he had done something wrong, or if his fly was open, but his roommate told him, “Bill, don’t take it personally. You’re a curiosity; they haven’t seen that many blacks before.”
“My feeling was that they could have left me over there the rest of my Army career; I would have been perfectly happy,” DeShields said.
Different veterans had different reactions to the discrimination they experienced as civilians. DeShields served in Vietnam, and said for soldiers there, “You read about your brothers and sisters being beat up by ‘Bull’ Connor, it’s kind of hard.” (Eugene “Bull” Connor was a notorious Southern leader who fought against civil rights.
He spoke of World War II, when black soldiers had to ride in segregated cars and watch German prisoners get freedoms they didn’t. “What that did to (black soldiers), it instilled the initiative to fight … you’re just not going to take it anymore, especially when you’ve been overseas and seen how things were different over there.”
DeShields noted that black veterans took these kinds of stands at their own risk. He pointed to Medgar Evers as an example, the famous World War II veteran and civil rights activist who was gunned down by a white supremacist in 1963 in Mississippi.
“I never talked with any African-American soldier who was not bitter,” Black said. “Many of them, if not most of them at the time … they came from jurisdictions south of the Mason- Dixon line, and they experienced the segregation … so yes, it was a bitterness.”
Retired Maj. James K. Camper, an Easton resident who served beginning in 1960 as an officer trained in chemical munitions, also worked in the civil rights movement outside the military. On his military experience, he said, “I felt very good with serving the country, even though a lot of things on the outside weren’t going very well,” he said. “We’re obligated to fight for our country, serve our country.”
Many black soldiers made that choice — or were drafted, and DeShields is working to preserve the memory of their contributions. He is the founder of the Black Military History Institute, a nonprofit organization incorporated in 1987. It began, he said, when he and some friends visited the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, which focuses on African-American history. At that time, he said, it was being used more as a meeting place than anything, so DeShields and some others organized an exhibit about black history from the Revolutionary War to Vietnam. The nonprofit started as a spinoff from that exhibit.
DeShields said the collection consists mostly of historical photos. He has a lot of raw material, but hasn’t done much research lately. He has a lot going on, and he is getting older. “I’m at the point now where I need somebody to pick up the initiative,” he said.
Morgan State University has shown interest in the collection, and he has also talked to a museum in Washington, D.C., but he does not want it archived in a basement somewhere.
“It needs to have visibility. It’s important, because there are many stories,” he said. “You have to learn from the past. If you don’t learn from the past, then you’ll make the same mistakes that you made before.”
Black soldiers don’t always get that visibility. DeShields said he will sometimes look at war history books with an eye for black history, “and you’d be surprised, a lot of them don’t mention it.”
He remembers watching a prominent news anchor interviewing a soldier in Iraq. “She was interviewing an enlisted man, and standing in back of her was a black tank commander. To me, if I was there, the black tank commander would be the individual that I would have interviewed, because he was the one that was the most knowledgeable, plus he’s the one that had the responsibility for this tank.”
Switching to the Vietnam War as an example, he noted that if you want the story of the conflict, you have to get the full story. “You have to interview a white soldier, interview a black soldier, interview a Hispanic soldier, because every one of them can have a different story, especially when they get back to the United States.”
The veterans also mentioned other black contributions that are sometimes overlooked. It’s well known that black soldiers served in the Civil War. But long before that, a Rhode Island regiment with companies made up of black soldiers served in the Revolutionary War. Harriet Tubman, famous for her Underground Railroad work, also served as a nurse and scout for the Union Army and accompanied a raid in South Carolina.
Black said he wanted people to know that African-Americans were, and are, as patriotic as any other soldier in the U.S., and have done their job both on the front lines and behind them. African-Americans served the country and were injured and died for the country, he said, and some are still missing in action.
“We African-Americans made as much sacrifice as any other ethnic group of individuals that served in the military. We fought for a system that did not respect us, but we still went beyond the call of duty to show that we realized that this was our country,” he said.
DeShields said he admired black soldiers who died fighting for a country that didn’t treat them equally. “I admire them for their courage … these are the heroes.” They are unsung heroes, he said, not on the front page, but the Lord knows who they are and they’ll be rewarded.
“If they don’t get it on this earth, they’ll get it when they meet our Maker,” he said.