Blacks in America’s Formative Wars: Racism from Without and Within

The Spanish-American War

Following the Civil War, the lot of the average African-American did not show great improvement from slavery.  Blacks were finally free, but they were denied fundamental human rights by Jim Crow laws and separated from society through segregation laws which gained legitimacy by Plessy v Ferguson.11  Two years after that decision, war broke out between America and Spain.  According to Dr. Fletcher, many African-Americans volunteered for service in order to “regain some of their recently lost rights.”12  Few Black volunteers were given a chance to demonstrate their unwavering loyalty.  The war ended before volunteers were ready for service.  African-American volunteers faced racism so intense that Spanish gunfire might have seemed anticlimactic.  The commander of some Black troops tried to get rid of the company’s Black officers.13  He believed that Blacks did not have the traits necessary lead, despite the fact that Black soldiers had proven naysayers wrong over and over again with skill and bravery on the battlefield.  Continued segregation in these units fomented racist violence.  The racial condescension of the officers led many soldiers to believe that they could get away with assaulting Black troops, which happened with alarming frequency.14

Some Black Americans did see duty in the war.  These were members of the 10th Cavalry, the famous “Buffalo Soldiers” who had policed the American West.  They saw action in the Battle of San Juan Hill, the war’s most famous land battle.  During the hail of Spanish bullets, they became entangled with Theodore Roosevelt’s Rough Riders.  Although Roosevelt claimed the laurels of the American victory, Black soldiers advanced up the hill alongside him, including Sergeant George Berry, who picked up a fallen American flag and carried both the regimental standard and Old Glory to the summit.  Roosevelt later said that the 10th Cavalrymen were “brave men worthy of respect” and “I don’t think any Rough Rider will ever forget the tie that binds us to the 10th Cavalry.”15

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