Col. Charles Young, n.d.

African Americans have been part of the United States military since the colonies first sought their freedom from the British Empire. In many ways, the Army's policy toward African Americans has paralleled trends toward segregation and discrimination in the civilian sector. In the end, the integration of the Army was a long overdue, slow, and drawn out process.     

During World War I, Camp A.A. Humphreys [Fort Belvoir] was home to several Service Engineer Battalions which included African American enlisted men. Camp A.A. Humphreys received its first black soldiers in April 1918. The initial 114 soldiers were soon joined by additional African American troops. The steady rise in their numbers peaked in September of that year at 6,051. 1  The majority of the heavy labor performed in association with the initial construction of the camp was attributed to these service battalions.

At the end of World War I, military officers were surveyed regarding the effectiveness of African American soldiers during the war. Falling back on racial stereotypes of the time, most of the comments were negative. The results of this survey were used to help formulate policies between 1922 and 1935 limiting black unit sizes to no larger than regiments. "Between 1931 and 1940, the number of blacks in the Regular Army made up less than 4,000 of the total 118,000 as vacancies and promotions became extremely rare in most segregated units." 2 Youngs Village was constructed at Fort Belvoir during the 1940s as temporary quarters for African Americans in response to the housing need associated with World War II.

Youngs Village School,
Oct. 18, 1946

By the end of World War II, the Army started to review its racial policies. A board was established, headed by Lt. Gen. Alvan Gillem, Jr., to review the position of African Americans in the postwar Army. By November 1945, the Gillem Board had completed its study and reported its findings to the Army Chief of Staff, Dwight D. Eisenhower, who then passed it on to the Office of the Secretary of Defense. The board decided against integration because it "would have been a radical step, out of keeping with the climate of opinion in the country and in the Army itself."3  Instead of integration, the board developed 18 recommendations, based on the philosophy that African Americans had the constitutional right to fight, and that the Army was in a position where it needed to effectively use every soldier. The Gillem Board provided the Army with limited reform, such as giving qualified African American soldiers more opportunities, but ignoring the core issues of segregation all together. By March 1946, the Gillem Board's findings were released to the public.

African American Color Guard, ca. 1943

On Sept. 19, 1946, President Harry Truman established the President's Committee on Civil Rights to examine racial violence and to improve the civil rights of all Americans. The committee presented its findings to the President a little over a year later, making many recommendations for how to correct the situation. One of the policies the committee recommended was to end discrimination and segregation in the armed forces, thereby using the military as what they described as "an instrument of social change." 4  By the time the President transmitted the committee's findings to Congress in February 1948, the references to the military had been removed. On July 26, 1948, President Truman signed Executive Order 9981, providing equal treatment and opportunities for African American serviceman. This Executive Order had little effect on the armed forces because they did not believe segregation was discriminatory.

In February 1949, the Department of Defense created the Personnel Policy Board, which drafted a racial policy eliminating all racial quotas and established uniform draft standards. The policy outlined that all of the military services were to be fully integrated by July 1, 1950. However, numerous obstacles caused the proposed policy to be defeated. By April of the same year, the Personnel Policy Board had drafted another racial policy that the Secretary of Defense, Louis Johnson, signed. This policy reiterated President Truman's Executive Order, but stopped short of full integration.

The Army had difficulty complying with this policy and issued one of its own to the Secretary of Defense. This policy

opened all occupational specialties to those qualified, abolished racial quotas for Army schools and ended its racially separated promotion systems and standards. But it did not address the two main areas of contention: the racial quota and the free assignment of blacks.5

Home from Desert Shield,
ca. 1990

This policy contained none of the objectives or key recommendations that had been made by the President to oversee the success of Executive Order 9981. After compromises on both sides, the Army published Special Regulation 600-629-1, and opened its recruiting without regard to race.

Because of the Korean War, the Army had doubled in size again during the 1950s. The large influx of soldiers tested the Army's new racial policy. By 1951, the Army's nine training divisions were integrated. The Korean War turned out to be instrumental in changing the Army's attitudes and practices toward segregation. A contract study, known as Project CLEAR, was completed in November 1951. The study focused on how black troops performed in Korea. The study confirmed that African American soldiers in integrated units fought as well as white soldiers. The study also concluded that integration increased the overall effectiveness of the Army. By December 1951, the Army Chief of Staff ordered that integration was to be the Army's immediate goal. The Army completed this task in the fall of 1954 when the last African American battalion was inactivated and all Army personnel were integrated. 6

1 The number of African American soldiers at Camp Humphreys fell to 2,732 by December 1918.
2 Steven D. Smith and James A. Zeidler. A Historic Context for the African American Military Experience. (Champaign, Ill.: US Army Construction Engineering Research Laboratories (USACERL), 1998), 220.
3 Morris J. MacGregor, Jr. Integration of the Armed Forces, 1940-1965 . (Washington, D.C.: U.S. Army Center of Military History, 1985) as quoted in "U.S. Armed Forces Integration Chronology" (offline). Site accessed August 2006.
4 Ibid .
5 "U.S. Armed Forces Integration Chronology" (offline) site accessed August 2006.
6 MacGregor Jr., Integration of the Armed Forces, as quoted in "U.S. Armed Forces Integration Chronology" (offline). Site accessed August 2006.


Physical separation by race and gender:
William C. Baldwin
Segregation at Fort Belvoir: Derek Manning

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