DOD, Nation Celebrate Black History Month

Department of Defense | Jan. 31, 2022

By Dave Vergun

Black people have fought in every United States war, from the Revolutionary War through the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Ninety African Americans have been awarded the Medal of Honor.

Airmen mill about a table.
Tuskegee Airmen gather around a table and talk in Ramitelli, Italy, in March 1945.

Yet, throughout most of American history, Black service members were placed in segregated units. Desegregation didn't occur until Jan. 26, 1948, when President Harry S. Truman issued Executive Order 9981 directing the armed services to integrate.

Active-duty service members number 1,319,283; of those, 227,974, or 17.3%, are African American, as of December 2021.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in 2020, the Black or African American population was 41.1 million, representing 12.4% of the U.S. population.

Soldiers stand in formation.
Black soldiers with the Union Army's 36th Colored Regiment stand in formation during the Civil War's Battle of Chaffin's Farm in Virginia, Sept. 29-30, 1864.
Soldiers pose for a group photo.
Buffalo soldiers of the 25th Infantry Regiment pose for a photo in 1890.
Troops rest amid rubble.
During World War II, the 17th Special Seabees, attached to the 7th Marine Regiment, rest amid the rubble on the island of Peleliu, Sept. 1944.

The origin of Black History Month is associated with the noted African-American historian Carter G. Woodson. In 1926, he initiated the celebration of Negro History Week during the second week in February. 

Soldiers move an artillery piece on a road.
Black soldiers in an artillery unit move forward in Belgium, Nov. 9, 1944.

February was chosen because that is the birth month of Frederick Douglass, an abolitionist and social reformer, and President Abraham Lincoln, who abolished slavery.

The celebration was expanded to the entire month of February in 1976 by President Gerald Ford; since that time, every president has designated February as Black History Month.

Soldiers pose for a group photo.
Officers of the U.S. Army's segregated 366th Infantry Regiment head home on board the Royal Majesty Ship Aquitania, after World War I service in 1919.

During his 1976 Black History Month announcement, Ford linked the commemoration to the nation's 200th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence that year.

On Feb. 11, 1986, Congress passed Public Law 99-244, which designated each February as "National Black (Afro-American) History Month."

Canada, Ireland and the United Kingdom also celebrate a Black history month.