Historical Background

 

 

Historical Background

Was the 24th's reputation in Korea deserved, or was it a gross distortion of the facts brought on by racial prejudice? If bigotry was involved, were there nevertheless some grains of truth at the base of the regiment's poor reputation? If so, where does the truth end and the prejudice begin?

The situation in the 24th Infantry did not arise in a day. It grew out of a history extending back over a hundred years to the abolition of the system of slavery that had marred the American experience from its beginning. For once the African-American had been freed of his bondage and had gained some rights of citizenship, it made sense that he should serve in the nation's armed forces. Yet vast hostility to blacks remained in the very fabric of the society, so much so that the integration of whites and blacks into the nation's Army seemed out of the question. As a result, although blacks served, they always did so apart, segregated into battalions, regiments, and divisions reserved exclusively for them. They fought dependably and creditably on the Western Frontier, in the Spanish-American War, and during the Philippine Insurrection, but they never seemed able to overcome the attitudes of the white nation that employed them. 

Instead, the white world pulled back into itself by enacting "separate but equal" laws that had the effect of rendering African-Americans and their contributions invisible. When segregated soldiers rebelled against that system at Houston at the beginning of World War I, the mistrust they engendered among whites helped to erase whatever credit black units had earned in earlier wars and influenced how white commanders viewed them in subsequent conflicts.

In World Wars I and II, the African-American soldier seemed destined for failure from the beginning. Ascribing to assertions that blacks were lazy and of low intellect, the Army's commanders used them mainly to perform menial tasks, such as unloading ships and digging ditches. Even when finally constrained by political pressure to form all-black regiments and divisions and to allow African-Americans to enter combat, they tended to employ them in areas where little would be lost if they failed. When black Americans performed well, as they did when they fought under French command in World War I, white America made little of their successes, but when they failed, as some did, the news was well circulated. Over all, few in positions of authority were willing to admit that the system of racial segregation was at fault or that a lack of mutual confidence and respect between the black soldier and his white commanders had all but destroyed the sense of oneness, mutual dependency, and self-worth in black units that are the chief constituents of good military performance. 

 

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