Double Victory

The African American Military Experience

Double Victory: The African American Military Experience conveys a sense of appreciation and respect for the military service of African Americans from the American Revolution to the War on Terror.

It establishes an understanding that the African American military experience shapes opportunities for the greater community and has profoundly shaped the nation.

In choosing to serve in the military, African Americans sought to have their service understood by the nation as a demand for liberty and citizenship. African American men and women who engaged in the military made their service useful not only for the good of their country, but to benefit both their personal lives and their community.

Negroes and the War 1942

Negroes and the War 1942

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, in Memory of Eliot Elisofon

Journey Through the Exhibition

Double Victory Storylines

From the American Revolution through the American Civil War, African Americans participated in every major war, beginning a ninety-five year period of struggle and military service to the nation that culminated in “freedom.” The struggle began as early as 1770, when Crispus Attucks became one of the first Americans to die in the Boston Massacre and continued to 1865 when the 13th Amendment was ratified. This cluster begins by focusing on the more than 5,000 African Americans (free, enslaved, and indentured) who served in the colonial forces. The service of African Americans during the War of 1812, Seminole Wars, and the Mexican American War are also evidence of the continued struggle for freedom.

The end of the Civil War brought freedom to African Americans but not equality nor integration. Since the Indian Wars began in 1866 to the end of World War II in 1945, hundreds of thousands of African Americans continued to serve in a segregated military. While their service will be interpreted through arresting artifacts, the exhibition also interprets the social, political, economic, and cultural contexts relative to African Americans such as the 1896 Plessy v. Ferguson “Separate but Equal ruling,” the 1906 Brownsville riots in Texas, and the 1941 Executive Order 8802 catapulting African American women into the government workforce.

This section explores the question, has the military become a colorblind institution? In 1948, Executive Order 9981 was signed, which integrated the military on paper. The social and political impacts of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement are also interpreted, and offer visitors an opportunity to understand the complexities and nuances of African American military service in a rapidly changing America.

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Medal of Honor Lens

The Medal of Honor Lens addresses the Medals of Honor awarded to African Americans and interprets what it means to be a Medal of Honor recipient, what is life after the Medal of Honor, and issues of racial biasness in awarding the Medal of Honor. The locations of African American Medal of Honor recipients buried in Arlington National Cemetery (ANC) are offered so visitors can visit the cemetery.

Women in the Military 

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Exhibition Luminaries

John Hanks Alexander
01/017

John Hanks Alexander

In 1887 he became the second African American to graduate from the U.S. Military Academy, West Point. This uniform belonged to 2nd Lt. John Hanks Alexander, who served in the 9th Cavalry on the western frontier for six years. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Theophilus Gould Steward
02/017

Black Chaplains

From 1884 to World War I, five African American chaplains earned Regular Army commissions: Henry V. Plummer, Allen Allensworth, Theophilus G. Steward (pictured here), George W. Prioleau and William T. Anderson. They were accomplished men in their late thirties and forties (Plummer was 50) when they earned commissions. All were well educated and, with the exception of Steward, born into slavery. Plummer and Allensworth were Civil War veterans. (Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress)
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Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts
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Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts

Among the first American heroes of World War I, Henry Johnson and Needham Roberts, were the first African American Croix de Guerre recipients for bravery in combat. The French commendation honoring the soldiers, in part translates: “a magnificent example of courage and energy.” (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Lawrence McVey
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Lawrence McVey

Lawrence McVey was among the soldiers in the 369th Infantry awarded this French Croix de Guerre with Bronze Star for bravery in combat. (Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, Gift of Gina R. McVey, Granddaughter)
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Major Charity Adams
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Major Charity Adams

Maj. Charity Adams was the highest-ranking African American woman during World War II. Adams commanded the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, which ensured the delivery of U.S. mail to soldiers in the field. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Benjamin O. Davis Sr.
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Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

After more than 42 years of military service, Benjamin O. Davis became the first African American to earn the rank of general in the U.S. Army in 1940. He is seen here, Aug. 1944, in France. Despite discrimination, Davis persevered through 50 years of military service. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Dorie Miller
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Dorie Miller

Dorie Miller was a steward aboard the USS West Virginia at Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941. Like most African Americans in the Navy in 1941, Miller was not trained to fire Navy guns but likely received familiarization training on weapons. Miller shot down at least two Japanese aircraft during the attack, but did not survive the war. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Mary McLeod Bethune
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Mary McLeod Bethune

Educator Mary McLeod Bethune advised President Franklin Roosevelt and was a key advocate for African American service members. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Medgar Evers
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Medgar Evers

Like other black GIs, Evers refused to accept second-class status at home and became a leader in the burgeoning Civil Rights Movement. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Dovey Johnson Roundtree
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Dovey Johnson Roundtree

World War II veteran Dovey Roundtree used her G.I. Bill to attend Howard Law School. In 1955 she won a landmark case ending racial segregation in interstate bus travel. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Ensign Jesse Brown
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Ensign Jesse Brown

Jesse Brown was the first African American Navy aviator. He died after his plane crash-landed during a mission in Korea on December 4, 1950. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Alex Haley
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Alex Haley

The Pulitzer Prize-winning author of Roots: The Saga of an American Family served 20 years in the U.S. Coast Guard, where he perfected his writing skills as a chief journalist. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.
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General Daniel “Chappie” James Jr.

Chappie James graduated from Tuskegee in 1942, becoming a Tuskegee Airmen in 1943. In September 1975 he became the first African American four-star general in the military and shared at retirement news conference that despite the struggles to integrate the military, if he could relive his life, he'd join the Air Force again. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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General Colin L. Powell
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General Colin L. Powell

Colin Powell graduated from City College of New York in 1958, becoming an infantry lieutenant. He spent two tours in Vietnam and reached four stars in 1989. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Cadet Henry O. Flipper
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Cadet Henry O. Flipper

In 1877, despite years of discrimination, Henry O. Flipper became the first African American to graduate from West Point. Yet racism limited and eventually derailed his military career. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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General Frank E. Petersen
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General Frank E. Petersen

General Petersen joined the Navy in 1950 and earned his wings and Marine commission in 1952. He was the first African American to become a Marine fighter pilot and general. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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General Hazel W. Johnson
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General Hazel W. Johnson

Hazel Johnson was the first African American woman to be named a general in the Army and the first to lead the Army Nurse Corps. General Johnson joined the Army in 1955 and also served as the director of the Walter Reed Army Institute of Nursing. Throughout her life she distinguished herself as a military and public health care professional. (Photo credit: Getty Images)
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Terry James Art & Frame Painting of a Revolutionary War soldier 2009

Terry James Art & Frame Painting of a Revolutionary War soldier 2009

Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture, © Don Troiani

Exhibition Objects

Photograph of a woman in a medical military uniform 1941-1945

Photograph of a woman in a medical military uniform 1941-1945

United States Mint Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal 2007

United States Mint Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal 2007

92d Infantry Division  Peter L. Robinson, Sr. ca. 1917

92d Infantry Division Peter L. Robinson, Sr. ca. 1917

United States Air Force Thunderbirds Flight helmet worn by Thunderbird pilot Gen. Lloyd W. Newton ca. 1974

United States Air Force Thunderbirds Flight helmet worn by Thunderbird pilot Gen. Lloyd W. Newton ca. 1974

Cabinet card of Col. Charles Young as a cadet at West Point 1889

Cabinet card of Col. Charles Young as a cadet at West Point 1889

10th Cavalry Regiment Hat insignia for the 10th Calvary, Company M ca. 1874

10th Cavalry Regiment Hat insignia for the 10th Calvary, Company M ca. 1874

369th Infantry Regiment Photograph of Cpl. Lawrence McVey in uniform wearing the Croix de Guerre medal ca. 1920

369th Infantry Regiment Photograph of Cpl. Lawrence McVey in uniform wearing the Croix de Guerre medal ca. 1920

9th Cavalry Regiment U.S. Army M-1879 junior officer's dress coat worn by John Hanks Alexander ca. 1890

9th Cavalry Regiment U.S. Army M-1879 junior officer's dress coat worn by John Hanks Alexander ca. 1890

369th Infantry Regiment Silver gelatin photographic portrait of Corporal Needham Roberts 1919

369th Infantry Regiment Silver gelatin photographic portrait of Corporal Needham Roberts 1919

52nd Marine Defense Battalion Montford Point Marines Congressional Gold Medal 2011

52nd Marine Defense Battalion Montford Point Marines Congressional Gold Medal 2011

Women's US Army Service hat worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown

Women's US Army Service hat worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown

Women's US Army Service jacket worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown 1980

Women's US Army Service jacket worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown 1980

Pack of bandages from D-Day 1944

Pack of bandages from D-Day 1944

United States Army Medal of Honor bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton 1952

United States Army Medal of Honor bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton 1952

100th Fighter Squadron Tuskegee Airman flight jacket worn by Lt. Col. Woodrow W. Crockett 1942

100th Fighter Squadron Tuskegee Airman flight jacket worn by Lt. Col. Woodrow W. Crockett 1942

26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket owned by Walter Denning

26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket owned by Walter Denning

Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry and Rescue of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 2, 1898 1899

Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry and Rescue of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 2, 1898 1899

Master Chief Petty Officer William H. Goines Navy Chuting Stars patch owned by William Goines 1961 - 1964

Master Chief Petty Officer William H. Goines Navy Chuting Stars patch owned by William Goines 1961 - 1964

Pittsburgh Courier Handkerchief with World War II Double V campaign design 1942-1945

Pittsburgh Courier Handkerchief with World War II Double V campaign design 1942-1945

 Chief Master Carl Maxie Brashear Prosthetic leg worn by Carl Brashear after 1966

Chief Master Carl Maxie Brashear Prosthetic leg worn by Carl Brashear after 1966

Photograph of a woman in a medical military uniform 1941-1945
United States Mint Tuskegee Airmen Congressional Gold Medal 2007
92d Infantry Division  Peter L. Robinson, Sr. ca. 1917
United States Air Force Thunderbirds Flight helmet worn by Thunderbird pilot Gen. Lloyd W. Newton ca. 1974
Cabinet card of Col. Charles Young as a cadet at West Point 1889
10th Cavalry Regiment Hat insignia for the 10th Calvary, Company M ca. 1874
369th Infantry Regiment Photograph of Cpl. Lawrence McVey in uniform wearing the Croix de Guerre medal ca. 1920
9th Cavalry Regiment U.S. Army M-1879 junior officer's dress coat worn by John Hanks Alexander ca. 1890
369th Infantry Regiment Silver gelatin photographic portrait of Corporal Needham Roberts 1919
52nd Marine Defense Battalion Montford Point Marines Congressional Gold Medal 2011
Women's US Army Service hat worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown
Women's US Army Service jacket worn by Brigadier General Hazel Johnson-Brown 1980
Pack of bandages from D-Day 1944
United States Army Medal of Honor bestowed on Sergeant Cornelius H. Charlton 1952
100th Fighter Squadron Tuskegee Airman flight jacket worn by Lt. Col. Woodrow W. Crockett 1942
26th Regiment, U.S. Colored Troops Enfield Pattern 1853 rifle-musket owned by Walter Denning
Charge of the 24th and 25th Colored Infantry and Rescue of the Rough Riders at San Juan Hill, July 2, 1898 1899
Master Chief Petty Officer William H. Goines Navy Chuting Stars patch owned by William Goines 1961 - 1964
Pittsburgh Courier Handkerchief with World War II Double V campaign design 1942-1945
 Chief Master Carl Maxie Brashear Prosthetic leg worn by Carl Brashear after 1966