National Black History Month is celebrated each year in February. It’s an opportunity to remind ourselves about the immeasurable impact Black Americans have made on our nation’s history, including invaluable contributions to our military from as far back as the Revolutionary War.
To truly honor our country’s Black Veterans, we must recognize the health disparities that exist in our country and understand what VA and others are doing to address the issue.
Let’s take this time to learn about the history of Black Veterans, celebrate their service and accomplishments and confront the ongoing work still left to do to ensure they have the support and resources they deserve.
Starting as early as the Revolutionary War, African Americans have fought against discrimination and injustice for the chance to serve our country. According to the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA), as early as April of 1775, Black “minutemen” fought at Lexington and Concord. One man, James Armistead, an enslaved person born in Virginia, became a spy who infiltrated the British Army and helped America win the Battle of Yorktown.
Over 200,000 African Americans, many of whom were formerly enslaved, served in the Civil War. Within these numbers come stories of bravery and courage — stories like that of Lucy Higgs, who traveled for many nights on foot with her family until they found a Union camp in Tennessee where she served as a nurse throughout the war or Robert Smalls, who began his life as an enslaved person in South Carolina, hijacked a Confederate transport steamer while working as a deck hand, navigated it to Union territory and became the Navy’s first African American captain. More than 37,000 Black soldiers died in the Civil War, giving their lives for a country that had yet to see them and treat them as full citizens.
Since these early wars, the number of African American Service members has continued to grow. From the success of the Tuskegee Airmen in World War II and the 20 Medal of Honor recipients in the Vietnam War to today, where Black Service members continue to serve selflessly and honorably in ever larger numbers. Now, more than one-third of our country’s active duty military is comprised of minorities and more than 12% of the Veteran population in the United States is Black. This number is expected to increase in the next several years, according to a report by VA’s Office of Health Equity.
While it’s rewarding to look back at the accomplishments and heroism of Black Americans throughout our nation’s military history, it’s equally important to ensure they have the support and resources they have earned and deserve moving forward.
- VA’s Center for Minority Veterans works to ensure all Veterans receive equal service regardless of race, origin, religion or gender. Some of their work includes:
- Promoting the use of benefits by Veterans who are minorities
- Conducting research on the specific needs of Veterans who are minorities
- Evaluating complaints made by or on behalf of Veterans who are minorities
- Identifying and eliminating barriers to health care services
- Increasing local awareness of issues related to Veterans who are minorities
- Staffing health care facilities with Minority Veterans Program Coordinators to advocate for and support Veterans who are minorities
- VA’s Office of Research and Development has a report on Health Equity that highlights ongoing research, important accomplishments, interventions and strategies used to address racial disparities found in VA’s health care system.
- The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that cancer, stroke and heart disease are the leading causes of death for Black Americans in the U.S. VA offers preventive care and specialized health care services to address these important health conditions. Learn more about each of these conditions and the resources available to support you by checking out the following articles:
- The National Alliance on Mental Illness works to ensure that everyone, regardless of their race, origin, religion or gender, has access to quality mental health care. Learn more about what they are doing to address mental health care disparities. You can also check out the article It’s Ok Not to Be OK: Remove the Stigma Around Mental Health Care in Minority Communities for more resources and strategies for overcoming the stigma around accessing mental health care resources.
There is no shortage of incredible stories about Black Veterans to highlight, so take some time to click around and hear their stories, learn from their struggles and triumphs, and share them with others.
- In 2018, the Department of Defense released a presentation for Black History Month entitled African Americans in Times of War. Learn about the Golden 13, the first Black officers commissioned for the Navy; Cathay Williams, the first known Black woman to enlist in the Army; Colin Powell and many others.
- The National Veterans Memorial and Museum offers a Black History Month tribute to Veterans including YouTube videos and additional educational programming.
- The American Veterans Center has a Salute to Black Patriots that includes the stories of Veterans such as Crispus Attucks, the Tuskegee Airmen, the Buffalo Soldiers and more.
For generations, Black Americans have fought and sacrificed for this country with bravery and honor. They have made America stronger and safer, and their service deserves not only recognition but our country’s dedication to providing them with the resources they need to live full and healthy lives long after their service is finished.