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African American Military Heritage Display
African American Military Heritage Display


William H. Carney: The 1st Black Soldier to Earn the Medal of Honor.

 William HCarney

Of all the men who wore blue uniforms in the Civil War, none felt more keenly the purpose of his mission than the African American soldier.  Every marching step, every swing of a pick and every round fired at Confederate enemies gave him a chance to strike a blow against slavery and prove himself equal to his white comrades. U.S. Colored Troops were consistently good fighters, performing well in every engagement in which they fought. Even their enemies had to grudgingly admit that fact. One USCT member, William H. Carney, transcended good to become great, and was the first black U.S. soldier to earn the Medal of Honor. On February 17, 1863, at age 23, Carney heeded the call for African Americans to join a local militia unit.  That unit would later become Company C of the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment.  There was something unique about the new regiment, commanded by Colonel Robert Gould Shaw; it was an all-black unit with the exception of senior officers and a few senior non-commissioned sergeants.

The 54th Massachusetts was created to prove that black men could be good soldiers.
Carney was born a slave on February 29, 1840, at Norfolk, Va.  His father escaped slavery, reaching freedom through the Underground Railroad. He then worked hard to buy the freedom of the rest of his family.  The free and reunited family settled in New Bedford in the second half of the 1850s. William H. Carney learned to read and write, and by age 15 and was interested in becoming a minister. He gave up his pursuit of the ministry, however, to join the Army.  

The career change had momentous impact on Carney’s life, as the 54th Massachusetts had a chance to prove its mettle in the July 18, 1863, Battle of Fort Wagner outside of Charleston, S.C.
Fort Wagner on Morris Island guarded the entrance to the harbor of Charleston. Shaw and the 600 men of the 54th Massachusetts would spearhead the federal assault from a slim strip of sand on the east side of the fort, which faced the Atlantic Ocean.

The 54th burrowed into a sand dune about 1,000 yards from Fort Wagner. Behind it was the 6th Connecticut.  Federal land and sea artillery bombarded the fort all day long. By nightfall, orders were passed down and the 54th stood up, dressed ranks and attacked in two wings of five companies each. As the men advanced they were immediately hit by a barrage of canister, musketry and shelling from the fort.  A bullet struck the 54th’s color sergeant, and as the wounded man faltered, Carney threw down his gun, seized the flag and moved to the front of the 54th’s assaulting ranks.  He soon found himself alone, on the fort’s wall, with bodies of dead and wounded comrades all around him.  He knelt down to gather himself for action, still firmly holding the flag while bullets and shell fragments peppered the sand around him.  Carney surveyed the battlefield and noticed that other Union regiments had attacked to his right, drawing away the focal point of the Rebel resistance.  To his left he saw a large force of soldiers advancing down the ramparts of the fort.  At first he thought they might be were Union forces. Flashes of musketry soon doomed his hopes. The oncoming troops were Confederates.  He wound the colors around the flagpole, made his way to a low protective wall and moved along it to a ditch.  When Carney had passed over the ditch on his way to the fort, it was dry.  But now it was waist deep with water.  He seemed to be alone, surrounded by the wreckage of his regiment.  Carney wanted to help the wounded, but enemy fire pinned him down. Crouching in the water, he figured his best chance was to plot a course back to Federal lines and make a break for it.  Cheers greeted him when Carney finally staggered into the ranks of the 54th. Before collapsing, he said, “Boys, the old flag never touched the ground!”

During the fight, the 54th made heroic attacks on the garrison, and Carney’s bravery earned him a promotion to sergeant and the U.S. military’s most prestigious award.  William H. Carney’s valor at Fort Wagner was honored on May 23, 1900, when he was awarded the Medal of Honor. That was almost 40 years after he so proudly served with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment.  He was the first black soldier to receive the award.


The Buffalo Solders 1868-1898

35 Buffalo Soldier 1

At the end of the U.S. Civil War the army reorganized and authorized the formation of two regiments of black cavalry (the 9th and 10th US Cavalry) on September 21, 1866, at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. The nickname "Buffalo Soldiers" was given to the Negro Cavalry by Native American tribes who fought in the Indian Wars.  Although several African American regiments were raised during the Civil War as part of the Union Army (including the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry and the many United States Colored Troops Regiments), the "Buffalo Soldiers" were established by Congress as the first peacetime all-black regiments in the regular U.S. Army.

The Buffalo Soldiers participated in the 1898 Spanish–American War (including the Battle of San Juan Hill) in Cuba, where five more Medals of Honor were earned.  After the Buffalo Solders returned from Cuba they were sent to Huntsville, Alabama's Monte Sano Mountain to escape the scourge of yellow fever and to recuperate from wounds and other disease they brought back from the war.        

35 Buffalo Soldier 2  

The Buffalo Solders was moved to Camp Albert G. Forse in Huntsville, Alabama in October 18, 1898 until January 28, 1899 recuperating. They encamped at the location where the academy known as Cavalry Hills School is now located. On November 11, 2009 a Buffalo Soldier Memorial was dedicated in Huntsville, Alabama on the Cavalry Hill location.


 Eugene Jacques Bullard,

is the first African-American fighterpilot in history. 

 35 First African American fighter pilot

Bullard was an expatriot living in France, and when World War 1 broke out he joined the French Infantry. He was seriously wounded, and France awarded him the Croix de Guerre and Medaille Militaire. In 1916 he joined the French air service and he first trained as a gunner but later he trained as a pilot. When American pilots volunteered to help France and formed the famous Lafayette Escadrille, he asked to join but by the time he became a qualified pilot they were no longer accepting new recruits, so he joined the Lafayette Flying Corps instead. He served with French flying units and he completed 20 combat missions. When the United States finally joined the war, Bullard was the only member of the Escadrille or the French Flying Corps who was NOT invited to join the US Air Service. At that time the Air Service only accepted white men.

After WWI Bullard became a jazz musician in Paris and he eventually owned a nightclub called ‘L’Escadrille’. When the Germans invaded France and conquered it in WW2, his Club, and Bullard, became hugely popular with German officers, but what they DIDN’T know was that Bullard, who spoke fluent German, was actually working for the Free French as a spy. He eventually joined a French infantry unit, but he was badly wounded and had to leave the service.

By the end of the war, Bullard had become a national hero in France, but he later moved back to the U.S. where he was of course completely unknown. Practically no one in the United States was aware of it when, in 1959, the French government named him a national Chevalier, or Knight.

In 1960, the President of France, Charles DeGaulle, paid a state visit to the United States and when he arrived he said that one of the first things he wanted to do was to meet Bullard. That sent the White House staff scrambling because most of them, of course, had never even heard of him. They finally located him in New York City, and DeGaulle traveled there to meet him personally. At the time, Eugene Bullard was working as ... an elevator operator.

Not long after Eugene Bullard met with the President of France, he passed away. On Oct. 13, 1961, Eugene Bullard was buried with full military honors in his legionnaire’s uniform in the cemetery of the Federation of French War Veterans in Flushing, N.Y. On Sept. 14, 1994, the Secretary of the Air Force posthumously appointed him a second lieutenant in the United States Air Force.



 William Henry Johnson WW I

Sgt. Henry Johnson, an black World War I hero.

Johnson was a member of the New York's 369th Infantry Regiment, also known as the Harlem Hellfighters, an all-black National Guard unit famous for introducing jazz music to Europe. The  unit served under French command because of segregation in the U.S. armed forces.

Johnson was assigned sentry duty on the western edge of the Argonne Forest.  Patrolling near a bridge, Johnson  was on patrol until midnight on the evening of May 14. 1918. 

As his shift wound down, Johnson saw two relief soldiers approaching.  Shortly thereafter, he began to hear the rustling noises, which eventually became German soldiers rushing through the darkness. Johnson realized he was surrounded,  He was hit by the shrapnel of a grenade in his arm and hip.  Still conscious, Johnson began to toss grenades.  When those ran out,  Johnson began firing his rifle while being hit by bullets in his side, hand, and head. Quickly, Johnson shoved an American cartridge into his French rifle, but the ammunition and the weapon were incompatible. The rifle jammed. As the Germans swarmed him, Johnson began using the rifle like a club, smashing it over their heads and into their faces.  After the butt of the rifle finally fell apart, Johnson went down with a blow to the head.  But he climbed back up, drew his bolo knife, and charged forward. The blade went deep into the first German he encountered, killing the man.  More gruesome work with the weapon followed, with Johnson hacking and stabbing bodies even as bullets continued to strike him.  The melee went on for roughly an hour, he said. When reinforcements finally arrived, the remaining Germans fled.  

The next day, military officials visited the scene of the battle.  German helmets rested on the ground, along with puddles of blood.  Four bodies were left behind. The officials estimated Johnson had wounded up to 24 others.  Some men who walked the site said the death toll was six,  with Johnson injuring 32 men.   Johnson had prevented the Germans from breaking the French line.

French Croix de guerre 1914 18

The French Croix de Guerre, 

Johnson was awarded France’s highest award for bravery, the French Croix de Guerre,  in 1919 for his actions that night.  He was later awarded the Purple Heart in 1996 and the Distinguished Service Cross in 2002.  In 2015 President Barack Obama awarded him the Medal of Honor,  which was accepted on Johnson’s behalf by Sergeant Major Louis Wilson of the New York National Guard.

On July 1, 1929,  Johnson died of myocarditis (an inflammation of the heart muscle) while living in Washington, D.C.


Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr

First African-American to rise to the rank of General.

Benjamin O Davis Sr


Benjamin Oliver Davis Sr. (May 1880 – November 26, 1970) was a United States Army officer. In 1940, he became the first African-American to rise to the rank of General. He was the father of Air Force General Benjamin O. Davis Jr.

After graduating from high school, in response to the start of the Spanish–American War, Davis entered the military service on July 13, 1898, as a temporary first lieutenant in the 8th United States Volunteer Infantry, an all-African-American unit. This regiment was stationed at Chickamauga Park, Georgia, from October 1898 until the unit was disbanded in March 1899.

Davis was mustered out on March 6, 1899, and on June 18, 1899, he enlisted as a private in the 9th Cavalry Regiment (one of the original Buffalo Soldier regiments). In 1901 Davis was commissioned a second lieutenant of Cavalry in the Regular Army.  In the spring of 1901, Davis was posted overseas to serve in the Philippine–American War. On August 1901, Davis returned to the US in August 1902. In 1913, the 9th Cavalry was assigned to patrol the Mexican-United States border.

In 1920 Captain Davis was assigned to Tuskegee Institute (now Tuskegee University) in Tuskegee, Alabama, as the Professor of Military Science and Tactics (PMS&T).   In August 1937, Davis was assigned to Wilberforce University as Professor of Military Science and Tactics (PMS&T). Davis was assigned to the 369th Regiment, New York National Guard, during the summer of 1938, and took command of the regiment a short time later. Davis was promoted to brigadier general on October 25, 1940, becoming the first African-American General Officer in the United States Army.  Davis became commanding general of the 4th Cavalry Brigade, 2nd Cavalry Division in January 1941.  About six months later, he was assigned to Washington, D.C. as an assistant in the Office of the Inspector General. While serving in the Office of the Inspector General, Davis also served on the Advisory Committee on Negro Troop Policies.  From 1941 to 1944, Davis conducted inspection tours of African-American soldiers in the United States Army. From September to November 1942 and again from July to November 1944, Davis made inspection tours of African-American soldiers stationed in Europe.

On November 10, 1944, Davis was reassigned as special assistant to the commanding general, Communications Zone, European Theater of Operations. He served with the General Inspectorate Section, European Theater of from January through May 1945. While serving in the European Theater of Operations, Davis was influential in the proposed policy of integration using replacement units. On July 20, 1948, after fifty years of military service, Davis retired in a public ceremony with President Harry S. Truman presiding.  On July 26, 1948, President Truman issued Executive Order 9981 which abolished racial discrimination in the United States armed forces.


Benjamin O. Davis Jr

Benjamin O Davis Jr

Benjamin O. Davis Jr. enters the United States Military Academy at West Point, New York, in 1932.  After graduating in 1936 he was commissioned in the infantry and in 1941 was among the first group of African Americans admitted to the Army Air Corps and to pilot training. Upon his graduation he was swiftly promoted to lieutenant colonel, and he organized the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the first entirely African American air unit, which flew tactical support missions in the Mediterranean theater. In 1943 he organized and commanded the 332nd Fighter Group (the Tuskegee Airmen).  By the end of the war Davis himself had flown 60 combat missions and had been promoted to colonel.  He returned to the United States in June 1945 to command the 477th Composite Group at Godman Field, Ky., and in July 1947 became commander of the 332nd Fighter Wing.

In July 1953, he went to the advanced jet fighter gunnery school at Nellis Air Force Base, Nev.
In November 1953 he assumed duties as commander of the 51st Fighter-Interceptor Wing, Far East Air Forces, Korea.  In April 1957 General Davis arrived at Ramstein, Germany, as chief of staff, Twelfth Air Force, U.S. Air Forces in Europe.
In July 1961 he returned to the United States where he served as Deputy Chief of Staff for Programs and Requirements; and in February 1965 was assigned as assistant deputy chief of staff, programs and requirements. He remained in that position until his assignment as chief of staff for the United Nations Command and U.S. Forces in Korea in April 1965.  He assumed command of the Thirteenth Air Force at Clark Air Base in the Republic of the Philippines in August 1967.  General Davis was assigned as deputy commander in chief, U.S. Strike Command, with headquarters at MacDill Air Force Base, Fla., in August 1968.  On December 9, 1998, Benjamin Oliver Davis Jr.  was promoted to general  (4 star) , U.S. Air Force (retired).


The Tuskegee Airmen, World War II

P 51 red tail

The Tuskegee Airmen were a group of African-American military pilots who trained at the Tuskegee Army Air Field and were educated at Tuskegee University, located near Tuskegee, Alabama. The 99th Pursuit Squadron (later, 99th Fighter Squadron) was the first black flying squadron, and the first to deploy overseas (to North Africa in April 1943, and later to Sicily and Italy). The 332nd Fighter Group, which originally included the 100th, 301st and 302nd Fighter Squadrons, was the first black flying group. It deployed to Italy in early 1944. In June 1944, the 332nd Fighter Group began flying heavy bomber escort missions and, in July 1944, with the addition of the 99th Fighter Squadron, it had four fighter squadrons.  

The Tuskegee Airmen were the first African-American military aviators in the United States Armed Forces. During World War II, black Americans in many U.S. states were still subject to the Jim Crow laws and the American military was racially segregated, as was much of the federal government. The Tuskegee Airmen were subjected to discrimination, both within and outside the army.

 The 6888th Central Postal Directory Balion, World War II

The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion

Warehouses in Birmingham, England in early 1945 were filled with millions of pieces of mail for members of the U.S. military, U.S. Government personnel, and Red Cross workers. Airplane hangars with undelivered Christmas packages and a constant stream of incoming mail added to the massive backlog.  Many times the mail was addressed simply to “Junior, U.S. Army” or “Buster, U.S. Army.” The ever-changing locations added to the delivery confusion. With seven million Americans in the European Theater common names (7,500 were named Robert Smith) further complicated the situation. The lack of reliable mail delivery was hurting morale and the estimate was it would take six months to process the ever growing backlog. But who would take on this massive task?  Although there were personnel stationed at Birmingham to handle the mail, the system was in chaos.   First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt and civil rights leader Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune successfully advocated for the admittance of African-American women as enlisted personnel and officers in the WAC but as in the rest of the Army segregation prevailed.   This battalion was created and eventually designated as the 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion, nicknamed “Six Triple Eight.”  The battalion was trained for their overseas mission at Fort Oglethorpe, Georgia.   The 6888th Central Postal Directory Battalion produced great results with a new tracking system they created. The women processed an average of 65,000 pieces of mail per shift and cleared the six-month backlog of mail in three months. The women adhered to the motto of, “No mail, low morale,” thus providing essential support for the U.S. military in the European theater by linking service members to their loved ones back home. They achieved unprecedented success and efficiency in solving the military’s postal problems.


General Daniel “Chappie” James

First Black General Officer (fourth star) of the American Armed Forces

General Daniel James Jr

General Daniel “Chappie” James

After he pinned on his fourth star, Air Force Gen. Daniel James Jr. summed up his thoughts on his years of military service: "I've fought in three wars, and three more wouldn't be too many to defend my country. I love America, and as she has weaknesses or ills, I'll hold her hand."

Daniel James was born in Pensacola, Fla., on Feb. 11, 1920. He attended Tuskegee Institute and was one of the famed "Tuskegee Airmen."  In 1942, with the US already at war, he graduated from Tuskegee with a Bachelor of Science degree in physical education and a civilian pilot certification. He stayed on at Tuskegee as a flight instructor, entering the Army Air Corps Aviation Cadet program in January 1943.  James was commissioned a second lieutenant in the Army Air Corps the following July. He completed fighter pilot combat training at Selfridge Field, Mich., but was not sent overseas. Though many of the famed Tuskegee Airmen served with distinction overseas, James remained in the US as an instructor during World War II.

James left for Korea in July 1950. He experienced his first real dogfight while flying ground support in a P-51 Mustang, a prop aircraft, and was jumped by jet-powered MiGs. James later said he maneuvered around until US jets arrived for backup and that he thought he’d hit and damaged one MiG as it was leaving.  James flew 101 Korea combat missions in P-51s and F-80s. He transferred back to the US in July 1951, where he trained as an all-weather jet pilot with the 58th Fighter-Interceptor Squadron at Otis AFB, Mass. At this point, his career began to take off.

In the 1960's he was deputy commander for operations at Davis-Monthan Air Force Base in Tuscon,  Arizona with the 4453rd Combat Crew Training Wing.  Then he got the call to go to Thailand during the Vietnam War.   James flew 78 more combat missions in Southeast Asia as deputy commander for operations and later vice wing commander of the 8th Tactical Fighter Wing, Under the Command of Col Robin Olds.   Operation Bolo was perhaps the high point of Combat Air operations in Vietnam,  It was an aerial trap for North Vietnamese MiGs, which had been evading US fighter escorts and attacking heavily laden F-105 (Thunder Chief) fighter-bombers en route to targets in North Vietnam.

F4 C

F-4C Phantom II

OPERATION BOlO: The January 1967 operation began with a force of McDonnell-Douglas F-4C Phantom II in fighting an F-105 flight.  The F-4s used F-105 refueling altitudes, approach routes, impersonate airspeeds, radio call signs, and other distinctive indicators. For the first time, the F-4s were also equipped with ECM pods to deceive the enemy’s missile and flak acquisition and tracking radars.  Each flight of this deception force consisted of four F-4Cs and appearing right on time over Phuc Yen, northwest of Hanoi, at 3:00 p.m. local time.   No MiGs.  Unbeknownst to the F-4Cs, enemy ground control had delayed MiG takeoffs by 15 minutes due to overcast skies. Then Jame's group of four F-4s popped out of the clouds right on time. At that moment the MiGs appeared. What followed was a melee that might have been the greatest fighter battle of the Vietnam War.  Three MiGs immediately pounced on James’ flight. Two came from 10 o’clock high, one from 6 o’clock low. Rolling from a left bank to a steep right break, James was suddenly flying right next to his adversary, in what he later termed a strange encounter.  “For a split second, [he] was canopy-to-canopy with me.  I could clearly see the pilot and the bright red star markings,” James said in an after-action report. James barrel-rolled to gain separation for attack and fired one Sidewinder. It missed as the MiG broke hard left. But the North Vietnamese pilot had evaded James only to put himself in the flight path of Flight’s No. 2 aircraft.  A few more maneuvers, the No. 2 F-4C put a Sidewinder up the MiG’s tailpipe. When it was over, 12- F-4's had engaged 14 MiGs and scored seven confirmed victories, against no losses.

When he returned to the United States after his Vietnam assignment, he took command of the 7272nd Fighter Training Wing in the Libia in 1969.   On Sept. 1, 1975, he was promoted again, to the four-star grade, as commander of North American Aerospace Defense Command (NORAD), with operational command of all US and Canadian strategic aerospace defense forces.  He was the first African-American to wear four stars in any branch of the US military. James died of a heart attack on Feb. 25, 1978, less than a month after retiring from the service he loved.




U.S. Veterans Memorial Museum
2060A Airport Road • Huntsville AL 35801
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