As a retired professor at Fort Leavenworth’s U.S. Army Command and General Staff College, I am an avid student of United States history. Recently, I read a guest essay written by Tom Hanks in the Opinion section of The New York Times. In it, he shared his realization that even as a history buff, he had never learned about the terrible attack by a white mob on Tulsa, Oklahoma’s prosperous Black Wall Street neighborhood in 1921. I, too, had my own learning experience similar to Hanks’.
In the 1960s, while searching for a college essay topic, I came across the book “The Sable Arm: Black Troops in the Union Army, 1861-1865,” written by Dudley Taylor Cornish, a former World War II Army officer who commanded Black soldiers. The book was about African Americans who served in the Civil War. I was startled by its content. When I submitted my essay, the professor was as surprised as I to learn that a good number of Black regiments were in the Union Army, totaling 186,000 men and serving in all of the Army’s combat branches.
As the great-grandson of a Union soldier, my interest in the Civil War started at an early age, and only in passing did I see any mention of Black soldiers’ role in winning the war in my reading. Eventually, in graduate school I researched and wrote an article published in the magazine Civil War Times regarding the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, the first northern Black volunteer regiment to serve. This unit was the subject of the 1989 movie “Glory.” Later, I wrote and published a biography of George Luther Stearns, the man responsible for recruiting this regiment and 13 others composed mostly of former slaves.
In 1980, I returned to active duty and taught history at the Staff College at Fort Leavenworth. I mentioned my interest in Black military history to the public affairs officer, who placed me on his speakers list. My first lecture request was from a Black veterans organization whose members served in the 9th and 10th Cavalry — the Buffalo Soldiers. To my surprise, even these men had only a smattering of knowledge of their fellow Black service members’ heroic contributions to our nation’s defense, from the American Revolution to today’s conflicts.
Another request came from an Army recruiter in Houston, Texas, who wanted a speaker to address the military heritage of African Americans at seven inner-city high schools. When I questioned the young students there, they had little knowledge of the contributions of their fellow Black Americans, men and women, to the United States.
While in Houston, I received an invitation to speak to ROTC cadets at nearby Prairie View A&M University, a historically Black land-grant school. One student questioned his instructor about why I, a white officer, would be interested and knowledgeable in one aspect of Black history. His teacher replied, “Ask him.”
My answer was that American history, over the years, was written by white men and women, as racism and ignorance lurked in the background. I explained that I, too, was a victim of discrimination — not because of my skin color, but because of my religion. However, I could pass the color line and Black people cannot.
I believe all Americans should be aware that despite the long legacy of racism in this country, Black men and women have joined the armed forces when the need arose to protect our freedom and democracy, even though they have been denied their civil rights as citizens of the United States.
Charles E. Heller of Overland Park is a retired U.S. Army colonel and professor at the U.S. Army Command and General Staff College in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. He previously served at the Joint History Office at the Office of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff at the Pentagon in Washington, D.C.