Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything

Khalid Elhassan - February 23, 2024

The black struggle in the United States for freedom, equality, and basic human dignity, stretches back centuries and has taken various forms. There were the nonviolent protests of the Civil Rights Era. There was the armed resistance to those who sought to terrorize civil rights protesters. There was the decidedly violent resistance of escaped slaves who joined the British in the American Revolution to fight against their former masters. There were also sacrifices by blacks in the US military, who fought not only foreign enemies in the battlefield, but also the racism of many on their own side. Below are twenty two things about those and other instances of blacks in arms as they fought for freedom and equality.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Segregated water fountains, circa 1950, were separate but decidedly not equal. Pinterest

Segregated Lunch Counters

For decades, Blacks in the American South endured the disadvantages and humiliations of segregation. Their children were sent to severely underfunded schools, they were barred from many public accommodations, and were constantly subjected to discrimination. Businesses were happy to take their money, but were less than eager to treat them with the same respect extended to white customers. Few examples were starker than dining establishments. Blacks could order and pick up their food from a window or backdoor, but were barred from dinning rooms. In the late 1950s, concerted plans to challenge segregation through nonviolent protests were hatched. One of the most effective was the campaign of nonviolent sit-ins to desegregate the lunch counters of downtown Nashville’s business center.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Volunteers at a Nashville lunch counter sit-in. Mississippi Today

In 1958, civil rights activist James Lawson, who had studied nonviolent resistance while working as a missionary in India, organized workshops to teach anti-segregation nonviolent tactics. Blacks back then could shop in downtown stores, but could not eat in those stores’ lunch counters. So plans were made to bring about desegregation. Starting in late 1959, student volunteers made purchases at downtown stores, then sat at the lunch counters and ordered food. They were refused, eventually left, and returned at regular intervals to repeat the process. Early sit-ins attracted little media attention, until mid-February, 1960, when 124 volunteers ordered food from downtown stores lunch counters. Again they were refused, and after a few hours, they left without incident. The following week, Nashville’s black community joined the students in a city wide protest and boycott of stores that refused to serve black diners.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Pro-segregationists. Southern Education Foundation

Nashville’s Lunch Counter Sit-Ins

On February 18th, 1960, more than 200 student volunteers repeated the process, and this time, the lunch counters were immediately closed. Two days later, 350 volunteers staged another sit-in. White hecklers gathered, and violence was barely averted by police. On the 27th, a bigger sit-in occurred, and this time, the police were conspicuously absent. White segregationists headed to the stores, and violently attacked the black student volunteers. Some were beaten, others had cigarettes put out on their bare skins. When police eventually arrived, none of the white assailants were arrested. Eighty one black students, however, were charged with disorderly conduct and loitering. They were fined $50 each, but refused to pay the fines and opted to go to jail instead. More student volunteers stepped up, and mounted more sit-ins.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Volunteers attacked at a Nashville lunch counter sit-in. K-Pics

The arrests and trials finally led to intense media interest. As tensions mounted, Nashville’s mayor formed the Biracial Committee, comprised of local leaders. In April, it recommended that stores staff two lunch counters, one for blacks, and one for whites. The protesters declined to accept segregation, and insisted upon complete equality. On April 19th, a bomb was thrown into the house of a prominent civil rights activist. Rather than intimidate Nashville’s blacks, the bombing led to a mass rally, and even more national and international media attention. Finally, an agreement was reached to gradually desegregate the lunch counters. Integration began on May 10th, 1960, and brought with it an end to the sit-ins and boycott.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Cover of a French newspaper depicting the massacre of 25 blacks in a 1906 race riot in Atlanta, Georgia. Le Petit Journal

Disenfranchisement of Black Citizens

The above was part of a protracted struggle that stretched back centuries. After the Civil War, black citizens in much of the former Confederacy were able to vote, run for office, and get elected. However, the end of Reconstruction ushered in a concerted disenfranchisement campaign, relying mainly on poll taxes and discriminatory voter registration practices. By the 1890s, blacks were effectively eliminated from politics in the South. Disenfranchisement was backstopped by terror and violence, perpetrated by white police, and reinforced by white vigilantes such as the Ku Klux Klan. Blacks who tried to assert their rights or organize other blacks to assert their rights were seen as “troublemakers”. They were frequently beaten, mutilated, imprisoned, or lynched.

By the time the Civil Rights Movement began in the 1950s, the KKK had long preyed on Blacks with impunity. Collaboration between the Klan and police was pervasive and often open. Southern cops frequently denied civil rights activists police protection, and sometimes helped the KKK murder them. In 1964, for example, police in Philadelphia, Mississippi, detained three civil workers, then coordinated with the Klan to lynch them upon their release from jail. So during the 1950s and much of the 1960s, the Klan had free rein to terrorize and murder civil rights workers. The widespread violence prompted many activists to arm themselves for self-protection. Dr. Martin Luther King’s home had so many firearms, that visitors compared it to an arsenal. Since Southern police had demonstrated that black lives did not matter, armed black groups emerged for self-defense. Most notable among them were the Deacons For Defense and Justice.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
A white mob assaults a black journalist in Little Rock, Arkansas. The Guardian

Rise of Black Armed Resistance

1964’s “Freedom Summer” saw intensive efforts by volunteers to register black voters in the South. One organization, the Congress of Racial Equality (CORE) set up a Freedom House as a base for its volunteers in Jonesboro, Louisiana. In response, the local KKK harassed and attacked volunteers and blacks. It burned five black churches, a Baptist center, and a Masonic lodge. So some local black World War II and Korean War veterans founded a self-defense group. It aimed to protect civil rights workers and their families, and the black community in general. It was led by Earnest “Chilly Willy” Thomas, and Frederick Douglass Kirkpatrick, a Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC) activist and an ordained minister.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Deacons. Gat Daily

In a nod to the members’ religiosity, the group came to be known as the Deacons for Defense and Justice. Most were practicing Christians, and they aimed to serve their community in a Christian manner. The Deacons had strict membership requirements. They accepted only male citizens twenty one or older, preferably married, and with prior military experience. They rejected those with a reputation for “hotheadedness”, demanded discipline in the face of provocation, and a commitment to act only in self-defense. Their charter explained that the goal was “the defense of civil rights, property rights, and personal rights … by any and all honorable and legal means to the end that justice may be obtained“. Every Deacon had to pledge his life to the defense of justice, civil rights activists, and the people of their community.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
A black Patriot militiaman. National Park Service

When Enslaved Black People Had to Choose Between the British and the Patriots

The above struggle for equality in the 1900s had roots that stretched back centuries, to before America was even a country. Today, the struggle between Britain and American colonists is usually presented as a fight for liberty between tyranny and freedom. Which was true – from the perspective of white American Patriots. From the perspective of many colonists of African descent, it was more complicated. The side that actually offered them liberty and freedom from tyranny was not the Patriots, but the British. In 1775, Samuel Johnson summed up one of the greatest contradictions of the Patriots’ fight for freedom: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty from the drivers of Negros?” Many of the American colonists’ foremost advocates of liberty and equality owned hundreds of other humans.

Blacks fought for the Patriots in the war’s early battles of Lexington, Concord, and Bunker Hill. However, when George Washington assumed command, he was appalled to see blacks bearing arms. With slave uprisings a constant fear of slaveholders, the sight of armed discomfited plantation owners, such as the army’s new commander. So Washington forbade the recruitment of black soldiers, and eventually purged them from the Continental Army. It was only later, after his forces were drastically reduced by desertions and diseases, that Washington was forced to turn a blind eye to black soldiers. The British thought differently about arming blacks, and sought to turn the rebels’ slaves against them. In November, 1775, Virginia’s British governor, Lord Dunmore, offered slaves their freedom in exchange for service to the Crown.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Slaves being branded. Gauk Artifact

American Reaction to British Offers of Freedom to Their Slaves

The British offer of freedom to Black slaves who fled their Patriot masters struck slaveholders as monstrous. It convinced many of the undecided to side against Britain. The Declaration of Independence, despite the “All men are created equal” part, assails the British for offering slaves an opportunity to secure that equality. In 1779, General Henry Clinton, British commander in chief in America, went further and issued the Phillipsburgh Proclamation. It decreed that slaves who fled their rebel masters and made it to British lines were free. So bondsmen fled by the thousands, hoping to trade slavery under the Americans for freedom with the British. In South Carolina a quarter of the slave population – about 25,000 slaves – fled to the British. So did a quarter of Georgia’s slave population, and about 30,000 Virginia slaves. Many were caught, savagely punished by their masters, then returned to slavery.

Those who reached British territory, however, were free. During the war, over 100,000 slaves escaped bondage by making their way to freedom behind British lines. The freed slaves aided the British as laborers, guides, spies, and fighters. Many served courageously, sporting sashes that read “Liberty to Negroes” – freedom fighters in the most literal sense of the word. Unsurprisingly, many former slaves, after years of mistreatment and indignities, were eager to fight their former masters. In November, 1775, Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore’s issued a proclamation offering freedom to slaves in exchange for service to the Crown. Within weeks, hundreds of slaves fled their American owners and joined his troops in Norfolk. Hundreds more arrived each week, and as the number of runaways steadily grew, so did the fear and ire of slave owners.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Dunmore Ethiopian Regiment reenactor. Youth Virginia Regiment

Black Americans Fighting for Literal Freedom

Lord Dunmore’s proclamation did not win the British many hearts and minds amongst colonial whites. However, it won the hearts and minds of many colonial blacks. It also helped alleviate a severe manpower shortage that had confronted Virginia’s British governor by increasing his side’s manpower, and simultaneously reducing that available to rebellious colonists. With armed and hastily trained escaped slaves, Dunmore doubled his available forces within a few weeks. Unfortunately for him and his black recruits, diseases – particularly typhoid and smallpox – swept the escaped slaves. The standards of medical care and sanitation in those days were generally low even in ideal conditions. Conditions in the camps hastily thrown up for the new recruits were far from ideal. Epidemics swept the runaways’ camps, killed them off almost as fast as they were assembled, and prevented Dunmore from raising the vast slave armies he had envisioned.

Nonetheless, the survivors were assembled in what came to be known as Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment, led by white officers and sergeants. On November 15th, 1775, the new soldiers got their first taste of combat in the small scale Battle of Kemp’s Landing. It was a victory over colonial militia, in which a militia colonel was captured by a former slave fighting for the British. The easy victory made Dunmore overconfident, and convinced him that the Patriots were cowards. A few weeks later, on December 9th, 1775, the Ethiopian Regiment fought in the Battle of Great Bridge. The British were tricked by a double agent to make a frontal assault across a bridge, and were decisively repulsed. The Patriot victory compelled the British to evacuate Norfolk.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Members of Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment

Black Soldiers/Citizens on Both Sides of the American Revolution

As British prospects in Virginia collapsed, Lord Dunmore disbanded the Ethiopian Regiment in 1776. Many of its members joined other units, particularly the Black Pioneers, in New York. Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment marked a significant step in British policy, as its members were the first of thousands who fought for the British during the war. The recruitment of black soldiers by the British also led the Continental Congress to override George Washington’s wishes to keep blacks out of the Continental Army. In 1777, Congress restored the eligibility of blacks to serve in Continental forces – which Washington had rescinded in 1775.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
A Black Loyalist. Tumblr

In the Carolinas, British General Henry Clinton was joined by 71 runaway slaves, whom he formed into a company named the Black Pioneers. Clinton placed a Royal Marine lieutenant in charge, assisted by white subalterns and black noncommissioned officers. He ordered that the men be treated with respect and decency, and that they be adequately clothed and fed. He also promised the runaways emancipation at the end of the war. Clinton’s North Carolina expedition ended in failure. Nonetheless, he took the Black Pioneers with him when he sailed to New York City, where they participated in its capture in 1776. Later that year, Clinton was ordered to take Newport, Rhode Island, and the Black Pioneers were the only provincial unit that accompanied his British regulars.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Lord Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment reenactor. Youth Virginia Regiment

The Black Pioneers

From Rhode Island, the Black Pioneers were dispatched back to New York, and thence to Philadelphia, which fell to the British in 1777. In 1777, Clinton’s runaways became the nucleus of the Black Loyalist Company – a noncombatant force to replace the disbanded Ethiopian Regiment. In 1778, the company was merged into the Guides and Pioneers in New York, and given the name the Black Pioneers and Guides. As Pioneers, the new unit’s soldiers performed military engineering, fortification, and construction tasks. As Guides, they served as scouts and raiders. The Black Pioneers were not treated as a standard regiment, but were instead parceled out in small units – typically of about 30 men each – that were attached to British armies.

They scouted, raided, and performed military engineering tasks. In their role as engineers, they were not a combat unit, but they were often called upon to work under heavy fire to dig and shore up entrenchments and fortifications. In 1779, Clinton sailed to besiege Charleston, South Carolina, and took the Black Pioneers with him. They performed vital military engineering tasks that contributed to the city’s fall. The company then returned with Clinton to New York, where they remained until the end of the war. The Black Pioneers were one of the last provincial units in New York, and accompanied the British when they evacuated the city in 1783.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
An advertisement placed by Titus Cornelius’s master, offering a reward for his return. Wikimedia

The Origins of Colonel Tye

Titus Cornelius, better known as Colonel Tye, was born a slave around 1753 in Monmouth County, New Jersey. He toiled in the farm of a Quaker named John Corlis, who parted company with his denomination’s opposition to slavery. The few Quakers who owned slaves often taught their bondsmen how to read and write, then freed them at age twenty one. Not so Titus’ master, who not only refused to educate his slaves, but was cruel to boot. Slavery was gradually declining in New Jersey, and Titus’ master was one of Monmouth County’s last few slaveholders. Titus was routinely whipped for trifles, and witnessed other slaves endure the same treatment from Corlis. When Titus reached age twenty one, the age when most masters in the region typically freed their slaves, it became clear that Corlis did not plan to free him.

So Titus ran away in 1775 and freed himself. Fortuitously, he fled one day after Virginia’s governor, Lord Dunmore, had issued a proclamation offering freedom to all slaves who escaped their American masters to serve the British. So Titus made his way to the Virginia, where the new freedman changed his name to Tye. He settled in Williamsburg, Virginia, and eventually enlisted in Dunmore’s Ethiopian Regiment. He took to his new life under arms like a fish to water, and distinguished himself. The fortunes of war eventually returned Tye to New Jersey and the birthplace where he had been enslaved, Monmouth County, as a freedman under arms in British service. There, he would distinguish himself, and earn his place in history as Colonel Tye.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Colonel Tye, as depicted in a documentary. PBS

A Black Resistance Leader in New Jersey

Tye returned to New Jersey armed and eager to fight. In his first combat experience, the Battle of Monmouth, June 28th, 1778, Tye captured a Patriot captain of the Monmouth militia, and returned with his captive to British held New York City. Having grown up in Monmouth County, Tye had intimate knowledge of the local geography. That made him well-suited to the guerrilla warfare that wracked the region. While the Redcoats and the Continental Army fought each other in pitched battles, a nasty civil was simultaneously being fought between Loyalist and Patriot militias and armed bands throughout much of the colonies. Such guerrilla warfare was intense in New Jersey, a border region between the British stronghold in New York, and the Patriot capital in Philadelphia.

In Monmouth County, things got particularly vicious when Patriot vigilantes began to hang Loyalists and confiscate their property. That prompted William Franklin, New Jersey’s Loyalist governor despite being Benjamin Franklin’s son, to sponsor Loyalists in fighting fire with fire. In July, 1779, Tye led a racially integrated Loyalist guerrilla group in a daring raid on Shrewsbury, NJ, in Patriot territory. They captured dozens of cattle, horses, as well as two prominent local Patriots. Tye and his men eventually set up a base that they named Refugeetown in Sandy Hook, at the northern end of the Jersey Shore. From there, they conducted nighttime raids that targeted prominent and wealthy local Patriots, particularly slaveholders.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
A Black Loyalist in the American Revolution. Canadian Encyclopedia

The Black Brigade

Colonel Tye proved a successful guerrilla leader in the summer of 1779. He led his men in a hit and run campaign that terrorized and enraged the local Patriots, seized food and provisions, destroyed property, and freed numerous slaves. It was during this period that Tye became known as Colonel Tye – an honorific bestowed upon him by the British, albeit not an actual rank. In the winter of 1779 Colonel Tye, having distinguished himself in combat, joined the Black Brigade – a unit of about two dozen black Loyalists. They fought alongside the Queen’s Rangers – a white Loyalist unit that was eventually integrated by incorporating into its ranks the Black Brigade, and black Loyalists from some other units.

By 1779, the war in the northern colonies had entered a stalemate. Units such as the Queen’s Rangers and the Black Brigade fought to defend the Loyalist stronghold in New York, while the British shifted their military focus to the southern colonies. The Black Brigade continued to raid Patriot held territory in Monmouth County and the surrounding region. In addition to arming Tye and his men, the British paid them bonuses in gold for successful operations. The Black Brigade rustled cattle and other livestock, then drove it across British lines to feed Loyalist forces. Additionally, they seized valuables, and captured prominent Patriots, whom they took to New York as prisoners. One type of raiding for which Tye and his men needed little encouragement or financial reward was that against slave owners.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
A freed slave fighting for the British in the American Revolution. Pinterest

A War Within a War – Patriots vs Black Loyalists in Monmouth County, NJ

The Black Brigade fell upon slaveholders with a will. Especially the farms and holdings of brigade members’ former masters. They freed numerous slaves, or otherwise facilitated their escape into freedom behind British lines. Tye and his men were particularly dreaded by their foes. As rumors flew that the Black Brigade planned to lead blacks in massacring whites in various parts of New Jersey, many Patriots were gripped by panic. As one commented: “The worst is to be feared from the irregular troops whom the so-called Tories have assembled from various nationalities- for example, a regiment of Catholics, a regiment of Negroes, who are fitted for and inclined towards barbarities, are lack in human feeling and are familiar with every corner of the country“.

Fearful Patriots in Monmouth County set up an Association of Retaliation, and persuaded the Patriot governor to declare martial law. In early 1780, the Black Brigade’s raids increased in both frequency and intensity, as the fighting between Patriots and Loyalists descended into a cycle of tit-for-tat killings. In September, 1780, Tye led a raid against a particularly vicious Patriot militia leader named Joshua Huddy, infamous for habitually executing Loyalist prisoners. The raiders captured Huddy, but he was then freed in a surprise Patriot counterattack. In the melee, Tye was shot in the wrist – a minor injury in of itself, but one which soon became infected. He died of gangrene and tetanus a few days later.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
The capture of Patriot militia leader Joshua Huddy. Wikimedia

The Black Brigade Leader Who Founded a Town in Canada

Stephen Blucke (circa 1752 – circa 1795) took over the Black Brigade after Colonel Tye’s death in 1780, and successfully led it through the end of the war. Born in Barbados to a white father and a black mother sometime around 1752, he eventually arrived in Britain’s American Colonies. There, he married a woman named Margaret, and the couple adopted a daughter, Isabel. When the Revolutionary War erupted, Blucke was swayed by British promises to free all negroes who voluntarily joined them. He joined the Black Brigade in the late 1770s, and distinguished himself in its ranks. In 1782, he led the unit after the death of its leader, Colonel Tye. On March 24th, 1782, Blucke and his men completed Tye’s final (and failed) mission, and took part in the capture of Joshua Huddy.

The Loyalists finally avenged themselves on Huddy by hanging him in the Navesink Highlands in Monmouth County, NJ, on April 12th, 1782. After the war, Blucke joined the exodus of Loyalists, and ended up in Nova Scotia. There, in 1784, the governor commissioned him a lieutenant colonel in the province’s black militia. Blucke was also directed to scout for land in which to settle fellow Black Loyalists, and decided on Birchtown. There, he built himself a comfortable and spacious home, and took up a career as a schoolmaster. Then, one night, he simply disappeared. It was speculated at the time that he must have been killed by wild animals, as torn clothes resembling his were found in the town’s outskirts.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Thomas Peters. Wikimedia

From Enslaved, to American Revolution Warrior, to Founding Father of a Country

Thomas Peters was a Yoruba born in today’s Nigeria, circa 1732. He was captured by slavers and transported across the Atlantic, where he was sold in then-French Louisiana. After three escape attempts, he was sold to a North Carolinian, who took him to work in his flour mill near Wilmington, NC. In 1776, Peters fled his master, made it to British lines, and enlisted in the Black Pioneers. He distinguished himself in combat, was twice wounded in battle, and rose to the rank of sergeant. After the war, he was among the thousands of Black Loyalists transported by the Royal Navy to Nova Scotia. There, he settled with his family in Annapolis Royal. He became a recognized leader of Nova Scotia’s black communities, representing their concerns to provincial authorities.

Peters met and befriended abolitionist Granville Sharpe, who advocated the resettlement of freed blacks in Africa. In 1791, Peters travelled to London, where he lobbied the government and helped convince it to establish a colony for the resettlement of Black Loyalists in Sierra Leone. He then returned to Nova Scotia, where he convinced over a thousand blacks to sail across the Atlantic to what became Freetown, Sierra Leone. It was no easy task to adjust to the new settlement. Diseases and the climate took their toll on the settlers while they adapted to local conditions. Many felt duped, and blamed Peters, who lost much of his influence with the settlers. Soon thereafter, he was accused of theft, and a resentful black jury convicted him – an inglorious end to an eventful life. Today, he is honored in Sierra Leone as one of that country’s founding fathers.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
The Treaty of Paris, 1783, ended the American Revolution. History Network

Escaped Slaves After the American Revolution

In October, 1781, an allied Franco-American force trapped, besieged, and forced the surrender of General Cornwallis’ British army at Yorktown. It was the war’s final major pitched battle, as the British, exhausted by years of fruitless fighting and the mounting costs in blood and treasure, threw in the towel. Defeat at Yorktown led to the fall of the pro-war government in London, and its replacement with one that sued for peace. From the Black Loyalists’ perspective, that was terrible news. It meant that the side that had offered them freedom had lost, and their former masters had prevailed.

Thousands of slaves-turned-freedom-fighters found themselves bottled up with the British in enclaves such as Charleston and New York, unsure whether the Crown would honor its promises to them. They had good reason to worry: American negotiators had added a last minute clause to the 1783 Treaty of Paris, forbidding the British from “carrying away” American property. That “property” included runaway slaves who had fought for the British. After the war ended with the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the fate of the Black Loyalist escaped slaves became a bone of contention between the Patriots and British military commanders.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
George Washington entering New York City – he got the city, but not the escaped slaves. Heritage Auctions

Many Black Loyalists Finally Found Freedom in Canada

Per the terms of the Treaty of Paris, Britain was bound to deliver escaped slaves to their former masters. However, British soldiers on the ground refused to betray their former comrades in arms. In addition to basic decency and honor, the contest over the fate of the escaped slaves offered the British an opportunity to demonstrate moral superiority over the victorious Patriots. As the British commander in South Carolina put it: “those who have voluntarily come in under the faith of our protection, cannot in justice be abandoned to the merciless resentment of their former masters“.

The British commander in chief concurred, and directed that: “such that have been promised their freedom, to have it“. That incensed George Washington, and it was touch and go for a while whether hostilities would erupt anew over the issue. The British in New York finally resolved the issue, to the slave owners’ ire, by issuing thousands of “Certificates of Freedom” to Black Loyalists. The documents entitled their bearers to decamp to British colonies such as Nova Scotia “or wherever else He/ She may think proper.” In South Carolina, the British also honored their commitment to Black Loyalists, and took them with them when they evacuated the state.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
The first class of Tuskegee Airmen, 1941. Wikimedia

Black Americans in the Military

During World War I, Black Americans sought to contribute to aerial efforts but faced rejection from their own country’s military forces. Individuals like Eugene Bullard turned to France for opportunities in aviation after being denied by American forces. The exclusion of Black Americans from US military aviation persisted until 1939 when congressional action under pressure from civil rights groups mandated the training of black flyers. However, progress was slow, and it wasn’t until 1941 that the 99th Pursuit Squadron, an all-black unit, was established in Tuskegee, Alabama. By March 1942, the first class of five black fighter pilots graduated, including Benjamin O. Davis, Jr., who became the first black officer to solo an Army Air Corps plane.

Despite the establishment of the 99th Pursuit Squadron, the path for black aviators was fraught with obstacles. Many remained without assignments, and plans for their deployment were often delayed or resisted. General Henry “Hap” Arnold, commander of the US Army Air Forces, expressed reluctance to integrate black officers into operational roles, citing social tensions. It took sustained pressure from civil rights groups, media, and the intervention of President Roosevelt before the military relented, declaring the 99th combat-ready in April 1943.

Lesser Known Civil Rights Moments That Changed Everything
Tuskegee airmen at an American airbase after a mission. Wikimedia

Tuskegee Airmen

Deployed to North Africa, the 99th Pursuit Squadron engaged in combat missions, including Operation Corkscrew, which resulted in the surrender of Pantelleria due to relentless aerial assaults. Despite their success, the unit faced unjust criticism from some quarters. However, an investigation vindicated their performance, leading to the award of a Distinguished Unit Citation. The squadron played pivotal roles in subsequent campaigns, including Operation Husky in Sicily and supporting the US 5th Army during critical operations in Italy.

The Tuskegee Airmen, as they became known, transitioned to flying P-51 Mustangs and distinguished themselves as elite fighter pilots. They escorted heavy bombers on strategic raids across Europe, facing intense aerial combat. Notably, during a mission over Berlin in March 1945, they engaged and successfully downed German Me 262 jet fighters, earning another Distinguished Unit Citation. The Tuskegee Airmen’s combat record was impressive, flying numerous missions with notable success, despite facing racism and discrimination. Their valor and skill paved the way for the integration of the United States Air Force, leaving a lasting legacy of excellence and breaking barriers for future generations.


Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading

Air Power History, Vol. 57, No. 3 (Fall 2010) – The Tuskegee Airmen in Combat

American Revolution Org – The Revolution’s Black Soldiers

Black Past – Deacons For Defense and Justice

Black Then – Stephen Blucke: Black Loyalist and Birchtown Founder

Bright Hub Education – Famous African Americans of the Revolutionary War

Broadnax, Samuel L. – Blue Skies, Black Wings: African American Pioneers of Aviation (2007)

Brown, Wallace – The Good Americans: The Loyalists in the American Revolution (1969)

Canada’s Digital Collections – The Black Pioneers

Cobb, Charles E. – This Nonviolent Stuff’ll Get You Killed: How Guns Made the Civil Rights Movement Possible (2015)

Daily Beast – The Nonviolent Sit-Ins That Desegregated Nashville’s Lunch Counters

Egerton, Douglas R. – Death or Liberty: African Americans and Revolutionary America (2009)

Encyclopedia Britannica – Tuskegee Airmen

Face 2 Face Africa – The Deacons; the Black Armed Christians Who Protected MLK, Civil Rights Supporters Before Black Panthers

Francis, Charles E. – The Tuskegee Airmen: The Men Who Changed a Nation (1997)

History Collection – Wildly Bizarre Decisions That Shaped Early America

Horne, Gerald – The Counter Revolution of 1776: Slave Resistance and the Origins of the United States of America (2014)

Moye, Todd J. – Freedom Flyers: The Tuskegee Airmen of WWII (2010)

Nalty, Bernard C. – Strength for the Fight: A History of Black Americans in the Military (1989)

Online Institute For Advanced Loyalist Studies – A History of the Black Pioneers

Parks Canada – Thomas Peters

Schama, Simon – Rough Crossings: Britain, the Slaves and the American Revolution (2006)

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum – Black Wings: African American Pioneer Aviators

Vivian, Cordy Tindell – It’s in the Action: Memories of a Nonviolent Warrior (2021)