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By Carrie Steinweg
LANSING, Ill. (March 7, 2022) – February’s Lansing Historical Society meeting featured Historian Art Burton in a joint program sponsored by the Historical Society and the Lansing Public Library. On the last day of Black History Month, the topic was one not always talked about — the contributions of Black soldiers during World War I and World War II.
Expert in African American history
Art Burton is a retired college professor who taught history at Prairie State College and South Suburban College and worked as an administrator in African American Affairs at Benedictine University, Loyola University Chicago, and Columbia College Chicago. His career in higher education spanned 38 years. He earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in African American Studies from Governors State University.
Having fallen in love with the wild west as a young man, Burton has studied early law enforcement of the west in the late 1800s. He’s the author of four books: Cherokee Bill: Black Cowboy-Indian Outlaw; Black, Red and Deadly, also about Cherokee Bill; Black, Buckskin and Blue, which looks at African Americans who were scouts and soldiers on the U.S. western frontier during the 19th and 20th centuries; and Black Gun, Silver Star about Deputy U.S. Marshal Bass Reeves and his impact as one of the most feared lawmen of the era.
Learning through personal history
The program at the Lansing Library centered on the little-known stories of Black soldiers during World War I and II — and relied not only on Burton’s research, but on conversations with those who had served, including his own family members.
Burton had uncles who had served during World War II, including one who participated in the D-Day invasion. One uncle was an early Black paratrooper who didn’t serve in combat, but fought forest fires.
Burton also recalled a high school teacher who he later learned had served in an all-Black artillery at the Battle of the Bulge, and a pastor who served with the 761st Battalion, the first Black tank battalion. Burton’s father-in-law was a member of the Red Ball Express, a convoy system that suppled Allied forces that was staffed primarily by Black soldiers and carried 12,500 tons of supplies a day.
World War I
During his presentation, Burton showed slides with surprising statistics as he addressed about 40 audience members from the library’s stage.
Over 700,000 Black men had registered to serve in the military in 1917, he said. According to the National Archives, many of the Black soldiers who enlisted or were drafted were placed in non-combative support roles with the Services of Supply section of the American Expeditionary Forces.
Burton recognized the Harlem Hellfighters of the 369th Infantry Regiment, saying, “They made the furthest advancement of any other at the end of the war,” he said.
Burton explained how these African American soldiers weren’t permitted to fight alongside the white American soldiers: “Instead, they were relegated to labor service until they were assigned to the French Army. They wouldn’t let them serve with the U.S. military and they wore French uniforms.”
Burton touched on the the valiant service of Pvt. Henry Johnson, who was the first American to receive the French Croix de Guerre medal, and posthumously received the Medal of Honor from President Obama in 2015. He also touched on the 8th Illinois National Guard, which became the 370th Infantry Regiment. It was given the name “Black Devils” by the German army. These soldiers were also assigned to the French Army, but what set the regiment apart was that it wasn’t led by white officers. The 370th Infantry was an entirely Black unit.
Burton encouraged those in the audience to visit Victory Monument in Chicago. The statue, located at 35th & King Drive, was erected in 1927 and is dedicated to the Black veterans of Illinois who served in World War I.
World War II
Moving to WWII, Burton explained that much of the history of Black service is not well known.
He spoke of Third Class cook Doris Miller on the Battleship West Virginia, who manned anti-aircraft guns on the ship as Japanese torpedoes hit it during the attack on Pearl Harbor. Miller was officially credited with shooting down two Japanese airplanes, although witnesses place the count higher. He received the Navy Cross for Valor, the Purple Heart, and the Combat Action Ribbon. He survived the Pearl Harbor attack, but was later killed in the line of duty in November of 1942. Burton talked of brief scenes in Hollywood movies about Pearl Harbor paying homage to Miller and about the announcement of construction of an upcoming aircraft carrier that will be named the USS Doris Miller, scheduled to be commissioned in 2032.
The fight for equal treatment of Black soldiers in military service continued throughout the war, Burton said.
A. Phillip Randolph, a Black leader in the Chicago area who worked as a Pullman Porter, organized a march in 1941 in Washington, D.C., to open the military and defense industry to African Americans. Black soldiers at that point were still barred from serving in the U.S. Marine Corps, Burton said.
Following the march, President Roosevelt signed an executive order prohibiting racial discrimination in the defense industry or the U.S. government. Despite the order, Black individuals still faced discrimination in the military. Although they were permitted to serve in all branches, there were still limitations.
Recruitment of African American Marines opened on June 1, 1942. By 1944, 18,000 Black Marines were serving. The first Black tank battalion, the 761st, was known as the Black Panthers. The 761st landed on Omaha Beach with 676 Black enlisted men attached to the 26th Infantry Division, Burton explained.
Burton pointed out that the Black Panther’s most famous member was Jackie Robinson, who later broke the color barrier in baseball when he signed with the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1947. Robinson didn’t see combat with his comrades, however, because he was transferred after refusing to move to the back of a segregated military bus at Fort Hood.
Burton also touched on the role females played in the U.S. military during World War II, including Black females of the Women’s Army Corp (WAC) and Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service (WAVES), who served primarily as nurses and in clerical roles.
Burton also spoke of the Tuskegee Airmen, which were the subject of the 2012 movie Red Tails. The men were trained as the first Black military pilots, serving with the 99th Pursuit Squadron.
Reaction to the program
The program left attendees with a better idea of the exclusion and injustice that Black men and women faced in their quest to serve their country, the segregation that continued as they served, and the heroism that was displayed despite the many obstacles, blatant racism, and oppression.
“It was very informative. It makes you think twice. I feel like I want to go back and re-read American history,” said Village Trustee Micaela Smith. “I feel like I missed a big portion, and I feel like people don’t know about it. It makes me want to do more digging.”
Sharon Murphy, a former teacher, said that she gained a lot of knowledge from attending and wish there’d been more people there to hear Burton’s presentation: “He was a good speaker, and to me, it brought these people to life when he spoke about them,” she said.
“The main thing I hope that people take away from this is that African Americans played a part in winning the war and were an integral part of the Army and Navy,” Burton said. “They don’t get recognition, so including them in this discussion is very important.”
For more information on Burton and his work, visit artburton.com.
The Lansing Historical Society is located in the basement of the Lansing Public Library at 2750 Indiana Avenue.
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- Lansing History: What’s that house behind Subway? (February 12, 2022)
- Illiana students continue Black History Month observance (April 17, 2018)