For Black Patriots, a Past of Pride and Prejudice


As a young girl during World War II, Gail Buckley tended to the radishes in her victory garden, learned the hymn of every branch of the U.S. armed forces and dreamed of being a hero. But despite growing up in the relative privilege of Hollywood as the daughter of singer Lena Horne, she soon learned that black patriots were rarely recognized in America.

More than half a century later, Buckley is shining a light onto this area of historical neglect with a comprehensive work filled with the names and military deeds of African Americans. Her book, "American Patriots: The Story of Blacks in the Military From the Revolution to Desert Storm" (Random House, 2001), chronicles the glory and the shame of soldiers doing battle for a country that for most of its history denied them basic rights and dignities.

"I really didn't know what I was going to find when I started," said Buckley, a longtime New Yorker in Los Angeles last week to promote the book. "But immediately I discovered great stuff. In the Revolution, I never knew there were blacks at Lexington, Concord, Bunker Hill and Valley Forge."

Her research into subsequent American wars turned up many other little-known gems. Among them:

* In the last two years of the Civil War, blacks fought in 449 engagements, 39 of which were major battles. The first Union troops to ride into Richmond were the black 5th Massachusetts Cavalry. By the end of the war, blacks made up more than 10% of the Union Army.

* In World War I, Sgt. Henry Johnson became the first enlisted American to win the Croix de Guerre (and eventually the Congressional Medal of Honor) for being one of two American soldiers who repelled a German raiding party in France. Armed only with a few hand grenades, a rifle and a knife, Johnson killed four Germans and wounded 22 more.

* In World War II, the all-black 761st Tank Battalion spearheaded attacks on the key German defenses known as the Siegfried Line, paved the way for a successful crossing of the Rhine River and in one five-week period took 106,926 prisoners and helped liberate the Gunskirchen concentration camp in Austria.

Buckley's book, built on 14 years of research and interviews with black veterans, has won praise from historians, some of whom provided book-jacket blurbs: "Gail Buckley tells it well," wrote Stephen Ambrose, often credited with fueling the latest explosion of interest in World War II. "She has done the research, done the interviews, read the literature, thought about her subject, and knows how to write, how to engage her reader." Added Arthur Schlesinger Jr., one of the nation's senior historians: "American Patriots is a noble work of recovered memory."

A journalist who has authored a previous book (the bestselling "The Hornes: An American Family"), she has written for the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and Vogue. Although Buckley lived in L.A. as a child, she grew up mostly in New York City and graduated from Radcliffe College. She was married to film director Sidney Lumet (with whom she has two grown daughters).

"Whatever I do next, it won't take 14 years," joked Buckley, now married to journalist Kevin Buckley, who covered the Vietnam War for Newsweek. And, she says, it might be fiction.

Her new book is sharply critical of America's demeaning treatment of its black soldiers, who endured lower pay than white soldiers, substandard housing and training, a dearth of black officers, and, in Vietnam, were disproportionately represented in combat areas.

Almost every war fired black hopes for equal treatment, but those hopes almost always were crushed by the realities of racism at home by war's end.

"Blacks have been fighting the dragons of racism since the country began," said Buckley.

But Buckley, who counts Thomas Paine and Abraham Lincoln among her heroes, takes pains to avoid demonizing whites and makes a point of highlighting those who stood by blacks, sometimes at great personal risk.

One remarkable example is Nelson Mitchell, a white Charleston attorney, who defended free of charge the captured black soldiers from the Massachusetts 54th Regiment (the unit portrayed in the movie "Glory") and forced a Confederate court to recognize the men as U.S. soldiers.

"There are so many white villains," she said. "But there were also white heroes, people who said all along that blacks should be soldiers, should be officers, should be treated as anyone else."

Indeed, Buckley adds her voice to a recent chorus that credits the Army with an amazing triumph over its racial prejudices. Where once the service was one of the nation's most racist institutions, today it stands as a relative bastion of equality and tolerance. In fact, the Army is probably the only American institution where blacks routinely boss around whites.

No one illustrates the rise of the black soldier better than Secretary of State Colin Powell, who began his Army career in the jungles of Vietnam and eventually oversaw much of the battle plan--as chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff--of the Gulf War.

Given the composition of the Army's ranks, Powell will probably not be the last black person to reach its highest level of command either. In 2000, blacks represented about 12% of the population and also made up 29% of the Army's enlisted, 36% of its noncommissioned officers, 12% of its commissioned officers and 8% of its generals.

But for most of its history--until the 1980s or so--inequality was the way of the armed forces. Buckley's research into this does the most in answering the question: Why did blacks fight for freedoms elsewhere that were refused them at home?

Whether it was Lt. Henry Flipper, the first black graduate of West Point in 1877 or Pvt. William H. Thompson, who became the first GI to win the Medal of Honor in Korea for protecting his retreating company, Buckley argues that military service was "a way for blacks to say, 'This is my country,' which it was, of course."

And, in addition to the often false hope that service would translate into increased civil rights, Buckley contends that by soldiering, blacks were "trying to make the country live up to its best ideals of itself."

"They were real patriots," said Buckley. "These soldiers loved their country so much, and loved what their country stood for, despite what their country was doing at the time."

Buckley has taken some minor knocks. A New York Times reviewer, while praising it overall, took the book to task for glossing over the role of black soldiers in America's westward expansion. In particular, the reviewer found Buckley's narrative about the destruction of the American Indian cavalier.

Buckley wrote that the movement "entailed the elimination of anything that stood in the way of progress, from indigenous flora and fauna to indigenous people." In her defense, Buckley said her book makes clear that the mentality of the so-called "Buffalo" soldiers was the same of white soldiers at the time: "Wipe out the American Indian."

Further, she said, in her original version of the book, the word "progress" appeared in quotation marks, but an editor felt Buckley overused the device and thought it slowed down the reader. "I didn't fight hard enough for that one," she acknowledged.

Buckley also has been chided for overusing material about her family (including photos) in a book that presents itself as history. While attention to her relatives can be distracting at times, it does yield interesting anecdotes.

In 1944, her mother, who frequently entertained troops, was set to perform at Camp Robertson in Arkansas. Horne noticed three rows of white soldiers sitting in the front of black American soldiers. "Who are those white soldiers?" she asked.

"German prisoners of war," came the response. (They were among the tens of thousands of captured German soldiers held on U.S. soil during the war.) Horne refused to sing and was kicked out of the USO.

"That kind of thing happened all over America then," said Buckley. "Black GIs couldn't eat at restaurants that German or Italian POWs could. But we're a long way from that. The Army of today, she said, "has solved its race problems ... more or less."..."

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