Records obtained by an American photographer, explorer and emergency physician, Jeff Gusky, reveal how some African-American soldiers in the U.S. army were discriminated against and segregated in what experts have termed as institutional racism.
This incriminating revelation came a day before Americans celebrated this year’s Veteran Day on November 11. Gusky accuses the American army of segregating black soldiers serving in the 371st Infantry Regiment – a military squad belonging to the 93rd Infantry Division that served in World War I.
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The unit, which was largely made up of poor African American laborers from the then racially segregated South Carolina, was highly decorated, receiving numerous accolades including the Legion d’honneur.
Although the squad was transferred into the French command upon its arrival in France, Gusky argues that the American army, which formed it, refused to give the black soldiers their well-deserved Medals of Honor because it considered them less American.
Gusky cites the case of one of the members of the 371st regiment, Private Burton Holmes, who was badly injured during an assault on a ridge in Champagne, eastern France. Even with fatal injuries, Holmes returned to base to re-arm and continued fighting until he was overpowered and killed in the battlefield.
Because of his heroic actions and commitment to the cause, Holmes was recommended for a Medal of Honor but it was unduly downgraded to a lesser award. Gusky argues that the decision to deny Holmes a medal “was down to institutional racism”.
A colleague of Holmes, Freddie Stowers, was also recommended for the Medal of Honor but his documents were misplaced for decades only to be found 73 years after he died.
Veteran organizations and campaigners are now calling on the U.S. army to recognize the entire 371st Infantry Regiment. They also want Holmes’s case reviewed and a comprehensive explanation given as to why he was denied the medal.
“I think the burden is on the present day U.S. army to tell us why he [Holmes] wouldn’t deserve the Medal of Honor,” Gusky was quoted by Reuters.
Most of the soldiers were buried in Ardeuil et Montfauxelles, a small village in eastern France, with most of their graves now rundown. Discrimination of African Americans serving in the U.S. military dates back to its creation during the Revolutionary War.
And although records show that the segregation officially ended in 1948 during President Harry S. Truman’s Executive Order 9981, racial disparities still persist, with some reports indicating that black service members are more likely to face military justice and disciplinary action than their white colleagues.