Katie Peterson | Staff Writer
The activism of African-American soldiers since the Revolutionary War was the focus of Dr. Amanda Nagel’s presentation Feb. 22 during a monthly virtual event sponsored by the National World War I Museum and Memorial in Kansas City, Mo.
To adhere to COVID-19 precautions, the event was presented live via videoteleconference and the museum’s Facebook page.
Nagel, who is an assistant professor of Military History at the School of Advanced Military Studies, said the history of African-American soldiers was a topic she first became interested in nearly 20 years ago during her undergraduate studies and was a topic that she continued to research through graduate school, eventually leading to the completion of her doctoral dissertation in 2014.
“It was just me reading stuff in graduate school, being exposed to new topics, new ideas,” Nagel said. “It just became something that I continued to look at while I was in grad school. But not a whole lot of it made it into my dissertation.
“Now that I’m working on turning it into a book, I’m going back, and I’m trying to find and tie up any loose ends that I had from the dissertation,” she said. “As I keep researching and writing and looking, these are some of the things that I’ve found.”
Nagel highlighted her research during the presentation focusing on the development of African- American soldier activism from the Revolutionary War through post-World War I through modern day, as well as the support of the efforts from organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. She spoke about the 1st Rhode Island Regiment, a mixture of free and enslaved Black men, and the Newburgh Conspiracy at the time of the Revolutionary War; the fight for equal pay among the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Infantry Regiments during the Civil War; the fight to reinforce military rank and hierarchy at the turn of the century; the creation of the NAACP; the all-Black 92nd and 93rd Infantry Divisions during World War I; the continual fight for equal treatment of Black veterans following the war and more.
Nagel also mentioned significant figures in the fight over the years including Chaplain (Capt.) Theophilus G. Steward, 25th Infantry Regiment; W.E.B. Du Bois, civil rights activist and author; Joel Springarn, NAACP chairman; and Charles Hamilton Houston, a World War I soldier, lawyer, educator and eventual mentor of Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall.
Nagel said there were many points she was intending to make in her discussion, but more than anything she wanted to remind the audience that soldiers are not just soldiers.
“They’re people. There are so many other elements to them than just their life in uniform and their time in uniform. They’re bringing in all these other sorts of experiences to their first enlistments, and from there, how they experience the military is going to shape how they respond to fellow soldiers and officers,” Nagel said. “It’s going to reinstill in them the reasons for fighting to make the world and society a better place for them and for their families and for those that are going to come after them.
“That’s something that we tend to forget when it comes to military service and as a society. We kind of assume if you’re in the military you’re very conservative. Well, that’s a very simplistic answer to the ways in which people not only enter service but then leave service and the fact that we have a large number of people who have had vastly different experiences prior to their time in uniform,” she said. “Therefore, this long tradition of activism looks different than what we typically expect of histories associated with the military, and that activism looks different depending upon the person, upon the time period, etc. … People are individuals and they’re complex. It’s just that reminder that while they are one, they are part of the one, they are part of this unit of the Army, the Marines, etc., they are still an individual.”
Attendees said they enjoyed Nagel’s presentation.
“Doctor Nagel’s research reaffirmed my views that the military doesn’t give itself sufficient credit as a socially progressive institution. While there is still considerable work to be done overcoming the inherent social inequities and systemic racism in our formations, the U.S. Army has a foundation to begin from,” said Lt. Col. Nicole Dean, command and control doctrine developer, Combined Arms Center Doctrine Directorate. “Doctor Nagel’s background on the history of the NAACP, and its roots in the overseas service of American soldiers of color, is a particular story that is not told by the Department of Defense, and it should be.
“For the Army and Fort Leavenworth, this particular Black History Month has a wealth of potential to discuss some very difficult and challenging topics … We have a chance to be transparent and talk about the bleaker side of our military’s history with extremism and racism,” she said. “By sharing our military’s flaws and failures — both intended and accidental over the past century — and the resultant growth and changes, we could open a better discursive space to talk about the current movements, like Black Lives Matter.”
Law student and retired Col. Karen Hanson said she learned several new things from Nagel’s talk, and said she thinks it proves that what is taught in school needs to be updated.
“It would allow us now to see that it is not about color; it’s about human beings and being a soldier. The more that we talk about the successes of everyone together … the more it becomes natural that it doesn’t matter what the skin color is,” Hanson said. “I really think that these stories need to be taught at the same time and need to be an integral part (of curriculums).
“It’s not ‘this is what Black soldiers did’ and ‘here is what the white soldiers did,’” she said. “It should be, ‘here are our successes,’ and there should be faces of everybody, especially since they existed. The fact that they exist and we don’t know about it is just shameful.”
To view Nagel’s full presentation, visit https://www.facebook.com/theworldwar/videos/2793095307673815.