WASHINGTON - The journey of African-Americans serving in the U.S. military stretches back to the Revolutionary War, when black men fought for the nation's independence despite lacking their own personal freedom.
African-American officers serving during the Vietnam War era faced a particularly challenging time, but very little has been documented of their experiences, Isaac Hampton II, a scholar who has studied the black officer corps during this period, told a Pentagon Auditorium audience Monday as part of the Defense Department's History Speaker Series celebrating African-American History Month.
"The history of African-Americans in the United States military has been predominantly written from a top-down perspective," he said. "On the subject of black officers, official military history has failed to capture the unique personal challenges in the midst of civil rights and black movements of the 1960s."
Hampton, an Army veteran and command historian for U.S. Army South, shared his research and analysis on the advancement of the black officer corps from integration through the Vietnam era. "We see that in the 1950s and through the Vietnam era, America was adjusting to some very, very challenging racial changes," he said.
That era marked the beginning of the modern civil rights movement, the end of school desegregation, the Montgomery (Alabama) bus boycott, church bombings across the South, and an unpopular war in Vietnam that would lead to a disproportionate number of African-American deaths, Hampton said.
"We have race riots in Watts and Detroit, and even military bases such as Travis Air Force Base," he said. "And of course, we have the Black Power movement. And happening at the same time, in the late '60s, early '70s, we have rampant drug use in the military. So, again, this whole period was arguably the most troublesome time in American history since the Civil War and Reconstruction."
As he studied this era in pursuit of his master's degree, Hampton said, he learned of the Butler Report, a comprehensive book detailing the struggles of Army Col. Douthard Butler, which eventually inspired him to write his own book, "The Black Officer Corps: A History of Black Military Advancement from Integration through Vietnam."
"This was a report that was basically hidden - kept private," he said. "That's what drove me, and how I got the sources. So it just started during my master's work, and I've been working on it ever since."
The Butler Report, Hampton said, in part discussed how evaluation reports were used to hinder black officers from advancement within the Army.
"During this time, the Army went to what is known as the 'total man concept,'" he said. "What this did was that it looked at an officer's career from lieutenant all the way until the time they came up for field grade ranks. Based on these early reports, this would prevent them from getting good commands."
Today, Hampton noted, that while it's not perfect, the Defense Department has worked hard to improve its diversity and opportunities. Still, he added, more work remains to be done.
"My current thoughts are it's better now than it ever has been; however, we have to look inside what I call the numbers," he said. "The promotion trends, the time of ascension of black officers, and what types of jobs they have." Sometimes, he added, black officers are able to reach certain ranks such as lieutenant colonel, but aren't selected to be in command types of positions.
"I believe more work still needs to be done, because we still see the disparity of black officers in combat arms," he said. "And again, these are the big jobs - the important ascension jobs - to where you can rise up to these really, really critical positions in the high ranks of the armed forces."
Hampton said he is driven to educate people about the journey of African-American officers because "there have just been so many misconceptions."
"As an academic, I feel a responsibility to bring some objectivity to tell the story of what African-Americans really went through, because we need their voices," he said. "Without their voices, someone else is writing about it who may not have had that experience."
His passion drives him to get their stories out, he said, because it brings to light something extraordinary: that in the times of the Civil Rights movement and all the racial tension that came with it, they still served.
"So the biggest thing is going to be the vignettes that let these people tell their own stories," he said, referring to his book. "That's the biggest thing - let them tell their own story."