The following are remarks Congressman Steny H. Hoyer (MD-D) delivered at the 37th annual Black History Month breakfast at Camelot by Martin’s in Upper Marlboro, Maryland. They have been lightly edited and condensed for space.
This year, our theme is courage and the remembrance of African Americans from Maryland and across the country who served valiantly in the First World War. Their story of determined service and heroism is all the more remarkable because these soldiers fought on two fronts: against the enemy on the bloody battlefields of France and against discrimination right here at home.
In a segregated military, African-American soldiers at first were denied the chance to fight and instead given the hard work of unloading and transporting supplies. Later, as the war dragged on, the French military asked for help, and General Pershing allowed two divisions of black troops to see combat, but under foreign command. These divisions, the 92nd and 93rd – which included the famous ‘Harlem Hell-Fighters’ – fought bravely at the pivotal battles of Champagne-Marne and Meuse-Argonne in 1918, which secured the Allied victory a century ago.
Prince George’s County sent 450 African-American soldiers to fight in that war, whom we remember today. These courageous soldiers should have returned home to a hero’s welcome. Instead, they returned to segregation, Jim Crow laws, bigotry, exclusion, and denial of rights and opportunities. They returned to the race riots of the ‘Red Summer’ of 1919, lynchings, and acts of racist violence committed against Black soldiers still wearing the uniform of our nation.
But over the years that followed their homecoming, many of the World War One veterans brought that same fierce courage they displaced in France to the battle at home: the battle for civil rights and for respect. The ‘Harlem Hell-Fighters’ gave way to the Harlem Renaissance. In the 1920’s and 30’s, Black veterans marched at the forefront of movements for African-American pride and dignity, for the expansion of educational and career opportunities, and for unity in the face of injustice.
“In 2018, we are also marking seventy years since the desegregation of our military as well as fifty years since the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Neither military integration in 1948 nor the Civil Rights Movement of the 1950’s and 60’s that Dr. King led would have been possible without the courage and contributions of the African Americans who served in World War One and the courage they showed both abroad and back in their communities. Courage. Courage to risk one’s life for the freedom of others. Courage to spend one’s life in the pursuit of freedom and democracy at home.
As we celebrate Black History Month 2018, we honor them – and we thank them for all they gave. And we are inspired by them as we continue the fight for justice, equality, and opportunity today.
Congressman Steny H. Hoyer represents Maryland’s 5th Congressional District.