Black History Month: Black Military History Crowdsourcing

A sepia-toned image of Black soldiers posed in a group photo, wearing military attire

Black “Buffalo soldiers” of the 25th Infantry, some wearing buffalo robes, Ft. Keogh, Montana. 1890. Photo: Christian Barthelmess. Gladstone Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

Juba Freeman was just that — a free man — when he fought for the Continental Army in 1782, and his pay vouchers document that Black Americans were fighting for the national cause from the beginning. John S. Rock was a prominent teacher, doctor, orator and abolitionist in Boston during the mid 19th-century, but he also strove to become the first Black attorney admitted to practice before the U.S. Supreme Court.

“We have now a great and good man as our Chief Justice,” he wrote to a supporter on Dec. 13, 1864, as the Civil War still raged, “and with him I have no doubt my color will not be a bar to my admission.”

He was correct.

Black History Month at the Library is kicking off with a fascinating way for you to get involved in hands-on history — transcribing hundreds of items such as these in the William A. Gladstone Afro-American Military Collection.

It’s the latest By the People project, the Library’s crowdsourcing effort that has already transcribed some of  the papers of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Clara Barton, Susan B. Anthony, Walt Whitman, Rosa Parks, John and Alan Lomax, Mary Church Terrell and many more.

Gilbert Montgomery, 4th United States Cavalry, in the Civil War. Gladstone Collection. Prints and Photographs Division.

Gladstone was a private historian and collector whose principal interest was Black soldiers in the Civil War, but he also collected items about Black military service from 1773 through World War I. (He collected other publications that stretched to 1987.) The Library purchased the collection from him in 1995. While photographs and documents are online, the text has not been transcribed, which means they can’t be easily accessed by researchers, students and historians.

If you volunteer, you’ll be looking at correspondence, pay vouchers, orders, muster rolls, enlistment and discharge papers, receipts, contracts, affidavits, tax records and so on. The Revolutionary War items are primarily pay vouchers to Black soldiers in Connecticut who served in the Continental Army. World War I is represented in part by the papers of Lt. Edward Goodlett of the 370th Infantry, 93rd Division. There’s also the Honor Roll from the Harlem Hellfighters, the 369th Infantry Regiment that spent more time in combat than any other unit. In their off hours, they put together a jazz band that helped bring that world-changing music to France.

There are also printed copies of 19th-century century speeches and writings on slavery, government orders, broadsides, and 20th-century booklets and journal articles.

Many of the documents reveal a complicated, discriminatory history that targeted these military members. Juba Freeman, for example, was not a free man when he first enlisted in 1777. He was listed only as “Juba,” and half his pay went to his enslaver, perhaps to purchase his freedom, according to research by the Gilder Lehrman Center for the Study of Slavery, Resistance, and Abolition (GLC) and the Center for Media and Instructional Innovation at Yale University.

There was also the famed Massachusetts 54th Regiment, the all-Black unit which fought in the Civil War and was the subject of the Oscar-winning 1989 film, “Glory.” The U.S. military did not begin to integrate until President Harry S Truman signed Executive Order 9981 on July 16, 1948 — although, as recent headlines point out, that discriminatory history is with us still.

A Black Union solider poses with his pistol held across his chest

An unidentified Black soldier in the Union Army poses with his pistol during the Civil War. Photographer unknown. Prints and Photographs Division.

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